Religion in a Free Society
To the Editor:
Marshall Sklare’s reply to his critics [Letters from Readers, December 1973, in a discussion of Mr. Sklare's article, “The Conversion of the Jews,” September 1973] was, I think, both disingenuous and off the mark.
The issue is basically rather straightforward: given the fact that in a democratic society all groups—ethnic, religious, economic, sexual, etc.—are subject to all sorts of ideological activity which seeks to persuade one group to another’s outlook and practice, how can these interactions be managed with minimum conflict? With much pain and difficulty American society has solved this problem by letting the marketplace of ideas mediate these encounters.
Mr. Sklare and some leaders of Jewish service or defense organizations clearly do not favor this solution with regard to religious ideas and practice. They prefer instead that Jews, as Robert Carlen remarks in his letter, “be exempt from this process.” But as David Riesman argued twenty-three years ago in a seminal and courageous essay on this problem, “The ‘Militant’ Fight Against Anti-Semitism” (COMMENTARY, January 1951), such exemption is unacceptable.
For one thing, the process by which a policy of exemption is realized would be gravely detrimental to the nature of freedom in our society. Above all, who, alas, considers himself—or what ethnic or religious group considers itself—endowed with those awesome qualities that the execution of a policy of exemption in a manner conducive to a free society would require?
I can do no better than inform Marshall Sklare and his supporters of David Riesman’s wise counsel on this problem a generation ago: if you cherish the delicate fabric of a free society, then think again about what you are proposing. It is already later than we think. Like some militant blacks who in their fight against white racism have injured the quality of ideological encounter between blacks and whites, some Jewish groups have taken their ethnic militancy much too far—as evidenced by pressure that terminated the TV serial, Bridget Loves Bernie.
A free society like ours cannot withstand too much of this sort of thing. It is distressing that Mr. Sklare and his supporters refuse to face this matter squarely.
Department of Government
To the Editor:
Rabbi Henry Siegman’s statement in the December 1973 issue, that “What the early interfaith activists had in common was the conviction that it is un-American to take religious faith so seriously as to allow it to make for any real differences,” is an annoying misstatement of fact.
What the early interfaith activists had in common was the conviction that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews should retain the unique features of their religions and be informed sufficiently about the other faiths to view them with respect, rather than with fear and hostility. This is still the only sensible approach to interfaith relations. . . .
(Rabbi) S. Andhil Fineberg
Mount Vernon, New York
Marshall Sklare writes:
It is a little difficult for me to see how Martin Kilson can consider that a decision which would have to be arrived at freely on the part of Christians for détente with Judaism—especially in respect to mounting campaigns to convert Jews—could be construed as “gravely detrimental to the nature of freedom in our society.”
To be sure, it is my Jewish identity that makes such détente appealing. I do indeed support the position taken by the late Reinhold Niebuhr, who came in his later years to adopt the view that the missionary impulse to convert Jews is a disaster for Christianity. Niebuhr saw it as subverting the Christian’s understanding of Christianity by necessarily diminishing the status of the Old Testament as a religious document. He also came to view missionizing activity in connection with Jews as a form of behavior which would necessarily preclude the Christian from confronting the horrendous record of Christianity’s persecution of Jews and Judaism, as well as being an affront to Jews who had endured great suffering for so many centuries because of Christian “love” for Jews and Judaism.
As much as I would like Christians to adopt Niebuhr’s perspective, is it conceivable that my desire indicates that I do not cherish what Mr. Kilson terms the “delicate fabric of a free society”? I think not. If anything, I believe that the adoption of Niebuhr’s position would serve to strengthen and reinforce the delicate fabric of our free society.