The following was a keynote address at the Religious Freedom Day celebration at Richmond, Virginia’s “First Freedom Center,” January 16, 2020.
Good morning. It is an honor to be with you today for this celebration of our most cherished freedoms.
I speak as a member of a minority community that has uniquely benefited from the freedoms that we honor today.
For approximately two thousand years of Diaspora, the Jewish people lived, effectively, as guests in every land, and under every government, in which we established communities.
Sometimes, thanks to a particularly beneficent ruler or more tolerant social mores, we were afforded certain rights and privileges, able to more or less fully participate in society without having to abandon our faith or our traditions.
More often, we were marginalized or quarantined, harassed or persecuted, sometimes barred from engaging in any meaningful way with the majority culture, sometimes given the option to fully participate in the broader culture if we abandoned our faith, and sometimes forced to choose between assimilation or death. Sometimes, we were offered no choice at all, confronted only with persecution, violence, expulsion, or annihilation.
In other words, for most of Jewish history, Jews were denied the fullness of our humanity: either we were permitted to live as Jews but not as citizens, or we were permitted to live as citizens but not as Jews, or we were permitted to live as neither — which is to say, we were not permitted to live.
That each of us has the right to be our own, complete, unique, human being is the essence of the freedoms we are celebrating today. The freedom of religion, the freedom of thought, and the freedom of conscience upholds that each of us has the right to be different — to think differently, to believe differently, to speak differently, to dress differently, to practice differently; that conforming to anyone else’s way of believing, behaving, or belonging can never be the prerequisite for one’s participation, and all the more so for one’s presence.
It is because of our country’s embrace of these freedoms that, from the very beginning, the Jewish experience in America has been unique to Jewish history. At the time of our country’s founding, the United States was the only nation in history to guarantee Jews the right to participate in society as Jews, not as a result of specific legislation, but rather as a fundamental human right guaranteed to everyone.
It is, of course, shamefully true that, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, the “promissory note” our founders issued — which insisted that all human beings are equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that it is the job of the government “to secure these rights” — was not honored insofar as many Americans, and in particular Black Americans, were concerned; and that even the men who pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in defense of those natural rights were simultaneously willing to deny them to millions.
American Jews have not been exempt from this pernicious and persistent tendency on the part of our country’s majority population to deny or fail to secure equal rights to many minority groups. Throughout the history of this nation, American Jews have faced both legal discrimination and social bias, as well as bigotry, harassment, and persecution.
And yet despite the painfully uneven application of American liberty, despite the injustices and indignities and injuries that American Jews faced throughout our country’s history, our fundamental equality under the law — like that promised to Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs — was always part of the basic infrastructure of our republic, even if it was periodically unrealized or insufficiently secured.
And it is in large part because of these freedoms, promised to American Jews equally along with all other Americans, and historically protected by a government that, as George Washington put it in a famous letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, “gives to bigotry no sanction [and] to persecution no assistance,” American Jews have flourished here in ways without parallel in our people’s roughly two thousand years of Diaspora.
This has been especially true over the last century. As the character of our liberal democracy has grown increasingly pluralistic, the American Jewish community has become affluent, prominent, and well-respected. Growing up, I experienced little or no overt discrimination. I felt celebrated, rather than targeted, for my differences. I of course knew antisemitism persisted, but saw it mostly as the province of fringe lunatics.
But recently, we in the Jewish community have felt the ground shift beneath our feet. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States has increased dramatically over the past several years. Since the ADL started tracking this data about forty years ago, 2017 (which was the year of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville) and 2018 (which was the year of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh) were two of the worst years on record when it came to antisemitic incidents in America. Recent attacks in New Jersey and New York demonstrate that 2019 and 2020 will likely be no different.
And, as many of us are painfully aware, the reawakening of antisemitism in America isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In recent years, people in Virginia and all over the country have been increasingly targeted, marginalized, attacked, and even killed because of their differences. Assaults and incidents of bias and discrimination against religious, racial, and ethnic minorities are all on the rise, as are incidents targeting those who are minorities by virtue of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
For many of us in the Jewish community, this may be unsurprising, even as it is horrifying, because antisemitism often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry. When one form of bigotry rises, others tend to rise in tandem with it. A society in which antisemitism thrives is typically also a society in which other forms of oppression flourish. And where racism or xenophobia or homophobia or any other type of discrimination proliferate, Jews are also more likely to become targets.
