Wednesday, June 23, 2010

National Day of Prayer

The recent district court case of Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Obama (2010) has caused quite a controversy because U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.  In spite of the ruling, she has decided to stay her ruling due to the anticipation of appeals, which should be telling because her actions are "saying" that even she thinks it'll be overturned.

Does a National Day of Prayer violate the Establishment Clause?  Based on my blog series these past few days, I hope you know that the answer is a resounding NO!  Whose religion is being established here?  Even though there are a lot of Christians participating in this event, it is a non-coercive event in which people of all faiths partake.  Just to re-iterate that last part, 1) the government is not forcing you to pray, and 2) this is for people of all religious backgrounds, not just Christians.

Leaving constitutionality out of this for a moment, prayer is something more than just a Christian practice. Prayer is a universal expression of man's angst and desire to connect to a higher, transcendent being, whether that would be Hashem, Buddha, Allah, Jesus, or Mother Nature.  Short of your extreme nihlists, this is a yearning that every human has.  I find that the universality of prayer is precisely why there should be a National Day of Prayer.  Every American, regardless of belief, can come together in a pluralistic environment to pray.  The statement that is being made is that in spite of difference in religious background, we are all human and we desire prayer.

I will end this blog post with a quote from Obama's 2009 National Day of Prayer proclamation.  And I don't do so because I think he's a wonderful president (obviously!), but because he's a great orator, and in this instance, he's correct:

"Let us also use this day to come together in a moment of peace and goodwill. Our world grows smaller by the day, and our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife; and to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. As we observe this day of prayer, we remember the one law that binds all great religions together: the Golden Rule, and its call to love one another; to understand one another; and to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth." 

And let us say Amen!

6/28 Addendum: The text of the law itself states the following:

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to G-d in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.

I am not bothered by the bit where it mentions G-d.  The technicality by which I am bothered, which was pointed out by a lawyer I know, is "at churches."  Keeping in mind that this was written in 1952, the only way to be a "good American" was to be a "faithful Christian."  The fact that you go to church to pray, rather than a house of worship, makes the law as written a violation of the Establishment Clause.  However, if they were to modify the law to make it more inclusive, I would find no Constitutional violation.   

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Religious Displays on Public Property

I find this topic to be a tricky one.  The Supreme Court's rulings on the matter are no less confusing and contradictory, which is why I won't even go there.  Where one draws the line between establishing an official religion and eroding religious freedom can be difficult.  But I would contend that the purpose was not to eliminate religion from the public sphere to reduce religion to "a private matter."  I would certainly see that as an erosion on my freedom of religion.  It's just that this needs to be dealt tactfully, especially since a whopping 76% favor religious symbols in the public sphere.  What is a great testament to that is what we already have in public buildings:

Here we have an engraving of Moses on the Supreme Courthouse in DC.  Establishment of religion?  Hardly!  He's surrounded by Greeks and Romans.  What is merely being recognized is that Mosaic law, as well as common law, both have shaped American jurisprudence.

Here is a picture I took at Jefferson Memorial a couple years back.  It's a quote from Jefferson, and much to my amazement, it mentions G-d!  But read the quote in its entirety.  Although it mentions that freedoms are G-d-given, the state (i.e., man) is meant to ensure those rights, rather than lead to a slippery slope to slavery and despotism. 

Here is a statue of Father Junípero the U.S. Capitol Building!  But there are statues of other people, non-religious people, and that includes former U.S. presidents.  Again, religion is not being established.  Can people recognize that we live in a country that has had significant Christian influence, but at the same time can respect people of other religions?  I don't look at this statue and say, "oh, this statue of Serra violates my First Amendment rights.  Tear it down!"  I think, "Serra played a role in American history, even though he was a big-time Catholic." 

There are people out there who see anything remotely religious and are automatically offended--it's practically a gag reflex for them.  I must have missed that clause in the Constitution that guarantees one's right not to be offended......oh, wait, I forgot; it's non-existent!  On some level, people just need to develop a stomach for religious displays in public.

