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.”