Truth in Jest

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Recently, in his jocular remarks at the Al Smith dinner in New York, Gov. Romney referred to an awful reality in our society today. Discussing the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration regarding the Human Services HHS Mandate, he announced that in fact the White House had provided an accommodation to the Church. They have translated the Mandate into Latin.

This problem which affects the very nature of the First Amendment and its meaning is far from conclusion. The “exemption” President Obama provided is very narrow. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post:

The trick is that these birth control/abortion services will supposedly be provided independently and free of charge by the religious institution’s insurance company. But this changes none of the moral calculus. Holy Cross Hospital, for example, is still required by law to engage an insurance company that is required by law to provide these doctrinally proscribed services to all Holy Cross employees.

Our first President, General George Washington, in his farewell address, felt it important to remind our then fledgling nation that:

Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is apparent that President Washington understood that the separation of church and state, the experiment in governance developed by the Continental Congress, would be faced with interpretations that might discount the fact that while our nation was not committed to a particular religion it was built firmly upon the bedrock of the Judeo-Christian ethic as presented in the Torah and New Testament. This fact must be ever in one’s mind when trying to interpret the nature of separation of church and state, as it was understood by our Founding Fathers. It as well highlights the fact that in developing law and in considering the nature of interpersonal relationships of our citizenry, the guidance of the Judeo-Christian ethic is an essential element.

How often have people told me that my opinion on a given topic, is somewhat negated by the fact that I speak from my religious standpoint and, in consequence, I am not in accord with the concept of religious freedom as understood in the United States, as I am attempting to direct our society by the moral norms of the Torah. When I respond that in actuality opinions based upon the Judeo-Christian ethic, in my case the Judeo ethic-the Torah, are not only to be considered when facing an issue, they enjoy a more central position in the debate as they represent the foundational elements of our American society, they are dumbfounded.

When in 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, who were concerned that, although they enjoyed religious freedom as a minority in Connecticut, the majority faith then being Congregationalist, made it difficult for them to have their religious tax applied to the Baptist Church, he wrote: “…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State…,” Jefferson was referring to protecting the Church from the State and not the State from the Church.

On Sunday, October 14th, at a gathering at Halas Hall, I was privileged to address a group of like minded individuals from various Faith communities who were concerned about maintaining the authentic concept of church and state, as evidenced in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Together with, Dan Proft of WLS radio, Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D Illinois), Ken Chuchinelli (R), candidate for Governor of Virginia, Captain Guy Gruters, jailed for five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and others, we addressed the concept of church-state from various perspectives. It was truly an enlightening and uplifting experience to join fellow Americans who deeply appreciate their religious freedom. Entitled, “Reclaiming Religious Liberty the Most Cherished American Freedom,” the group was asked to sign the “Chicago Declaration,” a document reaffirming our commitment to this cherished pillar of our American democracy.

In part it reads, “At a time when religious freedom at the very heart of our nation, is under attack, we agree to stand together to affirm our support for, and belief in, our United States Constitution. We also agree to take action to inform and educate those around us that the rights of all, especially those rights guaranteed by the first amendment, must be preserved.”

I urge you to consider this document and to place your name on it as I have. You can review it and post your name by going to www.ipetitions.com/petition/the-chicago-declaration/.

Many organizations have already expressed their support for the effort of the Catholic Church to protect our religious liberties, including the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel. As Jews, we must be very concerned about the weakening of Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” We have already witnessed here in the United States, efforts to outlaw Shchita, Jewish ritual slaughter, as inhumane treatment of animals, and Bris Milah, Jewish ritual circumcision, as child abuse. Those elements who wish to accomplish these goals are growing in part because of the misinterpretation of the concept of separation of church and state embodied in the First Amendment to our Constitution so rampant in today’s society. In many instances, these are the same individuals who take a dim view of religion in general, seeing it as a destructive element in American society. It is the First Amendment to our Constitution which protects our Jewish practices. Let us never lose sight of this reality. It is time to act!