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April 15th, 2024

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BETWEEN GOD AND COUNTRY

Rabbi Gil Student

By Rabbi Gil Student

Published May 11, 2015

 BETWEEN GOD AND COUNTRY

In a classic episode of All In The Family, a television repairman tells Archie Bunker that he cannot finish the job because sundown on Friday was approaching. As an religious Jew, he had to observe the Sabbath. Archie offered to pay him extra to finish the job on Friday night, opining that turning down money is also against the Jewish religion.

Offensive stereotypes aside, neither Archie Bunker nor anyone else should have the right to tell someone how to observe his religion. Freedom of religion means freedom to practice my religion as I understand it. This country was built on the idealism and strong community spirit of religion. Yet, despite the great progress Jews and other minorities have made in the past decades, Orthodox Jews still face religious barriers.

Personally, I believe that Leviticus 19 forbids shaving beards with a razor but allows use of some electric shavers, which technically avoid this prohibition. Therefore, I feel religiously free to shave my beard and did so for many years. Other Orthodox Jews follow a stricter tradition, some never completely shaving off the beard and some never trimming it at all. Orthodox Jews who maintain their beards have recently suffered discrimination. In 2009, a medic in Pikesville, MD, sued for discrimination because he was forced to choose between his beard and his service as a medic. In the same year, a rabbi in Florida was rejected for service as an army chaplain because refused to shave his beard.

While I believe my religion allows me to shave my beard, I do not want to be an Archie Bunker and tell others what their religion allows. Thanks to extensive legal intervention, both cases were resolved positively. Orthodox Jews need laws protecting us so that we can observe our religion without government intervention.

Over the past few years, reports have emerged from around the world about governments banning circumcision and forbidding kosher slaughter. These laws would effectively exile most observant Jews from the country. Thankfully, most countries and regions that propose these laws do not pass them. But some do. Even in the U.S., similar laws find vocal advocates. Our religious liberty, our ability to practice the peaceful religion our ancestors have maintained for thousands of years, is currently under attack. We need to defend ourselves, both through vigorous legal action and by enacting new laws when necessary.

Imagine a kosher caterer that is sued for refusing to serve at a wedding on the Sabbath or a wedding hall owner who is sued for refusing to rent the premises for an interfaith wedding. Many people interpret Jewish tradition as allowing these activities. But the government should never serve in the Archie Bunker role, telling people what their religion allows and forbids. No Jew, no American, should be forced to violate his deeply held religious convictions.

All people, especially minorities, need their rights protected. Ideally, when conflicts emerge between the rights of different minorities, compromises can be found that respect everyone's needs. Alternative arrangements can often be found. However, we need laws to address those difficult cases that defy compromise. America is not Czarist Russia, where Jews were often forced by hostile government operatives to violate their religion. But this great country must strive for a higher standard. It must allow religion to flourish, because religious communities built this country into the great power that it is. Religious communities support the poor, provide healthy social frameworks for families and encourage social activism.

For this reason, I signed a letter supporting Louisiana's House Bill 707 that prevents discrimination against people based on their religious beliefs about marriage. I hope that, when enacted, HB 707 will never need to be enforced because good people can work together to avoid conflict. While I speak only for myself and not the over 50 other rabbis who signed the letter, I feel this bill is only a start and that a full Religious Freedom Restoration Act is needed in every state to protect the rights of religious minorities like me. Orthodox Jews and other religious minorities are vulnerable to discrimination. We need to vigorously defend our religious liberty or risk losing it. No American should be forced to choose between G0D and country.

Here is the text of the letter:

We, Orthodox rabbis from across the United States, join in commending Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in his fight for religious freedom. This great country was built on a foundation of faith in the Almighty and the freedom to worship Him, each in our own way. Religious communities fight poverty, educate children, provide for the elderly, build strong families and endeavor to bring down G0D's grace on this country. As Jews, we have historically known religious persecution and appreciate the blessed freedom of religion constitutionally provided in the United States. This freedom is under attack and Governor Jindal is stepping forward to protect the rights of all people to practice their religion. We thank Governor Jindal and all those who stand up for our rights and those of religious people across America. May G0D bless them and this great country.

Signed,

Rabbi Elie Abadie
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Dr. Baruch Amiri
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer
Rabbi Dr. David Berger
Rabbi Gershon Bess
Rabbi Asher Biron
Rabbi Kenneth Brodkin
Rabbi Michael Cohen
Rabbi Chaim Crupar
Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik
Rabbi Ezra Douek
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Rabbi Ilan Feldman
Rabbi Dov Fischer
Rabbi Abraham Florans
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried
Rabbi Dr. Gershon Gewirtz
Rabbi Shaul Gold
Rabbi Sander Goldberg
Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer
Rabbi Yosef Grossman
Rabbi Yitzchok Gutterman
Rabbi Avrohom Hoffman
Rabbi Howard Katzenstein
Rabbi Eytan Kobre
Rabbi Tzion Kokis
Rabbi Shimon Kraft
Rabbi Eliezer Langer
Rabbi Levi Langer
Rabbi Daniel Lapin
Rabbi Harry Maryles
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Rabbi Nathan Neuberger
Rabbi Daniel Nosenchuk
Rabbi Yehuda Oppenheimer
Rabbi Moshe Parnes
Rabbi Marc Penner
Rabbi Gavriel Price
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Yitzchok Rosenbaum
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld
Rabbi Dov Schreier
Rabbi Tsvi Schur
Rabbi Simcha Shabtai
Rabbi Zecharia Sionit
Rabbi Ze'ev Smason
Rabbi Aryeh Spero
Rabbi Nahum Spirn
Rabbi Leonard Steinberg
Rabbi Eli Stern
Rabbi Gil Student
Rabbi Michael Taubes
Rabbi Akiva Tendler
Rabbi Sholom Tendler
Rabbi Avrohom Union
Rabbi Meir Weiner
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Rabbi Jeff Wohlgelernter
Rabbi Yitz Wyne
Rabbi YIM Yagod

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