Monthly Archives: December 2013

This Old Freedom Train

In this country, and perhaps at this season of Hanukkah especially, we celebrate our Freedom of Religion.  We also celebrate our freedom “from religion.” imagine-no-religion

The secular laws that govern America intend to prevent any religious coercion or bias among us.  “We the people” have the right to practice or not practice any religion we choose.  Some might claim that the freedom from religion that Western 21st century encounters has led to a weakening of religion.  Within Judaism, for example there is actual debate over what do we mean by mitzvah – for several thousand years it simply meant “commandment,” as in “Do this” or “Do not do that;” within the Torah there are 613 of them. Yet, the Conservative Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary actually has a Mitzvah Initiative, which helps Jewish communities explore mitzvot as” an organizing principle of Jewish life.” There is an active conversation about the meaningfulness of being commanded (or not).

This willingness to question even central ideas, I believe, is a good thing.  Jewish leaders love to celebrate the plasticity of Jewish development over time, yet some bemoan change when it happens on their watch.

Holding on too rigidly to religious control does more to weaken religion than the American born “freedom from religion.” Consider two modern cases as proof: 1) The election of a right-wing Chief Rabbi in Israel has lead to a deepening disenfranchisement for secular Israelis from the value of religious observance. 2) Yesterday, a woman sued the U.S. Catholic Bishops over a miscarriage treatment:

“The lawsuit accuses the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops of creating health care directives “that cause pregnant women who are suffering from a miscarriage to be denied appropriate medical care, including information about their condition and treatment options.” – Chicago Tribune

The religious beliefs of the Catholic Bishops prohibited best medical practices from being offered.  As with the Affordable Care Act, religious communities want the freedom from offering the largest net of possible coverages or procedures, on religious ground. From the perspective of these selfsame religious institutions, their position is mistaken and will hurt them rather than help them in the long-run.

I believe that if religious groups offered health-care to all their employees and religiously funded hospitals could preform all safe procedure, even abortions, it would not weaken the religious perspective of those groups. People who adhere to the religious viewpoint of the institution would be strengthened in their faith as their actions were made out of choice rather than coercion by creed. What would emerge are developments in belief and developments in practices, which in the long-run strengthens the influence of religion.

In the liberal movements of Judaism we see this. What we “choose” to observe, celebrate, think, and feel as Jews is more and more born from freedom rather than obligation alone.  JewishsurveyPromo_639x300

Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94% of U.S. Jews (including 97% of Jews by religion and 83% of Jews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish. Three-quarters of U.S. Jews (including 85% of Jews by religion and 42% of Jews of no religion) also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”  - Pew Research Center (2013).

The effect has been a changing Jewish landscape, but one in which Jews still strongly, with pride and even with numbers, identify as Jews.  We are more clearly then ever progressing from being “the Chosen People” to the “Choosing People.”

Posted on December 3, 2013

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