On the other hand, I can see scenarios in which it could become troublesome.  Let's take the Nativity scene, for example.  If you want to display a Nativity scene, you can do so on your own property.  After all, we still have this notion called "property rights" in America.  I can display my menorah on my window sill, you can put your Nativity scene or inflatable Santa Claus on your front lawn, and that's OK because that is private property.  I will tell you, though, why it should not go on public property: because it's public property.  That might seem tautological, but let's examine the difference between public and private property.  Private property is excludable and rival, whereas public property is not.  On public property, if a Christian has the "right" to erect a Nativity scene, the atheist has the "right" to kick it down.  Especially when funded by tax-payer dollars, but even when not, such displays should not be on public property. 

Barring such displays on public property does not infringe on one's freedom of religion, especially when you can put up such a display at your own home.  And for those of you wondering, this would mean I wouldn't even want to see a menorah on public property.  I don't want the government imposing my religious practices [even if subtly] on others, just like I wouldn't want Christianity imposed upon me. 

Before concluding, I would like to make a distinction between religious displays in public and practicing religion in public.  For one, as previously stated, not putting up a menorah or Nativity scene does not violate the Free Exercise clause.  Two, if a religious group would like to hold a prayer service or ritual in a public venue, that is fine, as long as the government does not discriminate against one's religious practice, whether it'd be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist.  The beauty of America is that we can be open about being religious and are able to express it.  We should keep that consideration in mind while preserving the First Amendment in its totality, which means both the Establishment and the Free Exercise Clauses.   

Monday, June 21, 2010

Public Display of Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments have played an important role in shaping Judaism, Christianity, and the Western World.  Many an outcry have been made regarding the public display of the Ten Commandments.  In recent memory, the Supreme Court has made two rulings on the matter: McCreary County v. ACLU (2005) and Van Orden v. Perry (2005).  In the former, it was ruled unconstitutional because it promoted religion, whereas in the latter, it was considered constitutional because it was secular in its meaning.  I would like to point out the irony that the Supreme Court ruled on both of these contradictory rulings on the same day: June 27, 2005!  This example of case law epitomizes the confusion that America has on the role of religion in America.

If we set the Supreme Court's bewilderment aside for a moment, there is a way where we can clearly see if there is establishment of religion going on here.  Let's take a look at the Jewish version (i.e., the original and correct version) of the Ten Commandments:

Does this version match up with the Christian version?  The answer is "no," but needs elaboration.  Not only is the answer "no," but the Protestants and Catholics cannot even agree upon what the Ten Commandments are.  The Catholics combine the First and Second Commandments.  They then make Commandment #9 not coveting your neighbor's wife, and Commandment #10 is not coveting your neighbor's goods.  In Judaism, the Tenth Commandment is an all-inclusive commandment against coveting.  In the Protestant version, they do away with the First Commandment all together.  They split up the Jewish version of the Second Commandment, which reads as following: #1: Thou shall not have other gods before me.  #2: Thou shall not make graven images. 

Since America has historically been predominantly Protestant, the version that has been displayed is the Protestant version.  Since preference has been given to one version over the other, the display of the Ten Commandments on public property violates the Establishment Clause, thereby making it unconstitutional.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jesus Fulfilled What Exactly?

"Jesus fulfilled 'The Law.'"  This phrase that I hear from Christians is equally as amusing as "Jesus died for your sins."  The question that remains in my mind is what does it mean when they say "Jesus fulfilled the Law?"  The origin of this notion comes from the Christian "New" Testament in Matthew 5:17:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

If we look at the verse and see that Torah was not meant to be abolished, that means from a contextual standpoint, Jesus must have done something to satisfy its requirements, which Christians would erroneously argue was Jesus' death.  Please refer to my previous blog entry as to why the notion of Jesus dying for anybody's sins is, at the very least, not based on the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians claim that Jesus supposedly fulfilled. 

