Orthodox Jews And America’s Culture Wars

Elliot Resnick writes: Jews in pre-war Europe tended to fear fundamentalist Christianity. They knew that Christian fervor often led to expulsions, blood libels, and forced conversions. Indeed, when Russia’s Queen Elizabeth barred all Jews from her realm in 1742, she declared quite explicitly, “From the enemies of Christ I seek no gain.”

The fact that Eastern-European Jews remained apprehensive of fundamentalist Christianity when they immigrated to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries is therefore no wonder. And yet, over the past 50 years, some Jews have started to view religious Christians in a new light. Rather than fearing them as enemies intent on “converting the Jews,” many now see them as Israel’s only true friends in an increasingly hostile world.

But Israel is not the only issue that has drawn Jews closer to conservative Christians in recent decades. The culture wars have played a significant role as well. As traditional morality declined in the second half of the 20th century, some Jewish leaders began seeing amoral secularism – not fundamentalist Christianity – as the greatest threat facing American Jewry. And with that shift came a new appreciation for the “religious right” and the potential benefits in joining forces with it.

An early example of such cooperation occurred in 1962 when Rabbi Gershon Neumann of Manhattan’s Congregation Zichron Moshe founded a group called Morality in Media together with Father Morton A. Hill and Rev. Robert Wiltenburg to protest the sale of pornography to New York City schoolchildren. A year later Neumann and Hill proclaimed a hunger strike to highlight the issue – a story that made it to the front page of The New York Times and forced Mayor Robert Wagner to act.

In 1964, two other rabbis – including Chaim Lipschutz, at the time an editor at The Jewish Press – joined Neumann and six Christian clergy in attacking the U.S. Supreme Court for striking down obscenity bans on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and a French film, “The Lovers.” The court “virtually promulgated degeneracy as the standard way of American life,” declared the clergymen.

Two years later, in 1966, the group again made its voice heard, this time praising the Supreme Court for ruling against the publishers of a pornographic magazine and books on sadism while criticizing it for reversing an 18th-century ruling declaring the novel Fanny Hill obscene. Four rabbis joined nine Christian clergymen on this matter. Among the four were Neumann and Abraham B. Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

What motivated Neumann and his colleagues to cooperate with Christian clergy? A desire to keep American culture wholesome. As Senator John O. Pastore said at a Morality in Media dinner in 1972, “Unquestionably, the books [our children] read, and the television and movies they see during their tender formative years, significantly shape their personality. Of all the media none is more pervasive and effective for good or evil than television.”

Thus, Media in Morality aimed, as one reporter put it, “to combat by legal means TV shows, movies, magazines and books that incite the nation’s youth (and their elders) to violence, perversion, promiscuity, drug experimentation, hatred, and tastelessness.”

A contemporary Jewish figure who has worked with conservative Christian groups in fighting America’s culture wars is Rabbi Yehuda Levin. A media-savvy activist, Levin founded a group called Jews for Morality in the 1980s and has served as a spokesman for the Orthodox rabbinical organizations Agudas HaRabbonim and Igud HaRabbonim on social issues.

Levin first got involved in the culture wars in 1978 after seeing a letter from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein urging Jews to “fill the chambers of New York City Hall all the days of the hearing regarding homosexual legislation…to publicly demonstrate that God’s people loath abomination.”

Shortly thereafter, Levin was invited to join a delegation to outgoing New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson to discuss the formation of a national pro-morality organization. Only 24 at the time, Levin was reluctant to go, but Rabbi Avigdor Miller encouraged him, reportedly covering half his travel costs to New Hampshire…

Perhaps the most prominent Orthodox rabbi to have cooperated with conservative Christian groups in promoting traditional morality in America is Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder of Toward Tradition. The organization first made first waves in August 1994 when it placed an ad in The New York Times blasting the Anti-Defamation League for its alarmist report on conservative Christian groups. Headlined, “Should Jews Fear the ‘Christian Right’?” the ad declared that Judaism is not “coextensive with liberalism” and that “separation of church and state is not the same thing as the elimination of religious values and concepts from political discourse.”

More important, though, was Toward Tradition’s next ad, which appeared prominently on The New York Times’s op-ed page after the midterm elections that thrust Newt Gingrich and like-minded conservatives into power. Wishing “Mazel Tov” to Gingrich, Toward Tradition declared that “Judaism is a conservative and traditional religion” and opined that “many of America’s problems have been aggravated by the secularist rejection of the religious and cultural traditions that built and sustained American civilization.”

Among the signatories to the ad were Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, Rabbi Mayer Schiller, and conservative movie critic Michael Medved.

In the wake of this ad, Lapin soon found himself addressing a Christian Coalition conference in 1995 and offering an invocation at the Republican National Convention in 1996.

The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe likewise feared a United States sans God and advocated a constitutional amendment permitting non-denominational prayers in public schools after the Supreme Court deemed school prayer unconstitutional in 1963. “Children have to be ‘trained’ from their earliest youth to be constantly aware of ‘the Eye that seeth and the Ear that heareth,’ ” he wrote. “We cannot leave it to the law-enforcing agencies to be the keepers of the ethics and morals of our young generation.”

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Despite the logic in fighting for a more moral America, few Jewish leaders nowadays – with the prominent exception of Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik – have emulated the examples of Rabbis Neumann, Levin, and Lapin. It’s true that Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union have on occasion protested the moral degeneration of society. Agudah’s David Zwiebel, for example, testified against gay marriage before Congress in 1996. Nonetheless, these groups have not made fighting the culture wars a priority and, more often than not, only lobby legislators when the law in question affects Orthodox Jews directly.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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