As I mentioned in my last post, Iâ€™m reading a book about the debate over separation of church and state. Almost right away, and before getting on to anything resembling his actual point, the author (Noah Feldman) threw out a side comment that made me blink.
In his Introduction, Feldman tells us that his world-view (including the idea that religious symbols should be allowed in government) was partly shaped by his being raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. Fine with me. Then he casually says the following, as if itâ€™s nothing that could be argued with:
â€œConfident in what I knew and believed, I did not find Christianity to be a threat to me or my religious community.â€
Thatâ€™s when I blinked. I blinked because I had read almost the exact same thought in an article (by a different Jewish author), in the Washington Post over a year ago. This article, titled, Just Leave Christmas Alone, says that non-Christians should just relax about Christmas and its constellation of events and symbols. Heâ€™s dismissive of parents who disagree:
What kind of fragile religious identity have they bequeathed their children that it should be threatened by exposure to carols?
I’m struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas creche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public.
Both authors assume that the discomfort that (non-Orthodox) Jews feel when faced with public Christian expression comes from fear of losing their own identity. The authors think that these Jews are threatened, not by feeling like outsiders and second-class citizens, but by the possibility of forgetting all about Judaism while in the throes of Christmas bliss.
This is a bunch of hooey. I donâ€™t think I know any Jews who are worried about losing their identity, or even that of their kids, to Santa. They may worry because their kids were told that all good boys and girls get presents on Christmas. Or they may worry that their kids are destined to feel different from everyone else. This is upsetting for a child, but it doesnâ€™t mean that theyâ€™re going to go worship Jesus because of it.
Mind you, Iâ€™m not arguing that this feeling of being upset is a tragedy. Let them be upset a little. They ARE minorities, and they can learn that being a minority isnâ€™t the end of the world. But letâ€™s at least get our facts straight about where the resistance is coming from.
People who fight public religious symbols do so out of a desire for inclusiveness. Whether or not theyâ€™re right or realistic, they want every citizen of the US to share in the collective American culture as equally as possible. When city squares, courtrooms, and public schools all celebrate one religion, then that inclusiveness suffers.
They are not fighting to maintain their own weak belief systems.
If itâ€™s true that Orthodox Jews feel less discomfort about public (and publicly funded) Christianity, itâ€™s because theyâ€™re already outsiders. Their kids donâ€™t wonder why the other, seemingly identical, first-graders all hunt eggs on Easter. Why donâ€™t they wonder this? Because there are no Christians who seem identical to Orthodox Jews. Orthodox kids already wear different clothes, different head coverings, and may go to different schools from the Christians. They certainly have different social lives. Difference is part of the equation: according to Feldman, being a religious minority was something he â€œsaw as basic to a two-thousand year-old tradition of diaspora Judaism.â€
That sense of being different throughout the year explains his tolerance for public Christianity better than relative â€œidentityâ€ strength. Heâ€™s used to being a minority and even revels in it. Most Non-Orthodox Jews face a much less severe feeling of minority until December, when it gets shoved in their faces. Until then, in many ways theyâ€™re more like casual Christians than theyâ€™re like Orthodox Jews. It doesnâ€™t mean that their Jewishness is weak. It just means that their Jewishness doesnâ€™t force them to feel as different from their neighbors, in so many settings, as they do in December.