When the Supreme Court declared Christmas a secular occasion, to be celebrated for its lowest-common-denominator cultural value in the public schools, I expected serious Christians to protest. Here a powerful public body officially secularized what for the history of Christianity has represented a most sacred moment. But so deeply have the forces of secularization, organized and otherwise, penetrated the body politic that Christians held their peace. Christmas no longer marked the birth of Jesus Christ, but only a winter festival: Santa Claus without sanctity, snowflakes but no manger.

For a long time, these same forces of secularization have assaulted the organized Jewish community, insisting that the Jewish community stand apart from the religion, Judaism. In fact, Judaism itself was turned into a means for the survival of the Jewish people. It, meaning the religion, is considered a “good” thing because it keeps Jews together. A concrete case shows the parallel with what has happened to Christmas. When early in this century the secular Jewish philosopher Ahad HaAm said, “More than Israel [the holy people] has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel,” he downgraded the Sabbath from an end in itself to a means toward the end of preserving the Jewish people as a distinct group. So the subject of one of the Ten Commandments—keeping the Sabbath holy—became a tool toward another goal altogether, one that the Ten Commandments managed to miss: keeping the Jewish community going.

First the secularists came for Christmas, and now they are mounting an attack on the sacred character of the synagogue—different players, same tune. The secular world found itself unable to resist the powerful aspiration of Christians to celebrate Christmas in the public square, so it gave in, by subverting the success of Christmas to its own ends. Similarly with Judaism and the role of the synagogue. Long treated as the organized Jewish community’s stepchild, often denied access to community funds on the principle of “the separation of organized Jewry from the synagogue,” dismissed as divisive, denigrated for its principal work—Torah study and worship of God—as boring and irrelevant, the synagogue today finds itself at the center of attention. It works, as nothing else does, to keep Jews Jewish, so they say.

The only institution of Jewry that today more than holds its own, that can show a clear correlation between the activities it sustains and the nurture of loyalty to Jewry expressed in circumcision, the dietary laws, Torah-study, marriage under the canopy of Judaism, and family life of observance and study, is the synagogue (inclusive of the day school). In other words, the religion, Judaism, flourishes. At the local level, where people actually act out “being Jewish,” when it comes actually to changing people and imparting loyalty to Jewry, only the synagogue makes an impact. Philanthropic federations, fundraising, and political action in support of the State of Israel, and secular organizations such as the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, do not.

That is the judgment of Gary Tobin of Brandeis University, a sociologist for secular Jews. As he says in “An Assessment of Synagogue Inreach and Outreach,” a Koret Synagogue Initiative Executive Summary based on a survey in the San Francisco Bay Area: “American Jewish identity has been undergoing a massive shift during the 1980’s and 1990’s The Jewish organizations that emphasize fundraising and institutional loyalties provide less satisfying answers to the question of Judaism’s relevance to life in late twentieth century America. Many Jews have begun to look for direction by engaging more intensely with Judaism. At the same time, the trend toward religious involvement among American Jews is part of the larger religious resurgence in America.”

What then is to be done? Dr. Tobin and his coworkers find impressive the power of the synagogue to change people: to sanctify. So they would like to make the synagogue a more effective instrument for saving Jewry at large. This they propose to do by secularizing the synagogue.

They recognize that “Most Jews are relatively apathetic toward Judaism. Most do not belong to a synagogue, the central institution sustaining religious worship. . . . Judaism, understood in terms of ritual and worship, plays a minor role in the lives of most American Jews.” Here we have conflicting facts: one, in the crisis facing American Jewry today, synagogues succeed, for their members, in keeping Jews Jewish; two, synagogues do not succeed, for nonmembers, in making Jews Jewish.

So Tobin wants synagogues to reach out to marginal Jews. Who can differ? But what does he want the synagogue to do for them? As he oddly puts it, to “generate community.” The synagogue’s least effective role is religious, so he says. Synagogue members “appear to be less interested in religious practice than they are in enjoying a sense of community and seeing that their children are educated as Jews, and participants in one-time events are less satisfied with certain religious aspects of their relationship to the Jewish community. However, the data also indicate a desire for more intensive religious and spiritual experience and study.”

But the people Tobin surveyed do not belong to synagogues because they do not believe in what synagogues believe and do. For instance, those surveyed do not care whether their sons are circumcised or whether their children marry Jews. For them, says Tobin, the synagogue must change, by “generating community.” In Tobin’s account, people want both less religion and more; less observance but more association. Out of this confusion comes Tobin’s proposal: synagogues should appoint program directors. These program directors will organize all kinds of activities that fall outside the range of typical synagogue programs. The new programs will promote “Jewishness” for Jews who want togetherness but no Torah.

Why not let well enough alone and encourage synagogues to continue to do precisely what today succeeds so well, for those for whom it works? The sociologist’s answer is, because the synagogue works for those for whom it works, we should make it work better by attracting those presently not engaged by the practice of Judaism. This we do by practicing less Judaism and more community—less religious celebration, prayer, and study, and more joshing and noshing.

So here we are back to Christmas again: a good thing, so let’s remake it so everyone can enjoy it, let’s make it an occasion for the utterly secular world. And that brings us to the question: Is the synagogue (or Christmas, or religiously based ethics, or any other absolute good of faith) a means or an end? Should we Jews recite prayers because we want to love and serve God, or because we want our children to see us praying so that they will produce Jewish grandchildren? Should we celebrate the rhythm of nature and the eternal paradigm of holy Israel’s life through the shifting patterns of the synagogue’s liturgical year because therein we meet God in nature and in sacred history, or should we practice “our people’s customs and ceremonies” to please outsiders?

The Torah makes its judgment clear. For the Torah, meaning the religion, Judaism, a.k.a., what Tobin calls “community” —^Jewish Peoplehood, in the secular parlance—defines no valid end in itself. For proof-texts for his proposition that Jewish Peoplehood is an end in itself, Tobin will search in vain in Scripture, the Talmuds, Midrash-compilations, philosophies, mystical writings, or indeed even in any of the authoritative statements of Judaism, down to and including the creeds adopted by Reform and Conservative Judaism in our own times. The life of holy Israel, God’s first love (a theological category, not to be confused with the State of Israel, a political entity) is contingent and conditional. Our being is not a given but a gift, which is ours so long as we merit it. But then that is the conviction of the synagogue, in particular. That is why we are not going to surrender the synagogue to the forces of militant secularism the way Christians have given up Christmas.