Jews mustn't `check their beliefs at the door'

By Nathan J. Diament

Tevet 5, 5765

It's ironic that the reelection of George W. Bush as president of the United States has triggered a new round of debate in the American Jewish community over the appropriate role of religion in the American public square. Ironic, because last week President Bush again hosted an event that he initiated - an official White House Hanukkah party - which is emblematic of his religiously inclusive approach.

Several presidents prior to Mr. Bush officially marked Hanukkah in some way, with the typical format being a small group of Jewish schoolchildren visiting the Oval Office for a menorah-lighting ceremony. But George W. Bush placed Hannukah on the already packed social calendar of the White House in December, where "holiday parties" are held throughout the month, and the president and first lady meet and greet nearly 6,500 guests.

Moreover, in another annual practice begun in his administration, Mr. Bush spent more than an hour prior to the party meeting with a group of American rabbis from across the denominational spectrum for a freewheeling discussion of issues. The rabbis discussed American policy toward Israel with the president as well as Mr. Bush's drive to plant democracy in the broader Middle East and the war on terrorism.

On the domestic front, the president and the rabbis discussed the role of religious values in shaping public policy in America, and it was here that the post-election debate again surfaced. Mr. Bush noted that exit polling indicated that his reelection was, in part, due to the support of many Americans who put a high priority upon what has become known as "moral values" and the sense that these traditional values are under siege in modern America. One rabbi pointed out to the president that such a statement might be perceived as intolerant by those who did not support Mr. Bush and who might see it as implying that they were unconcerned with moral values; an implication Mr. Bush firmly stated he did not intend to convey.

Despite depictions to the contrary, a religiously inclusive approach has been a hallmark of the Bush presidency. Mr. Bush has consistently mentioned synagogues and mosques alongside churches in relevant speeches. Rabbis and clerics of other faiths have participated in relevant official events alongside Christian clergy. But most importantly - on the policy level - the Bush administration has assiduously promoted the equal participation and presence of people of faith, and their institutions, in government programs and political discussions.

Despite this evenhandedness, there is suspicion in much of the Jewish community toward the president, his political party and its agenda. While on the surface the divide seems to be defined by those committed to political liberalism versus conservatism, that only explains part of the story.

In the presidential campaign waged four years ago, many liberals - including Jewish liberals - voiced concerns over the public use of religious rhetoric by the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee. Joe Lieberman was roundly criticized for publicly linking moral values to religious faith. Today, as was the case four years ago, the divide is not only between liberal and conservative Jews, but between public-square secularists and integrationists.

The secularists in this debate, who may practice Judaism in their private lives, believe neither Judaism nor any other faith-informed values system ought to be allowed into public debate. They demand that the religious believer "check those beliefs at the door" and only make arguments in the political arena that are grounded in secular reasoning and thought. Religion is, in other words, a purely private matter and public debate - especially when it is often about a vision of the "good" or "just" society - must be held on faith-neutral terms.

The integrationists, who may be politically liberal or conservative, believe, first, that it is impossible for a person deeply committed to Judaism (or any other faith) to isolate and suppress that aspect of one's personality. Second, to demand this only of religious believers, the integrationists hold, while allowing those just as deeply committed to any other set of beliefs, so long as they are deemed secular, to bring their values into the public square, is discriminatory against religion and demeaning to its adherents.

Of course, in the real world, each of these positions is rarely found in its pure form. Many secularists recognize that there are some venues in which a public role for religion is appropriate, and many integrationists realize that even religiously informed beliefs must often be translated into broadly accessible terms if they are to be considered seriously by a pluralistic polity. But recognition of this distinction is critical to this debate in the Jewish community, where it is easily obscured by the profile of the partisan-ideological divide.

Committed Jews of all political stripes ought to recognize that Judaism stands for an integrationist view. There are too many passages in the Torah and Talmud that speak to the nature of a good and just society for us Jews to mute ourselves on this key element of our national heritage and character. Jews of all political persuasions ought to be comfortable taking inspiration and direction from our heritage of learning and law, to inform us as we engage in the life of the remarkable democracy which welcomes us to do so on those very terms. To do otherwise is to live in the shadow of fear cast by centuries of Jewish oppression. This historic fear may be understandable, but it is no way to shape the direction of the United States and, thereby, the world.

Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.