It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. ... May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Geroge Washington's Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island

Religious Freedom Day

A week ago, Amelia came home with a social studies assignment.  Given that Thomas Jefferson was on a three month four of southern France and northern Italy during the Constitutional Convention, how did he influence the document?

Enter the Historical Acknowledgment Du Jour – “Religious Freedom Day.”  Today’s historical significance talks about our First Amendment right, but the basis for today being this day is that the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom.

This is part of the basis for the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

James Madison, who we think of when we think of the Bill of Rights, wrote to Jefferson, “I flatter myself [we] have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”

I like religious freedom.  I like it a good deal.

But we face challenges.

One of the libertarian “litmus tests” is a response to the question, “Should a baker be compelled by the state to bake a cake for a gay wedding, if he is a Christian and opposed to it?”

I’ve always felt that this has a profoundly nebulous basis in Christian Scripture, as Christians will often tell you of grace, that there’s no real system to distinguish scalar weight of sins, and they seldom divest themselves from other, more unambiguous abuses of their religious conscience economically the way they do on the matter of gay weddings.

But the government can’t moderate religious content.  We’re less conflicted about how this could run amok of sole proprietors, especially, with their freedom of association and freedom of religion.  Libertarians, however, are often on the side of the baker.

I’m not sure where I sit, but I think the market resolves these situations.  And at the same time, I feel like we should be better than this.  Perhaps tort on the part of aggrieved gay couples?  I don’t know.  This isn’t a find the answers day.  But it’s a contemporary challenge that was not anticipated wholly by our Founders.

I have three daughters, and my days of having children are over, unless we foster and adopt a boy that wants to convert to Judaism, and even then, it will be elective with their consent, but circumcision is under fire.

In the research for my update of David Brener’s The Jews of Lancaster: A Story with Two Beginnings, most of the records of Lancaster’s (and eastern Pennsylvania’s) early Jewish history come from the detailed records of a traveling mohel.  We know who lived where, in part, because of who was circumcised where.

And yet, our ancient practice of circumcision is under threat by “intactivists” who use words like “trauma” and “gender mutilation.”  They seem to have no appreciation for our longevity as a people (and the absence of a diminishing effect of circumcision on our men historically), and our sensitivity that circumcision has often been on the chopping block (pun intended) when it comes to repeated instances of state oppression of Jews and Jewish observance.

I’ll keep our foreskins over our cold, dead bodies!

I never thought that our freedom as a people could be threatened by a litany of contrived and baseless reasons to justify their interference in our age-old practices.  I reserve the right to be hostile to those who would encroach on this practice, as well, because they are only too happy to use state power to attack our practices.

I’m a vegetarian (well, truth be told, a pescetarian, but fish aren’t “meat” under Jewish law), but our ritual slaughter practices, or shechita, are under assault in many quadrants.  It’s half histrionic concern over animal welfare, and half the abuses of mass slaughter/production practices, with a heaping helping of foreign labor abuses.

The Presidential pardon of Sholom Rubashkin, whose labor and shechita abuses were partly responsible for me and many other Jews becoming vegetarian, was a win for the idiotic forces of rabbinical authority hypocrisy.  Rubashkin, a sleazy businessman, was always loved and respected with no good reason from the certification authorities (re: products of ultra-Orthodox yeshivot with no real marketable skills), who are utterly dependent on industrialized food production to make a living.

Nevermind that Jews used to be motivated self-starters when it came to kashrut 70+ years ago—but I digress.

The problem is, the solution isn’t to subtly try to nudge Jews towards cutting the “ask your LOR all the things” apron strings.  No, we go for the nuclear option on this stuff, with kosher slaughter being the subject of restrictive legislation around the globe.

It’s not just Jews and Christians.  Muslims face challenges over construction of community centers, whether it’s New York or the South.

It’s not all bad.  I think we still have some of the best freedoms.

But it’s always going to be a challenge.  America continually becomes more diverse, and we’re always going to have to juggle how one group’s rights intersect with everyone else’s.


Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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