What is religious freedom? What does it really mean in our American Democracy; Are we as Jews in danger of losing whatever it is and what are our obligations to the notion of Freedom?
I ask these questions not to be contentious…OK…maybe a little…but because a number of Orthodox Jewish organizations….to be fair on the right side of the religious observance spectrum…have turned Covid and its more severe restrictions into a referendum for affirming the Rights of Religious Man…they don’t care about women…..cheap shot…but true for another writing.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Let us start at the beginning. And it really is a beginning. In fact, the issue of religious freedom was so important to our Founders that it was the very First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Think about the radical nature of that statement. At the time most countries had official state religions and those of us who didn’t worship in that particular manner were at best tolerated and often excluded from key positions and events.
Think about the waves of immigrants of all religious persuasions who came to this country and were able to worship as they pleased, in their own way….or not at all…with one caveat…. justice and common good must be protected above all.
WE HAVE BENEFITED
We as Jews, have enjoyed an unprecedented ability to worship and flourish, maybe for the first time in Western history. Observant Jews (here I refer to all Jews regardless of denomination who self-identify) can be found at all levels of business and government and Jewish ethical thinking is quoted on a regular basis in boardrooms and halls of government alike.
Yet, here we are struggling, like all, in the grip of the worst pandemic of our century and somehow adherence to the rules and restrictions that affect all for the betterment and safety of all have been twisted and spun into an issue of Religious Freedom…sheer Anti-Semitism if you listen to some of the rhetoric.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, of Agudath Israel, was quoted as saying:
” The legal challenges to our way of life are coming up with greater frequency and we have to turn to the court to protect us”
The upshot is viewing restricting a 10,000 man strong, shoulder to shoulder wedding with nary a mask in sight as a restriction of religious liberty or limiting the numbers of worshipers in an outdoor or indoor service as Anti-Semitic.
And the remedy is going to court with other religions who feel equally trod upon no matter that they have been observing the rules and regulations, in general vs our co-religionists.
COUMO AND SCOTUS
As a reminder, the case taken to the US Supreme Court was focused on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent (then rescinded) order limiting indoor worship to ten people no matter the size of the room in question.
Full confession. I am sympathetic to the Supreme Court decision and very unsympathetic for the Governor’s small minded (in my opinion) ruling that, in his words became a moot point as he pulled it back.
Honestly, I belief that worship is a critical and important activity. Necessary for many. It’s about mental health as much as it’s about anything else. And to apply a different standard to restaurants then we do to Synagogues, Churches and Mosques seems arbitrary at best and petty (typical, some would say, for this Governor) at worst.
Lest my loyal readers wonder if I’ve crossed to the dark side (or the dark hat side) don’t worry…I have not. I see this as an issue of applied political power vs one of care for the public and I land on the side of foiling misuse of muscle.
However, I am seriously concerned about who brought this case to the court and the response of the community that has spoken out against the SCOTUS ruling. And it is that dichotomy that has potential to harm all that we have achieved…all that we were given….all that our founders held dear.
There was no religious bias in Cuomo’s original decree and there was certainly no Anti-Semitism….no challenges to anyone’s way of life”…sheer and utter nonsense.
And for those who think the Supreme Court crossed the line the other way….there are way bigger fish to fry and we need to keep our powder dry.
KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY FOR THE BIG BATTLE
You see the Agudah and their supporters are feeling confident…powerful….optimistic that they have a friendly Court….a Court that will look with favor on them as they partner with other fundamentalists of other religions and begin to restrict the freedom of others in the name of their own sense of Religious Liberty.
Abortion; LGBTQ Rights; Child Molesting; Gender Discrimination; Spousal Abuse….all will be fair game in their skewed view of what freedom means and while religiously I advocate ignoring them as an American I cannot and will not.
THOMAS PAINE AND THE TWO EDGED SWORD
One of my favorite and in my view most powerful articulators and defenders of the essence of Liberty was Thomas Paine. And if you read him carefully and truly assimilate his radical thinking what becomes clear is that Freedom; Liberty is a two-edged sword that has to be drawn from its scabbard with great care and wielded with the conviction that we all benefit from the greater good. Because if I limit your freedom in pursuit of my own….one day someone will limit mine.
“He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression”
Bottom line….today it’s about getting away with unsafe religious services…tomorrow it will be about taking away rights from Gays and Women while protecting child molesters and other criminals.
Not the America we signed up for.