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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Debating the Role of Jews in the Public Square

 

Event Recap

The rabbinic tradition of scholarly investigation and cordial disputation proved to be alive and well on March 12 among the scholars who came to Boston College to reflect on the theme of “Jews in the Public Square.” As part of a broader program sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, designed to explore how major religious traditions understand their role in civil society, this event featured presentations from David Novak of the University of Toronto, Michael Broyde of Emory University, and Michael Gottsegen of Harvard University. Kevin Hasson, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, was the respondent.

Novak argued that the central problem for Jewish public philosophy involved clarifying issues of loyalty. The only absolute claims Jews ought to recognize come from the Jewish people as a body, not from the democracies of which they are citizens, and not even from the state of Israel, because “no humanly-created polity can make absolute claims on a person.” Given that Jews ought not to understand the democratic polity as competing for their absolute loyalty, a certain level of public policy involvement is thus warranted. Novak outlined three criteria for articulating an appropriate Jewish public policy: First, such policy must be consistent with the Torah and Jewish tradition. Second, it ought to consider the self-interest of the Jewish people. Third, public policy must reflect standards of general morality recognized to be binding on all people. Apparent conflicts among these criteria are resolved by the fact that they are listed in order of priority; hence, Novak argued that tradition will always trump self-interest, and self-interest, which is founded on a stricter set of moral codes than those of general morality, will not be in conflict with those codes.

Michael Broyde presented a strikingly different perspective on the role of Jews in the public square. In his view, Jewish law must be observed where possible, but it does not obligate Jews to try to influence the morality of the outside world. On social issues, the overriding Jewish concern should be to develop a “Real politik” that will further the long-term interest of the Jewish community. Such a practical politics might dictate that Jews support social policies diametrically opposed to Jewish law, but which preserve other values essential for Jewish flourishing in society. For example, although physician-assisted suicide is prohibited within the Jewish community as a sinful violation of Jewish law on the part of both doctor and patient, Jews might nevertheless support legislation advocating this practice as a way of upholding the larger value of freedom on which their community depends.

For Michael Gottsegen, the central question was whether religion—and Judaism in particular—could be a force for the renewal of American public life. Gottsegen pointed out that Jews have been ambivalent about the return of religion to the public square: While they applauded the nomination of Joseph Lieberman as a vice presidential candidate in 2000, many were also anxious that a renewed emphasis on public religion would mean the return of Christianity alone, rather than a plurality of traditions. For Jews, Gottsegen noted, the secularization of the public square has been largely advantageous. Nonetheless, the downside of secularization has been a loss of appreciation for the common good and for the “nobility of public life.” Gottsegen argued that politics needs to be returned to a “quasi-religious calling,” and that this can only be done with the support of existing communities of faith.