Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
I’m of two minds about the recent New York Times op-ed, “The Quiet Demise of the Separation of Church and State,” which calls attention to the many millions of dollars of support given to religious institutions by the U.S. government in the two trillion dollar Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
On the one hand, I’ve always been a rock-solid proponent of the separation of church and state, a brilliant Constitutional innovation that is the prime reason why America has been the most successful diaspora experience in the 3,000 year history of the Jewish people. There have been other contenders for that title, in particular the 500 years of Jewish life in Spain leading to the 1492 expulsion, the first few centuries of which have been called “The Golden Age.” But it did not end well – the world “expulsion” sort of gives away the ending – so that disqualifies Spain as the Best. Diaspora. Ever.
On the other hand, the largesse of the US Government this spring, in the form of loans to non-profits including places of worship, is now paying my salary. To be more specific, the money my congregation received is enabling it to stay afloat without laying off staff. I know that since I would not have been among those laid off, it would be incredibly selfish for me to pooh pooh the PPP.
The Times article, written by law professors Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman and Richard Schragger, lays out the benefits to the Jewish community and others in stark specificity, asserting that the PPP “violates the constitutional rule requiring the separation of church and state, and it does so on an enormous scale.”
Nine thousand Catholic parishes have received loans so far. The Archdiocese of Louisville, for example, was awarded more than $20 million across 84 entities, for an average of $238,000 each. One church, St. James parish and school in Elizabethtown, Ky., received loans totaling $439,800. Moreover, a national survey found that 40 percent of all Protestant churches had applied for government funds and that 59 percent of those applications were approved. The Jewish Federations of North America reported in late April that 575 organizations had received loans, with a median of $250,000 each and a total of $312 million. Recipients included more than 200 synagogues. With 445 entities awaiting word on their applications, the J.F.N.A. estimated that Jewish nonprofits could receive $500 million from the program.
This is no small thing. One wonders how it was determined who got what (and what that church in Kentucky did to merit $439,000). It would also be important to know how much of this support went to organizations supporting the poor and immigrants. But these loans and grants have been lifesavers to the non-profit community as a whole and I suspect that it won’t be the last lifeline extended during this prolonged crisis. Imagine what America would look like right now had there been no CARES Act.
Nonetheless, I am still troubled. The erosion of church/state separation has been happening for a long time, to the point where it has hardly been mentioned as this money has been handed out so freely. One wonders whether this is just softening us up for what could be real shock to that precious wall of separation when the Supreme Court addresses abortion over the coming days.
For Jews, reproductive freedom is also religious freedom. The Rabbinical Assembly stated in a recent resolution:
Denying a woman and her family full access to the complete spectrum of reproductive healthcare, including contraception, abortion-inducing devices, and abortions, among others, on religious grounds, deprives women of their Constitutional right to religious freedom.
Abortion is framed as a religious issue by its opponents, and so it is. Many Christians believe that human life begins at conception but rabbinic Judaism expressly does not. Therefore, for most rabbinic authorities, it is not murder.
It’s not just about abortion rights, of course, but of the fear that a zealous majority will impose its religious views on minority faiths by claiming that its beliefs supersede all others, and there is legitimate fear that the American judiciary is headed in that direction.
Israelis and most others around the world have never experienced the blessing of living in a country with no state religion. The separation of church and state has enabled the American experiment to succeed, not just for Jews, but for everyone. OK, not everyone, if you happen to have darker pigmentation, as these past couple of weeks have driven home. But theoretically, for everyone. American Jews have faced our share of anti-Semitism, as we’ve seen especially since 2016. But it has never been endemic to the culture, as it was in places where one religion was legally dominant. It has never been state-sponsored. Even now, despite growing anti-semitism on the fringes of society, in the pluralistic, free marketplace of American religion, Judaism is flourishing as never before. In some ways, we are freer to practice our faith in the US even than in Israel, especially if you happen to be a progressive Jew.
That Wall of Separation is all that separates us from being fifteenth century Spain…and Poland and Germany, England, France, Babylon, Egypt, and all the other places Jews once called home, from where we were ultimately exiled or expelled.
So you can excuse me from being just a little uncomfortable with the fact that I am now being paid, even if indirectly, by the US Government. Whom do I work for? Uncle Sam? My congregants? The Jewish people? Or God? I can handle some mix of the last three choices. But the first one makes me uncomfortable.
And you should be too.