In this sense, the resurgence of antisemitism in America is not only a threat to Jews; just as the rise in racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia, is not only a threat to African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBT community. Rather, any and all incidents of bigotry or persecution are an assault on all of us, and, indeed, on the very freedoms that are foundational to our republic. As the twentieth century American philosopher John Dewey argued, discrimination in any form corrodes democratic societies and poisons even those groups who are not specifically targeted.
It is, of course, precisely the job of the government to protect all of its citizens against these kinds of assaults and injuries, and especially to protect its minorities, because minorities are most vulnerable to explicit and implicit pressures to conform to the majority.
And yet, too often, in our time, it seems as though many of the most powerful officials within our government are doing just the opposite, emboldening malign actors — whether passively through silence and inaction, or actively through incitement and encouragement. Sometimes, leaders even have the audacity to masquerade the majority’s persecution of a minority as an expression of “religious freedom.” Let us be clear: when one person weaponizes their faith to deny the fullness of another person’s humanity — whether that be discriminating against members of the LGBT community, or taking away a woman’s agency over her own body, or imposing Christian prayer in public schools, that is not religious freedom, it is tyranny.
And when our leaders commit or permit these types of oppression, they threaten not only the liberty and welfare of particular individuals and communities; they corrode our entire democracy and put us all, even those who might currently enjoy the privilege of majority, or who are able and willing to assimilate in order to conform with the majority, at risk.
But as a self-governing people, our leaders are responsible to us, and, in an important sense, we are responsible for them. Our freedoms thus depend on us, all of us. It is incumbent upon us not only to cherish our own rights but also to honor and celebrate our society’s diversity, to stand with and step up for each other, and to persistently and actively demand that our leaders preserve, protect, and defend each and all of our cherished freedoms, for each and all of us.
Indeed, our democratic ideals are not inherent or self-perpetuating. Human beings have a tendency, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Erich Fromm, to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty toward homogeneity and authoritarianism. It’s a reality that has been evidenced throughout modern history, with catastrophic results.
And it’s what Benjamin Franklin meant in 1787. Right after the constitutional convention concluded, a Philadelphia power-broker named Elizabeth Willing Powel asked Franklin, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin famously answered, “A republic — if you can keep it.” The freedoms at the core of our democracy must be tended to and cultivated at every turn. Left to the gravitational pull of our own passions, predilections, and prejudices, we risk losing — even voluntarily giving up — our precious liberty, and even suffer fates worse still. If we can keep it, if we commit ourselves to keeping it, we will thrive as a pluralistic democracy. And if we can’t, we will invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.
It is impossible to understate the magnitude of what’s at stake, the significance of the task before us, or the power of the forces pulling us away from our freedoms. In insecure times such as these, I find myself turning to the time-honored wisdom of my tradition for guidance on how to move forward.
One of Jewish history’s great sages, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, taught that the fate of the world depends on three virtues: justice, truth, and peace. So important is Rabban Shimon’s wisdom that this teaching is memorialized on Temple Beth-El’s three most publicly visible stained glass windows. Rabban Shimon argued that, without the presence and proliferation three virtues, the world will remain broken. Only through them can the world be repaired and perfected. The task of the Jewish people is to repair and perfect our broken world by ensuring the triumph of justice, truth, and peace. And, I would argue, the work that is before all of us to heal and ultimately perfect our republic requires the triumph of justice, truth, and peace.