My foremost comment on this topic is that the origin of having the Torah fulfilled is entirely Christian.  There is not a single mention of the law having to be fulfilled in the entirety of Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures).  As a matter of fact, Tanach talks about the eternality of following Torah (Deut. 11:1, 28:46, 29:28, Psalm 111:7-9, 2 Kings 17:37, Ezekiel 37:24-25), as well as the eternality of G-d's covenant with the people Israel (Genesis 17:9-10).  Anything which contradicts the eternality of Judaism or the Jewish people, such as Jesus fulfilling the law and superseding Judaism, is in direct contradiction with Tanach.  What this ultimately means is that the discrepancies caused by their "Old" and New" Testaments, by definition, makes the Christian Bible a self-contradicting text. 

Now, even if Jesus were this alleged fulfillment of "the Law," he would have to be considered a lousy candidate.  Under Jewish law, marriage and procreation are both mitzvahs, neither of which Jesus did because Jesus remained celibate for all of his days.  Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog entry, Jesus violated the Jewish law of b'al tashchit when he caused the fig tree to die.  Although I can find a myriad of reasons, these two alone exempt Jesus from being considered to be a "perfected embodiment of Jewish law."

My final point regarding this discussion is that even if we give this notion an iota of validity, the main question itself, "Did Jesus fulfill the law," is a conundrum unto itself, which I have illustrated in this handy flowchart: 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Access Denied: Parshat Chukkat

After reading about the red heifer in Numbers 19, Miriam dies.  As such, there is no water, and *surprise, surprise,* the Israelites kvetch.  So, G-d tells Moses the following:

קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם

Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink. -Numbers 20:8

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses decides to smack it twice, and as a result, he is denied entry to Israel.  The question remains: why?  Why would hitting a rock twice cause Moses' hard work of nearly forty years to be for naught because of a rock?  The beauty of this answer, or rather answers, is that this becomes a nice prooftext of how the Torah is a multi-faceted text that speaks to man in more ways than one.  With that in mind, let's find out why G-d denied Moses access to the Holy Land:

1) Take a look at the verse again, and you will notice that G-d told Moses to speak to the rock, not to hit the rock twice. According to Beer Mayim Chayim, the rock was not in its normal place, and Moses lost his patience.  Therefore, he found another rock and did what he was used to doing (Exodus 17:6)--he hit the rock. For Maimonides, he thought that Moses had deviated from the golden mean of patience at this point.  Not only do we see that patience is a virtue, but also have G-d emphasizing the character trait of bitachon, or trust in G-d.  Moses' lack of [unwavering] trust is what caused it.

2) If you take a look at verse 10, you will see that it says: “Listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth water from the rock for you?”  We can thank Ramban for this one. You give credit where credit is due, right? Moses apparently forgot that. In the previous miracles, Moses made it clear that G-d was the source of these miracles. This time, Moses did not make that clear.  Moses forgot that G-d is the Master of the Universe and the ultimate source of everything.  Because Moses did not sanctify G-d's name in front of the people Israel, he did not merit entry into Israel.

3) This insight comes from Rashi: anger management issues. Moses had to deal with a bunch of kvetchers for a long time.  I'm surprised he didn't lose it earlier.  But at the same time, if you lose your temper over something as simple as water, you know it’s time to appoint a new leader. Even for one moment, why would anger deny him the very thing he wanted? Because, as the Talmud points out in Shabbat 105b, anyone who tears his clothing, breaks vessels, or scatters his money in anger is an idolater. Why is anger akin to idolatry? Anger is about the self. It is about “me, me, me,” and subsequently takes G-d out of the picture because idolatry is, by definition, making anything but G-d the main focus. And you thought that idolatry was just about statues. Plus, when you’re angry, you don’t have any self-control. Without self-control, you’re no better than an animal—a concept we’ll touch upon in a moment. What can be imparted upon us is that even if justified in our anger, we should not always act on it just because we can.  The fact that Moses could not exhibit self-control, a feature that separates man from animal, kept him from entering the land of Israel.

4) Rashi brings up yet another explanation. Since a rock has no free will, having an inanimate object “listen” to Moses means that the Israelites should do so all the more so. But this effect was lost when Moses hit the rock.

