February 27, 2020

A “Supreme” Case for Israel

Am I the only one who noticed the ironic coincidence? This past week, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, ruled that it was permissible for that upstate New York town to have explicit religious prayer in its legislative sessions.

It happened at the same time as Yom Ha-Atzmaut, the celebration of Israel’s 66th birthday.


Here is the story. The town of Greece, in upstate New York, had been having prayers at their town council meetings. The prayers were specifically Christian, invoking Jesus Christ. A federal appeals court in New York found the board's policy to be a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which forbids any government “endorsement” of religion. Those judges said that those prayers had the effect of “affiliating the town with Christianity.”

This week, the Supreme Court ruled that having explicit sectarian prayer in such sessions is not coercive. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, labeled these benedictions as “prayer opportunities.” Moreover, to interfere with such prayers would not only violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech; it would also put the government in the business of second-guessing the religious motivations of the prayer-giver.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said, “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”

The United States Supreme Court ruling has essentially said this: When you come to a public meeting, expect that there will be a prayer. While theoretically it could be a prayer from any religion (and Greece once had a Wiccan priestess), the prayer will almost always be Christian. Because that is what this country “is.”

Somehow I just don't think that Greece, New York is going to be having an Orthodox rabbi up there singing Aleinu.

You know how Jimmy Fallon does those thank you notes on The Tonight Show? Cue the sappy music. “Thank you, Supreme Court, for reminding our Jewish friends and relatives why there needs to be an Israel.”

Am I saying that it is time for American Jews to check their passports, pack their bags and head for JFK? No — at least, not because there are going to be pogroms in upstate New York, or that there will be massive conversionary programs inflicted upon the Jews. In a Monty Python routine, someone says “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” There are American Jews, who, upon hearing God mentioned in a public place, expect the Spanish Inquisition. But America, still, is different.

No, the argument for Zionism here is much simpler. There are a gazillion countries in which Christianity is the default religious and cultural setting. And there are many countries where Islam is that setting. There are countries in which the default religious and cultural identity is Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

There needs to be one place where Judaism defines the culture, the sensibilities, and the calendar. Zionism 101. That is why Israel matters.

Everyone has his or her own favorite illustrations of this basic truth, so here are mine. Arriving in Israel on Purim, as I did several years ago, and finding the customs officers dressed in Purim costume. Walking through a major department store and instead of finding the boy’s section, finding a sign hanging over a rack of suits, marked l’bar mitzvah – for bar mitzvah.

There are, of course, thousands more like that. A nation’s flag that resembles a tallit. The utter silence on Shabbat. You can name your own. It's all about being, to quote Ha-tikvah, an am chofshi, be-artzeinu, a free people, in our land. 

So, yes – a country that is Jewish, culturally and religiously – just as America is Christian, culturally and religiously. America has become more religiously diverse, that Will Herberg’s holy trinity of “Catholic-Protestant-Jew” has been supplanted by “Catholic-Eastern Orthodox-Protestant-Jew-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh-Wikkan-atheist-whatever.” This is important, but it is not crucial. Despite America’s cultural and religious diversity, America’s religious switch is still in the Christian position. That is its default setting, and there it will remain.

Now, I can see a hand waving in the back of the room. “Surely you don’t agree with the coercive nature of state Orthodoxy in Israel?” And you are right; I don’t. I seek an Israel that is culturally and religiously Jewish, as its default culture, but which celebrates Jewish diversity as well – an Israel that basks in the notion that there are shiviim panim la-Torah, that the Torah has (at least) seventy facets. And I seek an Israel in which there is massive cultural room for the ger toshav, for the strangers in our midst, those of different cultural and religious identities for whom Israel is also precious.

So, thank you, Supreme Court. Thank you for reminding American Jews, as well as other religious and cultural minorities, that Jews, in fact, do not determine the public face of this country. Thank you for reminding American Jews, as well as other religious and cultural minorities, that we will have to continue to encounter that basic truth on a regular basis.

By the way, here’s something else to love about Israel.

It is customary for a session of the Israeli Knesset to open with a devar Torah. But a few years ago, a Muslim member of the Knesset was called upon to open a Knesset session.

He gave a devar Koran.

You gotta love it.

I surely do.

A joyous yom ha-atzmaut to everyone.