A high school named for Gen. Robert E. Lee. A poll that shows a decreasing interest in organized religion among men and women in the United States.
Those were the topics of two op-ed essays in a recent issue of the daily paper in Houston, where I have spent several recent months.
The stories, one about a secular topic, the other about religion, would appear to have nothing in common with each other, and to have no relation to Judaism.
But as we approach Shavuos, the controversy over naming institutions for the Confederacy’s top general, and the diminishing number of people who attend worship services or take part in any sort of activities under the aegis of the country’s major faith groups, the pair of issues bear a strong Jewish message. They deal with holiness and honor, respect and tradition, community consensus and individual autonomy - all fundamental Jewish issues.
The debate over the propriety of honoring or giving publicly recognition to people associated with the Confederacy (such statues are a common sight in the South; or at least they were, until the recent rise of violent white supremacy prompted a counter-reaction and spirited national debate) is the latest sign of a split between the North and the South, the “progressive” and the “reactionary,” the “woke” and those still judged asleep.
The issues inhabit the border between the merely symbolic, and dangerously substantive.
First, Lee et al.
The general of the Civil War’s losing side, as history has tended to regard him for more than a century, was the human face of an inhumane institution (through current research indicates that he actually treated his slaves in an inhumane manner); he was the symbol of the antebellum and post-war South, whose rebel army opposed the Union forces in the War Between the States; in this view, of people who hold that chivalry to fellow white folks outweighed indifference to the feelings of one’s dark-skinned “property,” he was putatively an officer and a gentleman, a decent man who led soldiers determined to preserve slavery, a loyal son of the South who regarded that region as more important than the unity of the United States ... Robert E. Lee, not an ogre or a rapacious monster, though he fought for the sake of a monstrous institution.
Many schools and military bases and other sites in the South bear the names of generals and politicians who mistreated human chattel and abided by the South’s gentlemanly code of “honor” - or who at least defended Southerners’ right to do so. So there is great resistance in pro-Confederacy circles to keep Lee’s name and memory alive - even in schools where blacks and other minorities now constitute the majority of the student body.
Likewise, the reassessment among Native Americans and their supporters of the legacy of Christopher Columbus, whose historical record for the “Indians” whom he “discovered” in this hemisphere.
All this conflict of narratives raises the wider question, beyond the individuals who are now judged or rejudged - who are our heroes? Or villains? And do our preferences in these matters change (or, in the PC term of preference, “evolve”) over time?
Clearly, it has changed - for some people, in some places in the United States - in the last century-plus. Many of us do not agree who is deserving of fame, or infamy. The lens of history has enlarged or reduced the reputation of figures who loomed large at one time.
Not so in the circles of traditional Judaism, where our respect for righteous individuals remains constant, or increases over the years. We still name our schools and yeshivot for such saintly individuals as Maimonides or the Chofetz Chaim.
Second, the decreasing pull of religion in this country.
Jews, especially outside of the Orthodox community, are not immune to this distancing from “organized religion.” Synagogue membership (even before the COVID-19 pandemic) was steadily on the decline, affiliation with any form of Judaism was dropping, a growing number of Jews in national surveys aligned themselves with the “nones,” those who did not identify with any part of the Jewish religion. The standard claim: “I am ‘spiritual,’ but not religious; religion has too many demands.”
While the dropout rate from traditional Judaism - called “Orthodox” since the advent of the movement that sought to reform normative Judaism - is well documented, equally well-known is the renaissance in the last century of the Orthodox community and the rise of the Ba’al Teshuvah movement, which has negated, to some degree, the increasing secularization of the US Jewish community.
But these demographic phenomena are not strong enough to counteract the larger pulls away from Judaism.
According to a recent Gallup poll, for the first time since the public opinion agency began tracking religious membership and affiliation in 1937, the percentage of men and women in this country who belong to a house of worship has dipped, from 73 to 48. This trend is not new, but the latest results indicate that a demographic red line has been crossed - for the first time, a majority of people do not actively identify with a specific faith group, typically Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. While a recent essay in the Washington Post that discussed this development concentrated on Christianity, citing various political and sociological reasons, this phenomenon is, unfortunately, is not new in the Jewish community - outside of Orthodox circles, the grip of Judaism has been slipping for a long time.
Which is not news to us.
These historical and sociological trends - opponents vs. defenders of Confederacy perpetrators, and people stepping away from “organized religion” - represent a continuing Kulturkampf in this country, as well as a growing schism between two worldviews and political philosophies ... states’ rights vs. a strong federal government, and people who feel disgusted by the legacy of racism as something inherently repugnant vs. those who give little credence to the feelings of minorities of any stripe, or color; and those who find no succor in the halls of a synagogue, church, or mosque.
The ongoing dispute over the propriety of monuments of Confederate soldiers - tear ‘em down, vs. keep ‘em up - is not a surprise. Streets or colleges or college departments named for Confederates or their sympathizers are also falling into increasing disfavor.
For the former, any taint of slavery is enough to remove such monuments; for the latter, the association of the monuments’ honorees is incidental.
Slave ownership, even the “benign” type, and especially the repressive type that kept the Southern economy alive, is indefensible to people on the other side of the cultural divide, especially a lifelong Yankee like me.
Judaism, of course, while condoning slavery (it was among the first commandments given to B’nei Israel after the exodus from bondage), does condemn its excesses in practice; the obligations of a conscientious slave owner are so onerous that Chazal declare that someone “who has acquired a slave acquires an owner.”
And the decreasing attraction of a life within the Four Cubits of religion?
The attractions of a secular life are obvious: no Commandments, no restrictions - just unbridled license. It sounds very attractive, if hedonism is one’s goal.
The school board of Baystown, a small city near Houston, is slated to meet this month to decide if Lee’s name will remain on his high school. That may end the debate in Baystown, but other cities are certain to keep the controversy alive.
These current issues are ephemeral. They will pass, to be replaced by the next controversy. But human nature will not change - some people will continue to find purpose in honoring the dishonorable, and will find no purpose in following G-d’s dictates.
We will soon celebrate something not tied to the latest headlines: Matan Torah and Kabbalas HaTorah. We don’t have to worry that targum mitzvot will be replaced.
Robert E. Lee and public opinion polls will not be our concern for two days, when we can concentrate on statutes - not statues - and when we can show our faith in Torah, not in public opinion polls.
Steve Lipman, a resident of Forest Hills, was a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week from 1983 to 2020.