Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Jewish Vision for Bridging the Church-State Divide

The majority of American Jews have tended to favor a very strict interpretation of the principle of separation of church and state—often reacting with discomfort to politicians’ invocations of religion, opposing governmental support for religious institutions, and generally favoring what the Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square.” In the 1960s and 70s, when such attitudes among U.S. Jewry were at their height, Norman Lamm, a leading Orthodox rabbi and scholar, took a sharply different view. As Michael A. Helfand explains, Rabbi Lamm’s objection to the “knee-jerk” and “Pavlovian” reactions of mainstream Jewish organizations to the question of vouchers for religious schools stemmed from a carefully articulated alternative approach to the role of religion in public life:

[I]n areas where he viewed separationist claims as more certain, Rabbi Lamm unequivocally did not endorse abandoning First Amendment principles. To the contrary, he was deeply sympathetic to the ways in which violations of core church-state principles caused real harm to American Jews. . . . In 1976, he declared again “I am for the separation of church and state. . . . I am not for denominational prayers. I am certainly not for coerced prayers in public schools.” For Lamm, the problem arose when leaders “speak of an ‘absolute wall of separation’ between church and state.” Adopting such an extreme view was to “ignore the evidence of history.”

But for Rabbi Lamm, the errors of the American Jewish establishment went beyond simply prioritizing “dubious” and “uncertain” constitutional claims above Jewish communal interests. Instead, his deepest worries flowed from the fact that the American Jewish establishment had transformed this absolute constitutional commitment—one he thought went beyond what the actual First Amendment required—and elevated it to a theology of sorts. In embracing a “separationist faith” Lamm believed these constitutional claims had come to replace other core Jewish values. In this way, Jewish advocacy, instead of augmenting traditional Jewish values, had come to crowd out those values. In turn, zealous dedication to misguided constitutional advocacy had come at the expense of the religious fervor necessary to maintain American Orthodoxy.

In [a 1963] sermon, Rabbi Lamm looked to Moses’ staff as a metaphor for the ways in which “religious institutions can sometimes be mistakenly used as psychological crutches rather than as means for the confrontation between man and his Maker; as something to lean upon rather than something to make us worthy of being leaned upon.” Again, Lamm appears to have applied this insight to, among other issues, ongoing advocacy around church and state—or at least what he described more generally as “loyalty to the First Amendment.”

Read more at Tradition

More about: American Jewry, Norman Lamm, Religion and politics


Universities Are in Thrall to a Constituency That Sees Israel as an Affront to Its Identity

Commenting on the hearings of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday about anti-Semitism on college campuses, and the dismaying testimony of three university presidents, Jonah Goldberg writes:

If some retrograde poltroon called for lynching black people or, heck, if they simply used the wrong adjective to describe black people, the all-seeing panopticon would spot it and deploy whatever resources were required to deal with the problem. If the spark of intolerance flickered even for a moment and offended the transgendered, the Muslim, the neurodivergent, or whomever, the fire-suppression systems would rain down the retardant foams of justice and enlightenment. But calls for liquidating the Jews? Those reside outside the sensory spectrum of the system.

It’s ironic that the term colorblind is “problematic” for these institutions such that the monitoring systems will spot any hint of it, in or out of the classroom (or admissions!). But actual intolerance for Jews is lathered with a kind of stealth paint that renders the same systems Jew-blind.

I can understand the predicament. The receptors on the Islamophobia sensors have been set to 11 for so long, a constituency has built up around it. This constituency—which is multi-ethnic, non-denominational, and well entrenched among students, administrators, and faculty alike—sees Israel and the non-Israeli Jews who tolerate its existence as an affront to their worldview and Muslim “identity.” . . . Blaming the Jews for all manner of evils, including the shortcomings of the people who scapegoat Jews, is protected because, at minimum, it’s a “personal truth,” and for some just the plain truth. But taking offense at such things is evidence of a mulish inability to understand the “context.”

Shocking as all that is, Goldberg goes on to argue, the anti-Semitism is merely a “symptom” of the insidious ideology that has taken over much of the universities as well as an important segment of the hard left. And Jews make the easiest targets.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel on campus, University