5) I have a fifth interpretation to add, one I came upon very recently. This one takes a little closer look at the Hebrew text itself. When G-d tells Moses to speak to the rock in verse 8, G-d tells Moses to give drink to the assembly and the animals (בְּעִירָם).  In this verse, the direct object indicator את is used.  However, look in verse 4 (in the national grievance) and 11 (when they receive the water). The absence of the את  in verses 4 and 11 shows us something very important—since they did not use the את to distinguish between man and animal, they viewed themselves as animals (Meshech Chochmah). They were acting on pure animal instinct, which, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is on the bottom. The people were acting like animals.  Where I surmise that this animal behavior is linked to Moses' denial to the land of Israel is when you see two verses next to each other, you can derive interconnectedness, much like Rashi did with the sotah and Nazirite.  With that in mind, we see that Moses didn’t correct this misperception, and as such, he was not allowed in the Land of Israel.

Which reading of this text is correct, you might ask?  Since they all have textual backing, the answer is "all of them!"  In a nutshell, 'tis the beauty of Judaism.  This is so fascinating to me that I had to publish this, even though we technically just began Parshat Balak.  Impatience doesn't exclude the anger.  Anger doesn't exclude a reading on what it means to be human or constantly thanking G-d for providing us with our needs.  As a matter of fact, most of these responses are intertwined. 

Again, a theme which I will use again and again--truth speaks to us in many ways.  It's not that absolute truth doesn't exist.  It's just that reality, and subsequently truth, are more complicated and nuanced than one can imagine.  That's why I love Judaism in its authentic form.  We can grapple with the many facets of truth while recognizing the source of that reality. 

Shavua tov!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ceremonial Deism and the Constitution

Many are wondering what I mean by ceremonial deism. Ceremonial deism is a legal term that means "a ritual that mentions the divine, but the ritual is rendered non-religious through its long, customary usage."  The two most popular examples of ceremonial deism are the words "under G-d" in the Pledge of Allegiance and "In G-d We Trust" on our currency.

Historically speaking, the words "under G-d" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 to "stick it to those g-dless Communists."  Adding "In G-d We Trust" to our currency, on the other hand, goes all the way back to 1864 when it was put on the two-cent.  It had been put on other coins in the early twentieth century, and was finally added to paper currency in 1956.  1956 was also the year where Congress had, for the first time in history, declared a national motto ("In G-d We Trust").  Prior to that, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One) had been the unofficial motto of America.

In the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explains (p. 35) why the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause.  O'Connor has always been a proponent of the endorsement test.  Since the Pledge of Allegiance does not endorse one religion over the other, it does not violate the Establishment Clause.  The Pledge of Allegiance is meant to be a non-religious expression of patriotism. 

I would argue that it doesn't violate the Establishment Clause because G-d is a generic term that can apply to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  Whether it violates the Free Exercise clause, however, is another story.  Although it's technically voluntary to say the Pledge, children are too impressionable to see the difference and will most likely be peer pressured into saying.  Being a Jew, I would be uncomfortable with the fact that I would have to pledge allegiance to a flag.  Since a practicing Jew, as well as a practicing Muslim, should ultimately "pledge allegiance" to G-d, such a practice, no matter how seemingly voluntary, can be seen as an infringement of the Free Exercise Clause, as well as on the Free Speech Clause.    

The currency controversy is slightly different.  Most people don't look down at their money and think, "Oh, the government is establishing [or endorsing, for that matter] Christianity as this country's religion.  Let's take it off the money," although there are some atheists out there who decide to cross off the motto.  I'm not even going to go into how much it would cost to efface that from currency.  Even though it mentions the divine, is putting "In G-d We Trust" on our money a religious act?  The answer is in the negative.  Furthermore, as previously stated, which monotheistic version of G-d is in reference?  As such, it technically is not a violation of the Establishment Clause.  It also has nothing to do with the Free Exercise Clause because it doesn't inhibit one's religious practice in any way.  In addition, the practices are innocuous enough where it doesn't really sway First Amendment rights either way.  Unless ceremonial deism becomes used for more nefarious means, I don't see any reason to spend additional time on the matter.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Constitutionality of School Vouchers

One can make this about whether school vouchers work or the economic practability of such vouchers.  Obviously, being libertarian, the ideal country would be one in which the government would not have to tax for education, especially considering that it is not a public good.  However, if we live in a world where such taxation exists, I would much rather have it reappropriated to the taxpayers.  That way, it creates competition with the public school system, which now gives the public school system incentive to improve upon itself.  Also, it gives the taxpayer more say as to where his money is used.

