More God Stuff

As I mentioned in my last post, I’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 it’s nothing that could be argued with:


“Confident in what I knew and believed, I did not find Christianity to be a threat to me or my religious community.”


That’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. He’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 don’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 doesn’t mean that they’re going to go worship Jesus because of it.


Mind you, I’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 isn’t the end of the world. But let’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 they’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 it’s true that Orthodox Jews feel less discomfort about public (and publicly funded) Christianity, it’s because they’re already outsiders. Their kids don’t wonder why the other, seemingly identical, first-graders all hunt eggs on Easter. Why don’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 “saw as basic to a two-thousand year-old tradition of diaspora Judaism.”


That sense of being different throughout the year explains his tolerance for public Christianity better than relative “identity” strength. He’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 they’re more like casual Christians than they’re like Orthodox Jews. It doesn’t mean that their Jewishness is weak. It just means that their Jewishness doesn’t force them to feel as different from their neighbors, in so many settings, as they do in December.

2 Responses to More God Stuff

  1. cathy May 27, 2006 at 12:05 am #

    Hi Rob, I was just reading through your posts, since Kevin has added your blog to our blog.

    Your post about being in the minority affecting one’s outlook on the larger society reminds of a conversation I had with my Taiwanese friend Jackson. I was telling him about Kevin’s work environment, being very openly Christian, but on the positive side, they try very hard to take care of their employees. The insurance is awesome, the 401K plan is incredibly generous, so on and so forth. So Jackson jokes, can I get a job there? I said, you sure you want to? They’re all religious and stuff…occasional prayer before meetings, no un-Christian behavior (swearing, facial hair, etc.) He kind of scoffed at my warning. He more or less felt that it wouldn’t be so hard since he’s already a minority. It’s just another environment in which to fit in, which we do everyday. He sees an obvious tradeoff that he’s happy to make, and it’s one he makes everyday in other aspects of his life, by virtue of remaining in the US. I do notice my minority status enough to know what he’s talking about. Yet I also feel like this is my country as much as anyone else and therefore interested in the outcomes of our political debates.

    Most of my relatives on my mom’s side are naturalized US citizens like myself, but I’m confident that none of them have ever voted in a US election nor could they fathom doing so. Yet a few of them considered going to Taiwan during the last election to vote. I find it at once weird yet totally normal. I think this is the very issue you’re talking about: identity and perceived threats to that identity. My relatives have no doubt in their mind who they are and therefore it doesn’t matter much to them what political stuff is happening in the US.

  2. weeklyrob May 27, 2006 at 8:29 am #

    I totally see what you’re saying. My wife, as you know, is a resident alien. She’s not allowed to vote here, but that’s just fine with her. She has no interest whatsoever in voting in US elections, even though she lives here and has to deal with the results.

    I’m not saying that she has to live with being a minority in the same way that you might (or even that I might), because she doesn’t. No one can tell by looking at her that her family didn’t come over on the Mayflower, and no one ever persecutes people for being Australian. (Though, I think if more people tasted Vegemite, they might start the persecution immediately.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe without commenting

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes