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Can I Vouch for That?

06/23/2022 05:43:58 PM


I’ll always remember the first d’var Torah I ever wrote that stirred controversy. Though there have been many since, this one was in 2002.  It was the early days of Torah on the Internet, and I was the summer substitute for the JTS Chancellor’s Torah commentary.    At the time, many in the Jewish community were opposed to school vouchers, and in particular, those that could be used at religiously oriented schools.  I wrote, invoking the words of the shema, that enabling education is an important value in our community, and that day schools play an important role in that, even while acknowledging the complexities of the issue.   The original article has long since vanished from the JTS website, but the question has come to the fore again.  I stand by my original claim, that enabling people to choose private religious schools, and even funding that choice, is consistent with Jewish ethics, and in the best interest of our community.  With 20 years more of experience, and the wisdom of our tradition, I can offer a bit more nuance. Let me explain:

From a pragmatic perspective, we know that Jewish day schools offer a superior educational experience in terms of creating Jewish identity, without compromising on the educational needs of many students. Programs like the Alef Fund here in Georgia enable the participation of families who otherwise would not be able to afford this type of education. 

Some offer a principled objection, that government funding of religious institutions is a violation of the US constitution that opens the door to the government funding of religion, and perhaps favoring one religious tradition over another.  Others extend this to practical reality, that allowing government funds to support organizations that discriminate on the basis of religion will be to the detriment of minority communities like our own.  Just recently, a Jewish couple in Tennessee seeking to adopt a child was rejected by a Methodist adoption agency because of their faith.  The rub was this agency received funding from the government, and was using tax dollars in a way that discriminated against Jews.

This is an issue of ethics that  goes that beyond the specific dictates of the American legal system.  In many other countries, including Israel, it is assumed that religious institutions will receive public funding.  Indeed, one of the great challenges in Israeli society is determining the fairness of government allocations, and disputes over whether specific religious approaches are privileged is one of the factors in Israel’s inability to maintain a stable government.

Is it contradictory to support the use of vouchers to support Jewish educational institutions (in which non-Jewish children might not be welcome to participate) while at the same time arguing that it is wrong or discriminatory for an adoption agency to deny Jewish parents?   Our Torah portion suggests  subtle distinctions that might guide us.

Parashat Shelach notes that there is a great risk of the minority coming to harm at the expense of the majority. Ten spies speak negatively about the land they visited, and two speak positively.  The ten drown out the voice of the two.  While the two righteous spies do eventually get to enter the land, it takes 39 years longer than expected.   In many situations, minorities (and in particular religious minorities) are a disadvantage, and it is all too easy for government funded religion to be bent to the will of the majority, or the loudest voices.

On the other hand, later in the portion, there is a discussion of the process of taking challah: when one is baking a large batch of dough, a portion is to be set aside as an offering for the priests.  However, rather than giving the offering to the Temple to distribute en masse, each person gives their offering of dough directly to the priest of their choosing.   In return, they do receive the benefit of having a closer relationship with that local Cohen. Today, that small portion of dough is burned symbolically rather than given to a Cohen, but the ancient practice has a clear implication:  By putting the power to give in the hand of each individual household,  the Torah gives each household the the ability to receive the blessing that they choose and prefer.

To translate to modern terms- if the government chooses and pays religious providers to offer a service, it is fair to demand that those providers offer that service to all, without discrimination, so that the majority cannot exclude the minority.    The ten spies cannot exclude the two.

 On the other hand, if the government feels that a service should be available to all, it is fair to allow them to choose the best provider for them, which may be a religiously based institution.  There is further complexity of course- there is a risk that in  some communities, a religiously oriented provide might be the only one available.  If almost everyone chose a private school, the public school system might not have the resources to meet the needs of the remainder. 

It might be necessary for the government to insist that the services provided only be ones that are intended (so, for example, a voucher might be limited  to cover the cost of teaching secular subjects, but not religious instruction).

For some segments the Jewish community, rejection of school vouchers or any government support of religiously affiliated institutions has been nothing short of  dogma.  Indeed, there are certainly important concerns and potential pitfalls that might result from the implementation of these types of programs.  And yet, there are arguments, both pragmatic and ethical, that suggest the merit of allowing government support- one key factor issue is ensuring that it is the needs and choices of the  individual which are being supported, not the religious institutions per se.

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784