My brief on this issue will be brief.  In order to figure out the constitutionality of school vouchers, one has to know what a school voucher is.  In essence, a school voucher is a certificate issued by the government to help offset costs if they so choose to send their child(ren) to a private school.  In short, a school voucher reallocates tax dollars back to the taxpayer in order to bring a more level playing field in the choice between public and private school.  If a parent does decide to send their child to private school, they still have to pay taxes for public school.  This description should make the answer a bit self-evident.  The government is giving the money to the taxpayer and saying, "Apply it to whichever school you like, whether it would be religious or secular."  The act neither establishes nor endores a specific religion.  Therefore, the answer must be that school vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause.  This is the exact same thought process that the Supreme Court thought when it decided on Zelman v. Simon Harris (2002), the Supreme Court case which stated that school vouchers are constitutional.  Since the aid was not direct, the aid was thereby constitutional, much like it was in Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Prayer in Public Schools

First, I just want to briefly touch upon the Supreme Court cases, then give my analysis on the issue.  School prayer made its public debut as a legal issue in the Wisconsin Supreme Court case of Weiss v. District Board (1890).  In this case, the plaintiff was a Catholic complaining that the government was endorsing the King James Bible in school.  The ruling stated that using state funds for a sectarian text was improper because it established religion (i.e., Protestantism).  The reason why this state ruling is important is because it is cited in the majority opinion of Engel v. Vitae (1962), the famous Supreme Court case that made compulsory prayer in school illegal.

It doesn't matter what the Christian Right has to say on the matter.  The fact is that compulsory school prayer is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and the Supreme Court was right to rule in such a way.  I'm sure that the "pro-prayer in school" crowd would argue that it would be voluntary, but if it comes on the morning announcements every day and you're at an impressionable age, would you honestly view it as voluntary? 

Now voluntary prayer, on the other hand, is legal, as it should be.  If it were made illegal, then it would be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause, plain and simple.  Plus, from a pragmatic standpoint, there is no need for compulsory prayer in school.  If Jews wanted to, they can wait until after school to pray Mincha.  For a Muslim, he can excuse himself from class since the quotidian prayer session is brief.  And Christians don't have daily, fixed prayer sessions, so they can pray whenever they want to.  If your child really has an urge to pray during the daytime, they can get together with their friends either before school or during lunch hour and pray then.   

If the lack of compulsory prayer in public schools bothers you, put your child into private, parochial school.  If this is not affordable for you, then home-school your child.  If this is not viable, then at that point, it's called being a good parent.  School only has your child for about eight hours a day for five days a week (i.e., 40 hours).  You have your child for the other 128 hours.  If you cannot instill the importance of prayer into your child, then you need to learn how to be a better parent. The last thing you should be doing is forcing your religion via the schools on everybody else's children just because you think the school is a substitute for good-old fashion parenting.  Schools are not a tenable replacement for parents, and the public school is not an institution in which it is supposed to instill religious values.  The government, whether federal or state, has no business establishing religion through compulsory prayer, and certainly has no business in violating the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Myth of "Separation of Church and State"

I want to make one thing clear when discussing religion in America--there is no such constitutional clause calling for separation of church and state.  This "separation" was not even a notion that they were even considering when drafting the Constitution, much less when they came out with the final draft.  If you have a beef with religion, that's your prerogative, but please, don't invoke this fictitious legalism into the discussion. 

