Reform Rabbis Differ in Opinion on Religion in Public Schools

Citing widespread evidences of “practices which transgress the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment with respect to the establishment of religion, the Commission on Church and State of the Central Conference of American Rabbis today warned that “the principle of separation understood by an earlier generation is being progressively undermined.

The report, presented by Rabbi Edgar E. Siskin of Glencoe, Ill., to the CCAR convention now taking place here, asserted that “in no area of national life is the transformation more apparent than in the sphere of public education.” While predicting that pressure for an enlarged program of religion in the public schools will rise in the future, the report stated that resistance also will increase.

The report said that while there is agreement among virtually all members of the CCAR that the Conference continue its 66 year opposition to religious legislation at least on “the grosser violation of the principle of separation” of church and state, “there is what appears to be a groundswell of feeling that our historic policy should be more resilient and flexible with regard to other aspects of the issue.” The specific issue on which some Reform rabbis would like to see modification, the report continued, is CCAR opposition to religious education in the schools.

Advocates of modification feel, the report reveals, “that the CCAR stand of unremitting opposition to the teaching of moral and spiritual values with Divine sanction in the public school may be a mistaken policy. Their own experiences in the rough and tumble of the church-state controversy have convinced them that the Conference attitude in this sphere is what they variously term ‘negative, sterile, inadequate.’”

Presentation of the Commission report was followed by addresses by Rabbi Arthur Gilbert of New York recommending modification and Rabbi Joseph L. Fink of Buffalo calling for unchanged retention of the traditional policy. The convention voted to initiate a mail canvass of members’ views which will be recorded, analyzed, and studied by a committee to be appointed by the CCAR president. The committee will meet in midwinter to prepare recommendations based on the survey’s findings for action at next year’s convention. This is the first such national view of church-state policies initiated by the Central Conference since it was established in 1889.

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