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Liberal Jews in the Rebbe’s Christian America

As the vision of neutrality in the public sphere is defeated, all Jews – not just Chabad – will need a strategy to compete in the marketplace of religion
Left: Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Schneerson at morning prayers at Lubavich headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., in March 1992.(AP Photo/Mike Albans); Right: From left, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, and National Economic Director Gary Cohn, light the Menorah during the annual National Menorah Lighting, in celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington Dec. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Left: Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Schneerson at morning prayers at Lubavich headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., in March 1992.(AP Photo/Mike Albans); Right: From left, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, and National Economic Director Gary Cohn, light the Menorah during the annual National Menorah Lighting, in celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington Dec. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Liberal American Jews thrived in America because we cultivated a deep relationship between the vision we had of our Judaism as a liberal religion that could thrive in America, and a complementary belief in American liberalism itself. The constitutional revolution currently underway in the Roberts court is striking a significant blow to that liberal order, first eroding personal liberty on the national right to get an abortion, and now also – in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District – on the issue of religion in the American public square. As liberal American Jews struggle to respond to this uncertainty, we find ourselves at a crossroads: do we fight for our old vision of America, a vision that is faltering? Or do we consider the history that brought us to this point, and rethink what the future of American Jewish liberalism should mean?

There is a key historical intra-Jewish debate that can serve as a useful background to today’s dilemma. In the 1970s and 1980s there were intense exchanges of letters between leaders in liberal Jewish movements and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The letters debated the emergent Chabad practice of lighting Hanukkah menorahs in public spaces, which – according to liberal Jewish leaders – ran counter to the dominant Jewish ethic and, they argued, ran counter to their interests and values. The exchanges were formally about Hanukkah menorahs, but implicitly about schools and prayer. At stake in the exchanges were two points of disagreement: how hegemonic was Christianity in America? And how should American Jews function as a minority in the American context?

The central argument of the liberal rabbis was that it was in the interest of American Jews for the American public square to be religiously neutral, and to fight to keep it that way. The Rebbe disagreed: he argued that the American public square was already empirically Christian, even if tolerant of Jews; and that Jews should not try to make America something it was not. The liberal rabbis feared that normalizing menorahs in public spaces — essentially, the Jewish “equivalent” of a Christmas tree — would pave the way for more Christian hegemony, the hoofsteps of a pogrom in the offing.

Since the Rebbe believed that America was a Christian country already, he argued that it was honest, altruistic, and ultimately in American Jewish self-interest to admit as much. And if Jews admitted they were in a Christian country that uniquely tolerated other religious expressions, it was then incumbent on Jews to compete in the marketplace. For Chabad, this was primarily about bringing Judaism to Jews. By putting Jewish symbols in public Chabad championed Jewish pride that would help make the case for the vitality of Judaism. If the liberal rabbis feared persecution, the Rebbe feared assimilation; and by conceding America’s Christian essence, he felt he had a runway to try to win the hearts and minds of Jews.

These represent two opposing stories of what it means to be Jewish in America. The Rebbe’s vision was more “diasporic;” he valued the exceptional experience American Jews have had in America but was reluctant to characterize America as a completely exceptional Diaspora. The Rebbe wanted Jews, therefore, to accept and embrace their unambiguous “otherness.” The liberal argument, in contrast, understood America differently as maybe not even Diaspora at all, but a realm where neutrality would be constitutionally protected, allowing Jews to identify as Jews – or to not identify as Jews. In fact, the appeal to public neutrality was a convenient escape valve for liberal ambivalences about faith and the public performance of our Jewish identities. Keeping religion in private not only kept American Jews safe, it took the pressure off liberal American Jews to figure out what our own commitments might entail. To the extent that these liberal rabbis feared that if religion was going to be performed in public it would become an open competition, I think they assumed they would lose.

The Court’s majority opinion in Kennedy, handed down by six Christian judges permitting prayer on a public-school football field, affirms a baseline Christian story of America, with religion as essential to an American identity that thinks itself capable of respecting and tolerating other viewpoints. The court affirmed the instinct of the Rebbe and turned it into an American value. And I couldn’t help but read the dissenters as inheritors of the desperate hope that America would advocate for religious freedom for all by striving for public neutrality and private expression. They sound, to my ears, like the rabbis and late 20th century American liberal Jewish leaders who fought the Rebbe on the menorah.

Liberal Jews advocating for a religiously neutral America are losing. The Rebbe won the Menorah debates both because, as he himself argued, it turned out that many American Jews – regardless of whether they considered the ideological implications – simply liked seeing their symbols in public; and also because the success of American Jewish assimilation into the American public square shifted how American Jews saw themselves as Americans. If American Jews felt at home, without fear, their desire to take pride in their symbols in public won out over fears that agreeing to religious symbols in public would ultimately be bad for Jews. Jews, in essence, embraced abundant religion over neutrality.

It was jarring to see the loss of the liberal position in court, but the bigger concern is that the liberal position has also lost ground in the American public imagination. Most Americans support some amount of prayer in schools, and I do not believe that liberal Jews should fear that this reflects a desire by Christians to proselytize or persecute. It is simply a clash between what appears to be a passion-less appeal to neutrality against a passionate desire for faith; and it is no surprise to me that in the marketplace of commitments the passionate wins out over the prophylactic.

I personally believe that the decision in Kennedy is a grievous problem. It represents the triumph of the story of America as a religious project that allows religion to characterize the public square while seeking to be tolerant – over the vastly more ambitious story of America that foregrounds religious tolerance by asking all forms of religion to constrain themselves in the public square. I think the state should always strive to err on the side of civil liberties, and that people pushing for more faith in public should exhibit much greater humility. That, to me, would be a uniquely American revolution against the dangerous hegemonic sway that religious traditions have held over our free societies for far too long. So legally, liberal Jews need to continue to fight the erosion of the neutral public square, for the benefit of our public high school students and government employees who risk experiencing bigotry and other disadvantages by refusing to participate or by participating differently in these public rites.

But a defensive strategy will be insufficient. If America’s public square is going to be religiously lush, it is an open marketplace. Chabad understood this and used their understanding of America to build a public advocacy strategy that is now in line with an ascendant American religious conservatism and constitutes American Judaism’s fastest-growing denomination. America, it seems, now leans towards publicly confident expressions of religion more than it does towards doctrines that protect us from them. Liberal Jews will need a strategy to compete.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.

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