Tomorrow we celebrate the Fourth of July, the central observance of our civil religion as Americans.
I believe that as Jews, we need to pay particular attention to the observance of this day. As a minority in this country, we are indebted to the founding principles and values of America. It is the idea of America—with its emphasis on freedom, equality and rights—that has allowed the Jewish community to flourish in its diversity.
Even in the State of Israel there are limits when it comes to religious liberty among Jews (there is freedom of religion for other faiths). With elements of the establishment in the hands of the Orthodox, one expression of Judaism has official sanction leading to tensions with more liberal expressions of Judaism and clashes over access to sacred spaces.
America is not without its challenges as well. That same freedom that allows for the diversity of expression among Jews also raises new questions about Jewish continuity as we Jews—like other populations—find ourselves no longer confined to ethnic enclaves but in shared community with people of different backgrounds, faiths and cultures.
And more recently we are seeing an evaluation of how religious liberty is understood in our country.
We come to celebrate this July 4th not long after the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which essentially gave the right of closely-held corporations to exercise religious liberty by opting out of the provision of the Affordable Care Act to cover certain types of women’s contraception.
There are many analyses of this decision to be shared by greater legal minds than mine (despite winning the Rockland County Mock Trial championship in 1990). This case includes elements of reproductive justice, women’s rights, corporate personhood, health care reform and religious liberty.
But it is the last part which captures my attention as a rabbi (well, the others do as well.) As a member of a minority faith I have felt that principles of religious liberty are in place to protect the minority from the majority. This decision however gives those in power (employers) the ability to impose their religious beliefs over those without power (employees). That is a dangerous precedent.
On the one hand, I am glad that the court affirmed the principle of religious liberty in the first place. The fact is Hobby Lobby holds the free exercise of religion to be a fundamental value. The question comes in its execution and how to balance differing expressions of religious faith. And this is an on-going question.
A story: when we moved into our new building a decade ago, we undertook as a congregation a re-evaluation of our food policy. Our TBH food policy is essentially our communal minhag (custom) when it comes to kashrut (dietary laws), and as we were moving into a new home with a new kitchen, the Ritual Committee decided it was a good opportunity to reexamine our practices.
As we began to settle on particulars—maintaining a dairy/vegetarian kitchen, allowing for food prepped at home, affirming our support of organics and food that reflected environmental and social justice principles—the question arose as to the scope of the policy. In other words, to whom would the policy apply?
While it was clear it would apply to Temple events, what about the private meals of our staff? We also had contractors working on our building who took a break for lunch. And when we hosted the homeless shelter, the guests brought their own food. We knew that not everyone of these people were Jewish.
It was determined that our food policy would not apply to those working for TBH, either permanently as staff or temporarily as a contractor. It would also not apply to the guests of the shelter. The only stipulation is that any food that is brought into the TBH building that does not meet the guidelines of the food policy not be brought into the kitchen. The sentiment, in short, was not to impose our practices on those who didn’t share our religious values, even though they were in our building or working for us. We did have that right, but didn’t exercise it.
I know this isn’t the best analogy, but it was an example in which I wrestled with when and how to apply religious preferences. And for me this was part of a larger process of engaging with issues of religious expression and issues of church/state.
Prior to entering the rabbinate, I was a strict separationalist when it came to church/state issues. Now I am not so sure. The separation of church and state comes with benefits to faith communities. Yet at the same time it comes with restrictions.
It was the separation of church and state which allowed local churches to host Camp Quixote, but it is also the separation of church and state which forbids faith communities from holding services in city parks. It is the separation of church and state which exempts TBH from property taxes, but it is the separation of church and state which excludes TBH staff from unemployment pay.
There are those who argue that the benefits are unfair, and those who argue that the restrictions are unfair. But the point is this: as we celebrate July 4th once again, we are ever mindful of the fact that our country is a continuous work in progress. We Jews accept the rights and freedoms that come to us. And we need to accept the responsibilities to help guarantee them for all.