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America: A Jewish and Democratic State

Originally published in eJewish Philanthropy

By Justus Baird and Aaron Dorfman

For generations, American Jews have looked to the separation of church and state as a critical shield against the imposition of religious values and practices by America’s Christian majority. President George Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, declared his aspiration that “the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This sentiment was codified the following year with the adoption of the First Amendment and has, ever since, been marshaled by American Jewish institutions to argue against prayer in school, the use of public lands for Christian religious displays, and the imposition of blue laws that forced business closures on Sundays (preventing Shabbat-observant Jews from making up for lost Saturday business by being open on Sunday).

At the same time, American Jews have embraced myriad opportunities to inject our religious sensibilities into public discourse and public policy. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s advocacy for equal representation in public religious displays set the stage for hundreds of giant Chabad Hanukkah menorahs occupying the literal public square. Jewish advocacy groups across the political spectrum ground their public policy agendas in explicitly religious values and principles. And many Jewish communal institutions take advantage of public tax dollars to offer valuable social services.

These tensions belie a simple understanding of the relationship between Judaism and American democracy. And that relationship has lately become even more complex, with the rise of antisemitism, mixed reactions to the possible repeal of the Johnson Amendment, and the President’s declaration that Jews who vote for Democrats are being disloyal to the Jewish community. In light of these increasingly complex dynamics, how ought we, as Jews, show up in American civic life, and what implications do our choices have for the nature of American Judaism in relation to the other religious communities with whom we share this nation? This is not a question about the particular policies that might align with the Jewish community’s values or interests, but more about the principles and guidelines that ought to inform our engagement, as Jews, in the American experiment.

As election year energy builds, this is a fruitful time to reopen these conversations. We at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and Shalom Hartman Institute of North America set out to confront these and other questions about the relationship between Judaism and American Democracy at a recent convening of 70 foundation and nonprofit organization professionals, activists, academics, and journalists whose work intersects with these issues. Participants will be bringing discussions that started there to the forum here at eJewish Philanthropy in the coming weeks. Readers in proximity to New York City have a chance to learn about and discuss these issues in person at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America’s March 8, 2020 public day of learning, Jewish Civic and Moral Responsibility in an Age of Political Polarization [canceled due to health concerns]. And anyone curious about the civic behavior of American Jews will want to review the just-released report,“Connecting the Dots: American Jews and Civic Engagement,” a summary of research commissioned by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

One of the conversations we opened at the recent gathering was to look at the “social contract” between Jews and American society. Should Jews approach their relationship with American civic institutions with a rights-based frame, advocating that Jews (and other minority groups) have equal protection under the law? Or, alternatively, should Jews take an obligation-based approach, asking what obligations we have to contribute to the common good as active citizens of the republic?

These questions emerged over a discussion of a Mishnah from Bava Batra (1:5), which argues that the “people of the town” (anshei ha’ir) have an obligation to contribute to building structures that will protect the town. How – we wondered – does that obligation apply to a context like America in which Jews are full citizens, but not sovereign over the land? The rabbis of the Mishnah could probably have never imagined the political setting that American Jews experience every day, one in which Jews are full members of civil society, political actors who can advocate for the particular needs of their community, and also serve as leaders of entire communities of which Jews represent a tiny fraction of the population.

Throughout most of diasporic Jewish history, Jews were never considered “people of the town.” But in twenty-first century America, there can be no doubt that across the vast United States of America, we are treated that way. Most of us feel like we belong, and are treated as if we belong. And yet, in much of public American Jewish discourse, we reserve language of feeling “at home” for conversations about Jewish life in the State of Israel.

The political and social developments within American society in recent years challenge us to explore these questions anew. As Americans go to the polls this year, we would do well to reflect Jewishly on belonging, citizenship, rights and obligations, separation of religion and state, and many other big questions about the role of Jews in the civic fabric of the United States.

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