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December 21, 2004

Medved, Boteach, and Me

Clay refers you back to Charles Krauthammer's column today about secularization and, as Jimmah would have put it, the Inordinate Fear of Christmas. It's part of the growing understanding that religious Jews and religious Christians have more in common, socially, than they do with their secular counterparts.

This isn't a call for any sort of syncretism. Although religiously, the twain shan't meet, politically and socially, there's a lot we can accomplish. There's also still a lot to work out, and a lot of maintenance to be sure that what has been worked out, stays worked out.

A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Bill Donohue, a prominent Catholic lay leader, turned Scarborough Country into he Western Front, circa 1916. The two are friends, but got into it over an assertion by Boteach that Hollywood was poisoning American culture, and a agreement by Donohue that "secular Jews" there were responsible.

Rabbi Boteach went nuclear. Now, he's not Christian-baiter. He argues in the current Jewsweek that we need to stop tearing each other apart over religious displays. But the fact is that Donohue's reference to Jews, while technically correct, is completely irrelevant to his argument.

Yesterday, Michael Medved had him on his show to debate whether or not the Rabbi had overreacted. When Medved agreed that, sadly, too often secular Jews did seem to be leading this charge, Boteach was astounded. I called in trying to square the circle, suggesting that yes, as an Orthodox Jew I was embarassed that so many Jews, like those named Streisand and Dershowitz and Paul Newman were on the wrong side of this.

The fact that secularists wield such power is an American problem. But the fact that they are disproportionately Jewish is a Jewish problem, something that Donohue needs to butt out of.

If Jason Whitlock can admit that blacks in the NBA have a problem, then I don't think it's too much for us to admit that Jews are disproportionately represented in the ranks of secularists. Not to do so smacks of wanting it both ways - look at all the Jewish doctors, Nobel Prize winners, conservative columnists, but what, us, secular?

The reason that so many Jews are secularizers (as opposed to just plain secular), is that we don't like being killed, ghettoized, or proselytized. The law and society will stand up for us in the first two cases, and it's up to us, as Jews, to build a Jewish society that can stand up to the last.

Too many falsely believe that the way to stand up for their Jewishness is to marginalize Christianity.

The sad fact is that they've been given this leeway in large part by well-intentioned Christians. Eager to avoid giving offense, Christians both zealous and more relaxed have essentially said, "OK. We don't want to offend you. You tell us when we go too far." This system works when people assume good faith on each other's part. It's built to handle the occasional school choir leader who insists on Christmas Carols as the price of participation. It means that I as an individual can draw lines with missionizers. It was never meant to swing the entire legal structure of the country into action to make most people self-conscious about their religion.

The system also only works if Christians like Bill Donohue do a little self-examination, too. Because if the deal isn't meant to deal with Jews' self-image, then it is meant to deal with how the majority sees us.

The problem isn't one of being offended, or of Donohue stirring the Jewish Collective Memory. The reason this is a problem is that when Donohue says, "secular Jews," there are too many people around who will forget the "secular" and remember the "Jews." Those people may cut the Boteachs and the Medveds and the Sharfs of the world a break today, but they'll forget those distinctions soon enough. There aren't, and won't be, enough of them to rerun Nuremburg, but Jewish life in this country isn't good because it isn't Nazi Germany, it's good because it is 21st-Century America.

This topic could fill libraries and probably has. I will almost certainly revisit it in this space. And while there's always the chance that in 20 years, whatever I'm writing now will look remarkably prescient, there's also the considerable risk that it will look tragically naive.

It's up to us to decide which happens.

Posted by joshuasharf at December 21, 2004 12:59 PM | TrackBack

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