Jonathan Muskat

Should We Bring Religion into American Values? Practical Considerations

In last week’s blog, I argued that it is our responsibility as Torah Jews to share Torah values with the rest of society, both those halachot that apply to non-Jews and those values that emanate from halacha. There should be no difference whether those values are aimed at preventing harm, e.g., immigration rights or gun control (in either direction) or limiting one’s personal rights, e.g., abortion, because we believe that in both instances, those values are Divine. However, should we as a faith community bring religion into American values? Should we be concerned that once we do so, other religions may want to sway American values in ways that are to our detriment as Jews and may ultimately infringe on our religious practices, for example, by banning circumcision or shechita?

Personally, I am not so persuaded by this argument.  First, many religious beliefs can be articulated in perfectly neutral rational terms.  As an example, last month Pope Francis declared his opposition to the death penalty. It was certainly inspired by his religious beliefs but it was couched in rational terms.  Many political leaders claim to be inspired by religious beliefs. It’s very commonplace in society and ultimately, it depends on how you craft the argument.  An individual who is an expert at using religion to craft arguments for universal values to shape the world is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and I do not believe that in doing so he has endangered our Jewish community in this regard. For example, if I want to argue that abortion should not be allowed and/or funded by the government absent extenuating circumstances and this position is inspired by my religious beliefs, I can craft the argument in perfectly neutral rational terms.  I can argue that the embryo has rights, I can argue for the value of human potential and I can certainly argue that the government should not have to pay for this procedure because it’s an issue relating to allocation of resources.

Additionally, I’m not convinced that taking positions that are inspired by religious beliefs may likely lead to curtailing ritual practices in this country like circumcision and shechita. Those who wish to ban these practices are not motivated by religious beliefs; rather, they believe that these practices harm others (children and animals, as the case may be) and a completely secular society will make that argument regardless of whether you try to use Torah wisdom to influence society.

Moreover, even if we use religion as a basis to argue for, as an example, changing the law regarding abortion rights, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are opening the door to having society evaluate whether circumcision and shechita should be banned, which is a religious liberty issue.  The United States has both the establishment clause, of not establishing religion in this country, and it also has a free exercise of religion clause, where every individual is free to practice whatever religion he wants.  Using religious values to shape laws is an establishment clause issue and limiting circumcision and shechita is a free exercise of religion issue and government involvement in one area doesn’t necessarily translate into government involvement in the second area.

Finally, in practice, in a situation where Jews would fear that discussing religion in the public sphere might be discriminatory against us, then I might want a large wall separating Church and State; however, I do not believe that this fear exists in the United States now. As such, I believe that we have much to gain by crafting arguments for universal values inspired by Torah wisdom in the manner that Rabbi Sacks does so well and I am not so concerned that this behavior will infringe on our religious practices, for example, by banning shechita or circumcision.  May we continue to spread Torah wisdom to the masses in all areas of life in an effort so that others will say “rak am chacham v’navon hagoi hagadol hazeh, or “surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.