Commentary Magazine


Jews, Church & State

To the Editor:

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s response [“Church, State, and the Jews,” April], to the challenge put to American citizens of Jewish origin and faith by the editors of America is one in which liberals of all persuasions can happily concur. That challenge . . . is addressed not only to the Jewish minority but to all minorities and non-conformists whose freedom is safe when and only when they can exercise the primary right of going into court for redress of wrongs. . . .

In asking the Jewish minority to restrain itself from appeal to lawfully constituted courts . . . the editors of America have presented a challenge which turns back upon themselves. They should in justice to themselves show cause why any minority should restrain itself from proper legal action to free itself from tyranny. . . . They should make clear the assumptions underlying their suggestion that Jews or any other minority forego legal recourse in exchange for the proverbial “mess of pottage.”

The real issue here is not “prayer” at school or elsewhere. It is whether a majority can or will respect the rights of minorities as ensured in the law of the land. When the majority forgets to do that, we have courts to see to it that the majority remembers. It is a strange “bargain” indeed that would entail surrender of the right to appeal to court.

Philip Burton
Minister
The Community Church
Watertown, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

Arthur Hertzberg’s article . . . is one of the better treatments of this complex subject to appear in any publication. One statement, however, contains a manifest exaggeration: “The Lord’s Prayer . . . is a specifically Christian prayer and its recitation in the schools is clearly a sectarian practice, to which all Jews without exception are adamantly opposed.” I know many Jews who are not in the least opposed to the recitation of this prayer in the public schools, and whose children whole-heartedly participate in it.

The Lord’s Prayer, or any similar composition by a Jew or Christian is offensive to “ethical humanists” because it sets forth quaint and “unscientific” ideas like a “Father in Heaven” . . . etc. Little Gregory Levine and little Kevin Nathanson (whose parents are devout “ethical humanists”) must be protected, so the argument runs, against any exposure to the God of the Psalms and the Prophets. Among people who are Jews by religion, however, it is only the narrowest and most bigoted who would balk at the recitation of a prayer which, though Christian in origin, expresses ideals and aspirations which are thoroughly Jewish. According to this latter reasoning, Christians ought to object to joining in any prayer that was written by a Jew or which plays an important role in Jewish worship.

Though one would never know it from reading the publicity releases of our national Jewish organizations, there are thousands, if not millions, of American Jews who feel that a place must be kept in American public life for non-sectarian devotions, in which people of all religious faiths can join. These . . . are convinced that an acknowledgment of God and His Law remains an essential part of both the Jewish religion and the American heritage. They do not have an irrational fear and loathing of Christianity, and are not convinced that the practice of Judaism can be confined, under the label of “social action,” to espousing the latest fashionable left-wing causes.

(Rabbi) Roy A. Rosenberg
Honolulu Hawaii

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To the Editor:

. . . Arthur Hertzberg remarks that the word “religion” has resonances in Christian tradition that differ from those in Jewish culture. . . . Those searching for an understanding of Jewish culture must seek to define the term in a manner meaningful to Judaism. Implicit in the problem . . . is an examination of the specific content which religion has acquired. The word has come to connote an increasingly specific set of attributes with a consequent narrowing of philosophic scope.

Ostensibly, “religion” connotes faith and commitment to a creed or dogma. However, this tentative formulation must be tempered by the realization that the majority of us are conditioned by our secular education within a decidedly Christian context. A primary characteristic of Christian theology is the emphasis upon faith in Jesus. . . . In contrast to the Christian orientation toward faith in God and belief in the miraculous actualization of the ideal in the person of Jesus, Judaism stresses harmonizing one’s actions with the precepts of the Torah . . . for Judaism holds that compliance with the Laws of God will engender in man the sense of the holy. Thus, religion for the Christian connotes primarily faith, whereas religion for the Jew connotes compliance with a comprehensive set of laws. . . .

An obvious consequence of our secular education within Christian culture has been to associate the word “religion” with faith and commitment to creed. This connotation, while accurate within the Christian context, severely distorts our understanding of Jewish religious culture. Because Judaism emphasizes adherence to the Law, it commands a way of life, and faith alone cannot suffice to make one a Jew. It has been said that “the Jewish faith is but one of the characteristic products of the Jewish community.” . . . The issue now is whether the genus “religion” has become so identified with the species “Christianity” as to exclude Judaism from its embrace.

Once it is clear that Jewish religion connotes adherence to a distinct body of law, an entire range of problems may be examined in sharper perspective. The age-old conundrum of whether Judaism is a religion or nationality is now seen as a futile exploration of an artificial dilemma. It is not that the Hebrew nation adheres to a common faith; rather, Judaism defines a far-reaching culture and all who adhere to the religion participate in a unique culture of enormous scope. Thus . . . the symbols and rites of Judaism are focused almost entirely on historical episodes in the life of the entire cultural community, such as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt celebrated in the Passover ritual. . . .

Perhaps the real answer to the problem of definition is a more thorough grounding in Jewish education. A clearer understanding of how our common terms are influenced by our non-Jewish culture will alert us to the crucial point that the term “religion” has taken on a specific content, namely those characteristics predominant in Christian religion. . . . Thus alerted, we may be free of some unnecessary problems of identity faced by those Jews who, unable to affirm a strong faith in a supernatural being, hesitate in associating themselves with Judaism. [And] . . . we should be able to address ourselves more freely to the study of the content of Judaism.

Roger A. Gerber
Brooklyn, New York

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Rabbi Hertzberg writes:

Is the Lord’s Prayer really “Jewish” or non-sectarian? Is it properly recited every morning as part of a formal exercise, such as the opening of the school day (a practice which has now, of course, been struck down by the Supreme Court) ? Rabbi Rosenberg answers “yes” to both of these questions. I am surprised, for the first proposition is bad Judaism and the second is bad Christianity.

In the sixth chapter of Matthew the Lord’s Prayer is introduced as follows: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seest in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.” (Matthew 6:5—8). Clearly the Lord’s Prayer was created in opposition to the prayers of the synagogue, which is here slurred in preparation for this new utterance. This prayer was intended for private devotion, and most certainly not for state-prescribed formal exercises, which combine the worst features of the “synagogue” and the “heathen.” The words of the Lord’s Prayer did indeed originate in Judaism, but the plain sense of a liturgical text, especially one as famous as this, is only one of its meanings. There is also the use to which it was put at its origin and the overtones which have been added to it by history. In such contexts, and they are inescapable, the Lord’s Prayer is as specifically Christian as the Shema is Jewish.

Is compulsory prayer nonetheless good for the community, the alternative being Communism? I believe that the reverse is true. Communism is a state religion, which compels obedience. It differs from other state religions in dogma, but not in the value of its compulsion. Such an approach to faith, whether it be in the name of the Jewish, Christian, or Marxist god, is not the alternative to atheism.

I am, of course, in agreement with Mr. Burton’s comment that the only forum that a democracy provides in which the rights of individuals and groups can be ultimately determined is in the courts. Fortunately recourse to courts by any group to define its rights is being ever less regarded by others as an affront. I am equally in agreement with Mr. Gerber in his reflections on the nature of Judaism. Indeed, his view is central to the approach that I took in a reader entitled Judaism that I published two years ago, where I wrote that “Jewish faith is indefinable in Western theological categories, which are alien to its essence.” A word of caution is, however, necessary. One can talk too easily of Judaism as a religion of Law and fail to see that such a definition involves several affirmations in the realm of faith. This doctrine of Law implies a God who gave it. We are thus involved, at the very least, in some speculation about God and His revelation.

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