Deference Deserved, Nun Given

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

As a senior citizen in my 70s, I have come to truly understand the reality of the generation gap. It appears everywhere if only sometimes in a rather subtle manner. It is not merely a matter of the acceptance of modern trends, for example, the change in music, after all, I’m of the generation that believes that “rock ‘n roll is here to stay, it will never die” or in fashion. Were that the case, it really isn’t worth too much concern. Its real impact is on the core values of society, which should be the concern of every individual. Please indulge this senior citizen and join me as I take a brief walk down memory lane to demonstrate what I mean.

One of the most inspiring movies I have ever seen, a huge success at the box office at the time, was “The Nun’s Story” which opened to spectacular reviews in 1959. As stated in the New York Times, “Quietly, beautifully and sensitively, it images and describes the entrance of the heroine into a nunnery and the stages by which she comes to her final vows. Through the mouth of a mother superior, whom Edith Evans powerfully plays, it articulates the philosophy and spiritual stress in the formation of a nun – the purposes of the rules of silence, obedience, poverty and chastity, and the point of the most difficult surrender of liberty, memories and will.”

The movie was based upon the novel by Kathryn Hulme. Hulme wrote her novel based partly upon the experiences of her friend, Marie Louise Habets of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, a Belgian nurse and an ex-nun whom she met while working with refugees in post-war Europe. The lead character of the book, Sister Luke (pre-convent name Gabrielle Van Der Mal) is played by a young Audrey Hepburn, Sister is challenged by her deep felt commitment to her Order and its rules and her equally deep felt commitment to be a nurse. As a nun there is no room for her personal desires and aspirations. This conflict ultimately results in her leaving the Order.

I was 15 years old at the time, and having my own religious conflicts. I had come to the realization of the truth of Orthodoxy and was wrestling, in hindsight, with the concept of bitul. Defined by Kabbalah, bitul is an inner-state of nullification of self which allows for greater awareness of G‑d in one’s life. To the degree that a Jew realizes this state in his own religious belief and practice, subservience to the commandments of the Torah becomes a natural part of his own expression. This struggle for pure and clear faith in G‑d’s goodness and mercy, in the 1950s, made for real box office success. Audiences were deeply moved by the panorama of the life experiences of Sister Luke and her inner struggle to achieve the humility required of the nun which, as the movie ends, she cannot meet and results in her leaving the Order.

On July 14th a federal appeals court Judge determined that the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic Order of nuns, must comply with the Affordable Care Act and allow their employees to obtain contraception coverage through a third-party insurer.

The ACA requires most employers, with the exception of houses of worship, to provide a full range of contraception in their health plans at no out-of-pocket cost to women. Unfortunately, the protection that was once broadly given to religion in general provided in the First Amendment to our Constitution has been reinterpreted by our President and his administration as referring only to houses of worship – churches, synagogues, mosques and ashrams. The Little Sisters of the Poor, are now defined as a religious nonprofit and must comply with the law. The Sisters wish to opt out of covering birth control as it is against their religious beliefs, even to the extent of filing for an exemption with the government. Once filing for that exemption, the government would direct a third-party insurer to provide the contraception coverage to the women employed by the objecting organization.

The Little Sisters, which runs about 30 nursing homes around the country caring for the poor and neglected senior no matter his/her Faith, sued the administration over the birth control rule. They felt that by even filling out a form for an exemption makes them complicit in the provision of birth control coverage. In its decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals stated the accommodation carved out for them is “as easy as obtaining a parade permit, filing a simple tax form, or registering to vote…Although we recognize and respect the sincerity of plaintiffs’ beliefs and arguments, we conclude the accommodation scheme relieves plaintiffs of their obligations under the mandate and does not substantially burden their religious exercise under RFRA (The Religious Freedom Restoration Act) or infringe upon their First Amendment rights.”

“Although we recognize and respect the plantiffs’ beliefs…” Really! By the way, no employee of the Little Sisters of the Poor – a nurse, social worker or a physician for that matter, has complained. I imagine that is because, no matter the personal religious faith of the employee, it was understood by them they were being employed by a Catholic Order whose religious conviction does not permit birth control.

Here is the real generation gap. My generation deeply respected those who were motivated by their religious faith to dedicate their very lives to the welfare of the poor and the rejected among us. We saw the “Calling” of these folks as meritorious even inspiring. Today they are but a bunch of fanatical women who simply won’t accept modernity – the new and ever evolving morality of the day.

Attorney Riezni of the Beckett Fund who represents the Order put it this way, “It is a national embarrassment that the world’s most powerful government insists that, instead of providing contraceptives through its own existing exchanges and programs, it must crush the Little Sisters’ faith and force them to participate. Untold millions of people have managed to get contraceptives without involving nuns, and there is no reason the government cannot run its programs without hijacking the Little Sisters and their health plan.” I agree. The Sisters face possible fines of up to $2 million if they do not comply.

This is the unfortunate reality of the generation gap.