In America, Jews have long championed the separation of religion and state, and for good reason. That proverbial Wall of Separation has protected us from the very realistic fear that, if unchecked, zealots would impose a narrow, xenophobic vision of Christianity on America. Now, as we prepare to welcome Hanukkah, the menorah, ancient symbol of religious freedom, lurks as a reminder of how vulnerable we are to losing the constitutional right that has helped to preserve that freedom.
In the latter years of the 20th century, an internal battle among Jews was fought over whether a Hanukkah menorah could be placed on public ground. The Lubavitch movement staked its future on the powerful symbolism of an ancient practice: the public proclamation of the Hanukah miracle. The public-space menorah became their signature issue, and a clarion call for Jews who, in their estimation, had long been too timid to demonstrate public pride in their faith — that despite the fact that the Soviet Jewry movement had been bringing Jews proudly into the public square en masse for years. The Jewish establishment, including an alliance of secular non-profit leaders and liberal rabbis, fought hard to defeat Chabad and maintain that rigid Wall, which they claimed protected Jews from Christian encroachment on a whole variety of public issues.
The Lubavitchers struck a nerve, mirroring the chutzpah of the Maccabees in defying the entrenched powers, and they won a clear victory that was enshrined in law. In the 1989 case County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court declared that a menorah displayed on public property was allowed, while a creche was not. The irony here is that the menorah, the most ubiquitous and primal religious symbol in Judaism (older than a Torah scroll, more prominent than a mezuzah, less binding than matzah), whose religious power the Hasidim harnessed, was considered by the Supreme Court to be a secular symbol, basically on par with a dreidel. And with that, Chabad won.
Once that ruling came down, immediately we saw menorah lightings everywhere, in every government-run space imaginable: in the White House, in courthouses, schools and city halls across the country. While this no doubt awakened Jewish pride and possibly spurred deeper commitment to Jewish practice — and donations to Chabad — one wonders at what cost.
In fact, menorahs already could be displayed in public. Before Chabad’s push, they were ubiquitous at department stores and malls, mom and pop establishments, synagogue lobbies and Jewish-owned homes — and some non-Jewish ones too, like in Billings, Montana, where an anti-Semitic attack prompted pastors to call on the Christian parishioners to place menorahs in their windows.
The issue that challenged the Establishment Clause was whether menorahs could be displayed on government-owned property. It would have been easy for Chabad to light menorahs in very public places that aren’t government controlled. But they wanted a menorah in the White House, and they got it, and in doing so, they succeeded in shaming their opponents into silence, in the name of “Jewish pride.” Coming at a time of near panic over rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation, when “continuity” was the community buzzword, secular and liberal rabbinic leaders capitulated with barely a whimper. Those public lightings were glitzy and warm, after all, and you could always get politicians and celebrities to attend, and hey, SCOTUS says it’s Kosher! If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
I plead guilty. A few years after Allegheny, my synagogue began doing an annual lighting at Stamford, Connecticut’s Government Center, with the requisite photo ops for the local paper, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We always give the mayor a dozen jelly doughnuts as a quid pro quo. It feels good to have my little menorah lit right next to the mayor’s humungous tree.
Religion-state separation was sacrificed at the altar of a good photo-op, and no one cared.
So now, do we have a right to be surprised when Michael Flynn called for America to embrace “one religion” at a recent conclave that included a who’s who of the religious right? Should we be surprised at the serious erosion of that separation that has been taking place in recent Supreme Court rulings, on everything from public funding of religious education to pandemic relief? Should we be shocked that a Christian group in Boston seeks to fly a religious flag in front of City Hall, which seems a logical next step following the menorah precedent? And should we be surprised that abortion looks to be the next and biggest brick to fall from the Wall, as a distinctly anti-Judaic view of when human life begins may shortly become the law of the land?
America has hardly been perfect in its treatment of minority groups, particularly those of color, but it has been exemplary in its treatment of minority religions. With all the hate Jews have experienced here, it’s never been state-sponsored religious persecution. Now, if Roe is overturned, rabbis who in good conscience advise their congregants to get abortions will be in the crosshairs, legal and perhaps otherwise.
But I got to play dreidel with the mayor.
It all started with a menorah in Pittsburgh, when everyone saw how quickly Jews could be cowed into giving up our birthright, the Establishment Clause, for a plate of latkes. And now, those latkes are coming home to roost.
The signs are clear that, if the current trends continue, we are about to enter a new era of religious intolerance that will not be good for all Jews, whether secular, religiously progressive or Orthodox. Maybe that will be okay with those Jews on the far right, like Chabad, whose allies, like John Hagee, filled the hall where Michael Flynn spoke. Maybe that’s what they wanted all along.
But for others this Hanukkah, that menorah on government property is a glowing reminder of the dangers facing the abortion clinic next door, and how we let our guard down in our craving for public pride.