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It’s 5780! But wait, we don’t really think that

At least, we don’t really believe that that’s the age of the earth, and it's important to say that we don't
Earth. (Wikimedia Commons)
Earth. (Wikimedia Commons)

I know all kinds of Jews. You probably do too. Most of the Jews I know are secular, though some are partially or even fully observant. Regardless of denomination or generation, political outlook or religious belief, I have never met a Jew who tried to convince me that the Hebrew calendar year was even close to what it is claiming to be: the time since creation.

Almost all American Jews accept the scientific method as the way to uncover facts about our universe. So why would I bother advocating for us to be loud and proud about not taking the Hebrew year literally?

Because our religious fundamentalist neighbors need to hear it.

More than a third (38 percent) of all Americans believe in the strict creationist view that God created humans in our present form within the past 10,000 years.

The “good news” is that this percentage is the lowest ever measured since Gallup began asking the question in 1982; in years past, it often hit above 45%.

The bad news is these religious fundamentalists now control the US government, or at least two-and-a-half of the three federal branches.

The outcomes are well-known: a rollback for progress on so many of the issues that liberal Jews care about, including reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality, and public education.

And while Jews and Jewish social justice organizations are at the forefront of a valiant fight to protect our rights issue-by-issue, the Jewish community tends to shy away from calling the larger phenomenon by its name: white Christian fundamentalism.

For example, there has been no mention of “Project Blitz” in mainstream Jewish media, even as it is of primary concern for social justice organizations in the secular world like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who share so many of the same positions as the liberal Jewish community.

Project Blitz is “a coordinated effort by Christian Nationalists to inject religion into public education, attack reproductive healthcare, and undermine LGBTQ equality using a distorted definition of ‘religious freedom,’” according to BlitzWatch.org, a coalition of national civil rights and religious freedom organizations.

“Blitz” is never a good word for the Jews. In this case, it is a well-funded, years-long effort to overwhelm state legislatures with model bills and proclamations, laying the legal foundation for a right-wing Christian theocracy in the United States. The goals, as articulated in their “Playbook,” include calling on state governments to “recognize the place of Christian principles in our nation’s history,” “recognizing Christian Heritage Week,” and “establishing public policy favoring intimate sexual relations only between married, heterosexual couples.”

And they’re winning. First, they hit soft marks like requiring the national motto (“In God We Trust”) posted in public schools — then they go after bigger targets. They’re also energized by a newly-configured Supreme Court friendlier to their cause, particularly after the Bladensburg Cross case, in which the Court claimed a 40-foot Christian cross could stand on public ground because it has a “secular meaning.” There was some coverage in the Jewish media about that, though not nearly the alarm it should provoke.

Of course, there are some church-state separation battles that have gone on for decades like reproductive rights, or over a century like teaching evolution. And Jewish organizations historically have played an outsized role defending the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Still, the focus for many years now seems to have been elsewhere. For the more conservative Jewish organizations, it’s been defending Israel. For the liberal side, it’s been protesting the weekly outrages of our current administration. Christian fundamentalists have been playing a long game, though. And they have come to power because of it.

What is our long game?

Many of the issues that liberal Jews fight for should be seen through the lens of church-state separation. Policy is being set based on one interpretation of one religion, to the detriment of all other (or no) religions, and that should be illegal. Even issues like immigration and racism come into play when we begin to understand the demographic in power not just as Christian Nationalists but white Christian Nationalists.

For Jews, as a tiny minority acutely aware of our history, it has never been easy to push back at a Christian majority. It is important to recognize that we are not talking about all Christians (just as there is a small percent of Jews who would prefer religious theocracy so long as it serves their own interests). Many Christians understand and believe in the benefits of the First Amendment.

Others in the Jewish community may be willing to give up some freedoms here in the US to maintain the strong Evangelical support of Israel, a disastrous deal with the devil (religious allegory intended).

Perhaps most challenging is the way we speak about Jewish belief itself, not just to the wider American society, but within our community as well. Most Jews do not believe in the God of the Bible. A quarter don’t believe in God at all. Does pushing back against religious fundamentalism require us to be critical of all religious beliefs? Or can we walk a fine line of identifying when privileging one set of beliefs tramples on other people’s rights?

One thing we can agree on is the rich tradition of ongoing interpretation and reinterpretation of Jewish stories and law, which is how we come to a time when the Jewish community overwhelmingly favors gay marriage even as Christian fundamentalists cherry-pick lines from our Bible to continue the LGBTQ persecution.

At least as a start, we should seek to abolish the phrase “Judeo-Christian” whenever we see it — including the 12 times it appears in the Project Blitz Playbook. It’s a cover. It provides the appearance of religious diversity, but is almost always employed in a discriminatory manner, and almost never reflects the current position of the vast majority of American Jewry.

And we can share in a more honest way, and with more people, why we maintain traditions and rituals even as we accept reason and science. For me, the Hebrew calendar year connects me to my heritage. I can trace my family tree back only five or six generations on either side, but I imagine that scores more of my lineage, for hundreds of years, were counting this same number that now lands at 5780.

The more I see the threats to American democracy from religious fundamentalism, though, the less cute I find it to even joke about that number being the actual age of the planet. Let’s amplify our voices in the new year to clarify just how different the “Judeo” part is, and fight together for our values.

Paul Golin is executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism (www.SHJ.org) and staff lead on the Jews for a Secular Democracy initiative (http://JewsDemocracy.org).

About the Author
Paul Golin is the executive director of the Society for Humanistic Judaism -- the congregational arm for Humanistic Judaism in North America.
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