Thirty-five years ago, I started my professional career by enrolling in a so-called “professional school” program. Many of my classmates were significantly older than I was and knew exactly what they wanted from their education. Even some of the younger ones seemed to have figured it out – they were practical people who understood that in three years, they would be making a boatload of money working for a law firm. They were in school to learn the tools of a trade.
By contrast, I’m not sure why I was in law school. I think it had something to do with wanting to work for fairness or justice – by which I meant the concept of justice, not the Department of Justice (that didn’t happen for another 16 years). But I had no idea of what it meant to practice law, or what kind of law I wanted to practice. Worse yet, I’m not sure I had in mind any particular “skills” to learn. I only knew that if you wanted to fight for a more fair and just society, you’d better apply to law school. So I applied, then was accepted, and then “took a year off” to do what I really wanted to do – which was mostly to read and write about philosophy and religion. That year included a lengthy trip to Israel, where I checked into a yeshiva, found God, and then returned to the States a changed person.
My first year in law school was a shock. It involved reading a lot of judicial opinions where, from my vantage point, judges employed one method after another to defend the status quo – not merely in terms of legal doctrines but also in terms of the distribution of wealth and power in society. I remember having all sorts of concerns about the inequities of capitalism, concerns that apparently were not shared by the judges responsible for shaping the common law. But those legal opinions weren’t what alienated me the most about law school. Nor, even, were the rat-racing students to whom I would be compared during exam time. (The official law school paper actually published a comic strip entitled the “Rat Race” in which the students and professors alike were depicted as rodents.) My problem, as a recently awoken baal teshuva (a/k/a born-again Jew), was that I found my American law school to be a spiritual wasteland.
At Ohr Somayach (my Israeli yeshiva), we didn’t “study,” we “learned.” At Harvard Law School, we either studied, or we felt guilty about not studying. At Ohr Somayach, we spoke about building our souls and honoring our ancestors. At Harvard Law School, we spoke about getting prestigious clerkships and making law review. At Ohr Somayach, we spent reflective moments wondering whether we were insufficiently altruistic and spiritual. At Harvard Law School, we spent reflective moments wondering whether we were insufficiently driven and focused on our career goals. At Ohr Somayach, we deepened our love for God. At Harvard Law School, we deepened our love to compete intellectually for money, status, power ... all the usual accoutrements of worldly success.
I kept asking myself, “Couldn’t they at least give us a moment of silence before each class?” I wasn’t looking for the dean of the law school to promote any particular religion, or even to promote religion over non-religion. I just wanted an opportunity to begin each hour-long learning experience with a moment of reflection where we each could silently meditate or talk to ourselves – and people like me could say something to God. I knew that I wasn’t in Israel any more. The secular-Jewish dean made that very clear when, during his initial address to the class of 1984, he began with a story. Boiled down to its essence, the Dean’s story went something like this: Two guys go camping in the woods. They see a bear. One starts running away from the bear. The other says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun that bear.” His friend responds, while continuing to run, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”
Harvard Law School is supposedly a breeding ground for “the best and the brightest.” The current Attorney General of the United States was in my class. So were many judges and other elite members of the bar. The next Vice President of the United States (and I don’t mean Mike Pence) graduated from the school one year before I did. President Obama graduated seven years after me. I would never suggest that the law school fails to develop the kinds of skills that people need to be successful in law or politics, or that it breeds evil hearts or pedestrian minds. Maybe the American law school, of which Harvard is certainly a model, is doing just what our society wants it to do – produce nimble orators, writers and analytical thinkers who are as equipped as possible to compete in our adversarial system. There is room in this society for praying and hugging, but that’s not what fuels our economy, and when it comes to America, the economy always comes first.
I offer that trip down memory lane because I have been thinking these past couple of days about France and the unfortunate willingness of French politicians to discriminate against religion in all its outward manifestations. France has been one of the most secular countries in the world for a number of years. According to a turn-of-the-century Pew study, only 11 percent of French adults said that religion was “very important” to them. That percentage is perhaps the lowest of any nation in the world. In 2004, France’s national legislature passed a law that banned conspicuous symbols of religion in public schools. This included signs and symbols from all faiths – including Christianity, which once reigned supreme in France. Most famously, though, the law banned the Muslim hijab, which is a symbol of modesty for Muslim females.
