Religious Freedom Vital to National Unity
OpinionOne Man’s Opinion

Religious Freedom Vital to National Unity

For some accepting religious change proves essential in preserving Judaism.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld was born November 8, 1925. He is the oldest son of a book store owner in a small town in Czechoslovakia and a holocaust survivor.

Rabbi Israel Meir Rau speaks about the critical role of the shul for Jewish survival.
Rabbi Israel Meir Rau speaks about the critical role of the shul for Jewish survival.

There are great similarities between ancient Israel, where 12 tribes united to form a nation, and the United States, where 13 colonies united to form a country with the motto E Pluribus Unum (one out of many). It is not accidental that these United States have often been referred to as the New Zion and the New Jerusalem.

The purpose of union in both cases was similar, and in both cases the united groups wished to retain their individual, tribal identities.

What was the force that held the independence of the tribes and the states while they defined themselves as members of a greater unity?

First, there was a contractual relationship.

In ancient Israel, it was an intertribal covenant. The Bible tells us that the idea of a covenant existed not only between G-d and Israel, and the tribes’ covenant assumed the sanctity of a legal force bestowed by G-d. The children of Israel were a people where the covenant ruled.

Moses reminded the tribes of that covenant and the obligation to help all the tribes secure the land of Canaan to make it the land of Israel.

After they settled the land and each tribe lived independently in its allotted territory, the covenant ensured mutual defense against enemies such as the Philistines. Deborah, for instance, used the covenant to remind other tribes of their duty to come to her tribe’s defense.

The unity of Israel was enhanced by the worship of a national G-d and the Temple rituals. Thrice a year, Jews made their pilgrimage to the Temple and reinforced their unity, their historical identity and their allegiance to the G-d of Israel.

But change is an inevitable reality that all nations must deal with.

The social, economic and religious conditions of Israel brought on demands for change. Unity was challenged after Solomon’s death. The northern tribes wanted to alter the tax structure and weaken the power of the Temple priests by establishing a religious center in their territories.

At the time, cultic ritualism in the form of sacrifices was the dominant form of worship. The good life was seen as the result of the satisfaction of His pleasures. The site of the sacrifices, Jerusalem, became the center of political and economic life.

The northernmost tribes — Naftali, Dan, Issachar, Asher — were too far from Jerusalem for three pilgrimages a year, so they wanted their own place of worship. But the priests who controlled the rituals in the Temple didn’t wish to share their power.

The rigidity in holding the power of the Torah and the religious practices in Jerusalem led to a breakdown of unity and the establishment of Israel as a northern kingdom separate from Judaea in the south.

The loss of unity weakened both countries, hampered their sense of identity and made them incapable of fighting off Sennacherib and the Assyrians. After their defeat, the Jews of Israel were scattered in Assyria and lost their identity.

I wonder how many of their descendants are fighting modern Israel’s existence.

The United States from its start had a population with varied beliefs, and before this nation was established interreligious hostilities were common. Once we became a nation, our leaders faced the problem of the independence of the state and the need to eliminate religious hostilities.

The Framers of the Constitution sought to provide legitimacy to all faiths.

First, they tried to redefine religion by stressing that the importance of religion was primarily the inculcation of a moral standard that served as a common denominator across belief systems. The Founding Fathers minimized those elements of religion that stressed the separation of people from one another and elevated moral unity. This is evident in the belief systems of Jefferson, Franklin and Madison.

In short, the Founding Fathers stressed the collective ideals that formed what Robert N. Bellah called the American civil religion. Perhaps the best example is a statement by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography:

“I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world and governed it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of G-d was the doing of good to men; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, tho’ with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixed with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, served principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.”

A similar view must have led Jefferson to edit the Bible and with his razor create a version in which he excised those statements and beliefs that led to disharmony and human separation.

The same spirit led Madison to declare and establish the freedom to worship and the freedom from the yoke of religion.

This capacity for accommodation has served to maintain of our unity in spite of having the greatest number of different belief systems.

Modern Israel has a choice: It can follow the tragic mistakes of the past and keep on its present course by rejecting intrareligious accommodations, leading to tragedy. Or it can accommodate the inevitable changes and thus maintain Jewish unity not only within Israel, but around the world.

It should be evident to the state that we must reject a Phineas-type zealotry. Zealotry in heterogeneous countries — and most countries are becoming heterogeneous — has become passé and must be replaced by freedom of belief.

The followers of Orthodoxy, of course, have the right to maintain their beliefs so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. The rigidity of Israel vis-a-vis non-Orthodox Judaism is a sure way to bring on another division among ourselves, and it is the path to another Jewish tragedy.

How can we seek accommodation with other religions when we cannot be accommodative to our own variations?

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