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.
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.”
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective. Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar. In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself. Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: ‘Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.’ Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.
Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday. Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).
But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities. We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’. These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s. Ben Zimmer, author of www.visualthesaurus.com, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818. Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.
What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward. We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom. For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt. This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.
Chag Pesach Sameach – A Happy Passover to all!
A version of this article appears in the Editorial pages of The Bridgeport News and other publications of the Hersam-Acorn Consortium
At the most obvious level — the p’shat – the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies not only the collective “we” of the Jewish people, but the presence of two distinct entities. They turn out to be the Jewish people and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom: ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”
But why stop there? Perhaps the p’shat and the mystical reading together are not enough. I would suggest that another member of the group included within “our” is, quite simply everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story.
The New American Haggadah, so much in the news lately, includes this passage from the children’s author turned Jewish commentator, Lemony Snicket. It is a comment on the phrase, “In every generation each person must look upon himself as if he left Egypt”:
…the story of liberation is one that is still going on, as people all over the world are still in bondage, and we wait and wait, as the Jews in Egypt waited and waited, for the day when freedom will be spread all over the world like frosting on a well-made cake, rather than dabbed on here and there as if the baker were selfishly eating most of the frosting directly from the bowl.
Ultimately, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is from a place of physical security that we can develop the habits of heart that connect us to God within, and everyone else around.