A commitment to justice means fighting for a society in which all people are regarded and treated as equals. Such a social order demands both administrative justice and distributive justice, a society in which the rule of law prevails, in which all people enjoy legal equality, in which disputes between all people are fairly and equitably adjudicated, and in which resources are distributed equitably. It’s important to note that this kind of justice doesn’t just happen. It requires our persistent efforts and our perpetual vigilance. Scripture commands, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” justice, justice shall you pursue. Pursuing justice means working to ensure that, in our Commonwealth and country, no person suffers want, for the distribution of resources is fair; that no person suffers discrimination, persecution, or oppression, because all are honored as equals; and that no person suffers from an unfair verdict or unjust incarceration, because judgment is fair and impartial.
A commitment to truth means fighting for truth to be exalted as the standard by which our arguments and debates are adjudicated. Increasingly, we have come to embrace ideas and beliefs, principles and policies, for virtually every reason other than their proximity to truth — because they satisfy our urges or enrich us, because they confirm our predilections or grant us power. As a result, we have been conditioned to confuse disinformation for fact and truth for propaganda, and we excuse attitudes, statements, and behaviors when they come from our own side, even when we would consider those same deeds unforgivable if they were committed by our ideological opponents. Democracy cannot endure this kind of tribal warfare, and therefore it requires us to reorient ourselves so that our principal loyalty is to the truth, whatever it demands, rather than our own or our group’s power or prosperity.
A commitment to truth calls for us to elevate education, debate, and intellectual diversity as primary values. In this respect, Jewish culture offers a model: education is among the highest ideals in Jewish tradition, but education is accomplished through dialogue and dispute, which in turn requires the presence and participation of a diversity of points of view. The Talmud, which is the most significant compilation of ancient Jewish law and lore, is in fact a chronicle of debate. It records over 5,000 arguments, only 50 of which are authoritatively resolved, and even then minority opinions are presented alongside the accepted positions. Truth is the goal; education is the way; respectful and productive debate is the method; and diversity is the prerequisite. Jefferson himself expressed precisely this insight in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “Truth is great,” Jefferson said, “and will prevail if left to herself…she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
And, finally, perfecting our Commonwealth and Country requires a commitment to peace. We are accustomed to understanding peace as the absence of conflict. But in Jewish tradition, peace is not an absence, it is a presence. The Hebrew term for peace is shalom, which is related to the world shleimut, meaning full or whole. In the Jewish consciousness, peace requires radical inclusion — we can’t be whole unless everybody is included — and harmony — it can’t be peaceful unless all the diverse peoples commit to getting along with one another. Peace is possible only when diverse peoples feel a deep connection to and responsibility for each other, when people of every belief and background embrace each other as brothers and sisters, and when people with diverse beliefs and positions can respectfully disagree with and learn from one another, while still caring about each other as human beings. In the Jewish consciousness, peace especially demands that those in society with power and privilege work diligently to ensure the full inclusion of those on the margins — particularly racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, along with the vulnerable, the powerless, and the chronically destitute, because they are at special risk of exclusion, exploitation, and oppression. And, as with justice, it’s important to note that peace doesn’t just happen. It requires us to advance and cultivate it. A rabbinic maxim instructs, “Be among the disciples of Aaron the Priest: Loving peace and pursuing peace.” It’s not enough to desire peace. If we want it, we have to be willing to work for it.
It is an incredible coincidence — some might call it serendipity — that we gather on this day, during this week, because this is the week that Jewish communities all over the world will begin our annual study of the Book of Exodus. The origin story of the Jewish people, of my people, Exodus centers on the persecution and oppression of a religious and ethnic minority population at the hands of one of history’s most iconic tyrants and his nation of collaborators, enablers, and bystanders. It reaches its grand climax with Israel’s ultimate liberation, and then it continues with teaching after teaching, instruction after instruction, law after law that mean to guide this nation of freed slaves to create a counter-Egypt, a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness, inclusion and peace.
But Jewish tradition does not regard Exodus as mere history. Were that so, we might have long ago jettisoned it, since its historicity is a matter of significant dispute. Rather, Jewish tradition instructs, “in every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.” The exodus story is unfolding in the eternal present, which also means that redemption is possible if we can see it and embrace it. The choices are ours: tyranny or freedom, oppression or justice, degradation or dignity. As we approach this moment in our nation’s history, let us ready ourselves to choose wisely.