In 2010, France became Europe’s first country to prohibit full-face head coverings in public places. The vote in the National Assembly was an incredible 335-1.
Now, this week, we are awash in stories about French mayors banning the use of the “burkini” -- bathing suits for Muslim women that leave only the face, hands and feet uncovered. A ruling by the French Council of State overturned the ban in one of the towns, finding that it “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms.” Allegedly, however, some local mayors plan to continue to impose the ban in their own jurisdictions for as long as they are able to do so. The Burkini ban is seen by its advocates as a way to draw the line against an extreme form of religion that is ripping at the heart of secular society by precluding certain minority communities from assimilating. Like the ban in 2010, this latest prohibition is squarely aimed at one group and one group only (the Muslims), and yet it emerges from a culture that wishes to promote Secularism to a preferred status in the public sphere. In France, the key principle is no longer religious neutrality – it is religious marginalization. In other words, it is Secularism run amuck. Ironically, those who are behind the Burkini Ban have become exactly the kind of sectarian oppressors that secularism was originally designed to fight.
As I reflect on the various anti-religious bans in France, I am incapable of forgetting my own feelings of alienation in law school. All that I wanted is some sort of nod to the relevance of spirituality in the lives of many students. I felt that there were certain values inherent in a reverent lifestyle that were at odds with the “I just have to outrun you” mentality that truly did seep in through the air-ducts at Harvard. It wasn’t enough for me that the university provided opportunities for students to practice their faith in separate buildings unaffiliated with the law school. That is no better than leavening public school history classes with the occasional nod to “black history” day or “women’s history” day, all the while devoting the other 98 percent of the time to the history of white males.
I wanted the law school to offer moments of silence because it was important to me that spirituality and religion not be marginalized, but rather that they be recognized as crucial elements of the moral foundation of many students – progressive as well as conservative. I felt strongly that those students and professors whose lives are 100 percent secular have no special claim to dominate literally every class from the moment we matriculate to the moment we graduate. To be sure, I felt that it was vital to protect their rights against any attempt to establish religion over non-religion; however, I also felt that the opposite principle applied as well. In short, all that I was looking for was an effort to take religious neutrality seriously.
In order to graduate, every Harvard Law School student needs to complete a “Third Year Paper” that is supposed to be of publishable quality. My paper, which eventually was published in different forms in multiple professional journals, involved – you guessed it – Church and State Law. I wrote about how the United States has failed to honor its Constitutional duty to respect religious neutrality in public schools. And I suggested that to the extent that we have, de facto, established an “American Civil Religion” in our schools, the foremost source of principles for that “religion” is Secularism.
Clearly, we in America have not run amuck in our love for Secularism anywhere near as much as France. Thankfully, our Constitution has a First Amendment, and our society has placed the respect for freedom of speech, association and religion at the forefront of its list of values. Still, though, when we see a wonderful country like France go way too far in its fear of religion (equating traditional Islam with dangerous extremism), we should take a moment to ask ourselves whether we, too, have erred too far in the pro-Secularist direction. Would it really kill our schools to have more moments of silence? Would it really kill our students if they were given more exposure to comparative religion instruction as part of the regular secondary school curriculum? Is the spiritual domain truly less important than the domains of literature, art and music, all of which have (correctly) come to be seen as integral parts of a student’s education? And can we really count on our students’ parent(s) to expose them to the spiritual domain – as we certainly could 100 or 200 years ago?
It hurts me to write this piece because I am actually a Franco-phile, not a Franco-phobe. I often feel that I was born a century or two too late, and that it would have been nice to be sitting in a Parisian café, arguing politics or metaphysics, with the greatest of passion, while drinking or smoking whatever it is that lifted my mood to just the perfect intellectual height. But then I am reminded that I am Jewish and no longer a 100 percent secular Jew, and that France, like much of Europe, hasn’t always been the kindest place to Jews who weren’t totally secular. I want those countries – and my own – to embrace their religious Jews. And their Muslims. And that means that our schools, our streets and our beaches should be as welcoming to their religious minorities as they are to those secular lawyers who are invariably running away from bears. Here in America, our Constitution demands nothing less.