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.”
We all know people who at some point in their lives may be suffering or depressed and give up hope for any change or improvement. They experience a total sense of powerlessness in their lives and we experience it as well in our efforts to help them. Within our tradition, there is even one startling passage in the Talmud that suggests that during the Hadrianic persecutions in 135 CE, the Jewish people should have refused to have any more children and cease existing within a generation. One can only imagine the despair that must have been felt by the author of that passage.
This week’s Torah reading begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. After the brothers sell Joseph and deceive their father Jacob with a bloodied coat, Jacob falls into inconsolable mourning and refuses to be comforted for the loss of Joseph. The next chapter begins with Judah going down, leaving his brothers and family.
“… and Judah went down from his brothers .…” (Genesis, 38:1)
The Ishbitzer comments on this verse: Why did Judah go and wed a wife at this particular time? As he saw how Jacob refused to be consoled, and as he was the one who had to bring Joseph’s coat to his father, he became greatly depressed, and felt as if, God forbid, there was no more hope. So he went to marry a wife, saying, “perhaps I will have good children from whom will grow an everlasting structure.”
Then afterward, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused him to understand the following. If, God forbid, it is as you think, and there is no hope for you, and you have no life at your root, if so, then even if you give birth to a hundred, they will not have any more life than you. For with the blessed God, the channel through which He sends life must itself be of life. Then, if it is as you think, that you will only have temporary life, then it will be so also with your descendants. Therefore, when he arrived at the clarification of the matter, he fathered Shela, his name Shela meaning misled, the mistake he made in this matter. This is why his first two sons died, and Shela remained alive.
This is a profound teaching. Only those with some hope, even if only a spark, can truly nourish a hopeful future. To create a family there must be a sense of life at one’s core.
In my own work, I have had the pleasure and honor of being the rabbi at many weddings. Some have ended in divorce. This happens. But what is truly sad is couples I knew who decided to have children after they had already determined the marriage was over, deluding themselves that a child would restore the love of the couple. It does not work this way and the divorces happened anyway and for the better of the couples and their children.
Hanukah begins Saturday night. Some commentaries emphasize that the true miracle of Hanukah was not that the menorah stayed lit for eight days, but rather that the people took the initiative to light it even though they had only enough oil for one day. Hope created the miracle, or perhaps was the miracle itself.