The origin of the phrase "separation of church and state" comes not from the Constitutional Convention or even the eighteenth century, but from the Danbury Letters written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802.  And just so we put the phrase "separation of church and state" into context, the Danbury Baptists were seeking aid from Jefferson for religious disestablishment in Connecticut because the Baptists hated being bullied around by the Congregationalists (i.e., the state-officiated religious establishment for CT).  In response, Jefferson subsequently disappointed when he said that he would not intervene because he did not want to intervene in states' rights issues.  Even if that bit of history is not to your liking, you run into an even bigger issue: Jefferson had nothing to do with the drafting of the Constitution.  As a matter of fact, during this time period, he was an ambassador in France.  As bright of a man as Jefferson was for his time, he had nothing to do with the Constitution whatsoever, thereby rendering the Danbury Letters, as well as Jefferson's opinion on the matter, as irrelevant for acquiring original intent of the drafters of the Constitution. 

In addition, the phrase "separation of church and state" made its way in 19th-century politics, but it wasn't used by secularists who wanted to do away with religion.  It was actually used by Protestants as an anti-Catholic measure.  They wanted religion to be separate from politics, but they only wanted it to be applicable to the Catholics.  In short, the Protestants, and the Presbyterians in particular, wanted their misinterpretation of the law to be used to keep the Catholics out of politics.  This usage also makes sense from a historical context since 1) militant atheism wasn't prevalent until the latter half of the twentieth century, and 2) anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant in America up until around the 1960s. 

From the standpoint of the Supreme Court, the phrase "separation between church and state" made its first appearance in Reynolds v. United States (1879).  However, the phrase was not used for about another 70 years, when it formally entered the Constitutional lexicon during the case of Everson v. Board of Education (1947).  Justice Hugo Black, who used the phrase in his majority ruling, was anti-Catholic.  All of this context makes the ruling all the more interesting.  In spite of Black being anti-Catholic, in spite of the fact he used the phrase "separation of church and state," he nevertheless voted in favor of the law that allowed parents to use reimbursements of money to bus their children to Catholic schools.  If Justice Black agreed with liberal secularlists on the matter of separation of church and state, his ruling in Everson v. Board of Education was a funny way of showing it.

For even more historical descprition on the matter, please read Justice Rehnquist's dissenting opinion for Wallace v. Jaffree (1985).  Riveting stuff, let me assure you.

Although it seems clear to me what was meant by the Establishment Clause, many still are not getting it.  Rather than leave a legacy of clarity on the issue, all Justice Black did was befuddle it by leaving the Supreme Court, as well as most Americans, in a state of ambiguity.  As we shall see, this has lead to inconsistent Supreme Court rulings, which I will outline later, especially in the case of the Ten Commandments being publicly displayed.  The fact that anti-religious secularists have obscured the issue with the Everson case makes the issue all the more confusing.  However, I hope that these next few days, we can see past much of the confusion. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

What the Constitution Has to Say About Religion in America

In light of my rabbi's upcoming Adult Education course entitled "Separation of Church and State: How Hard Should Jews Push," I have decided to do a blog series entitled "Religion in America."  For the next two weeks, I will have various blog entries surrounding a myriad of topics, including prayer in school, whether Christmas should be a federal holiday, and the display of the Ten Commandments on government property.

Before we begin delving into these topics, however, we need to have a legal basis upon which we support ourselves.  In this country, the legal document with the most authority is the United States Constitution.  As far as I am concerned, the Constitution is the most brilliantly written secular, legal document in history.  It protects the freedoms of the people while giving the government the minimal amount of power so that society can properly function.  Therefore, we must then ask ourselves, "what does the Constitution have to say about religion?"  The most relavent section of discussion is undoubtedly the First Amendment.  The text is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

From the Constitutionalist standpoint, there are two clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.  The Establishment Clause is just that--to make sure that an official religion was not established.  For time's sake, I will further review the concept of "separation of church and state" in my next entry.  The reason why the Founders of the Constitution did not have such a broad take on the Establishment Clause is because it would be a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. 

Some might believe that the Free Exercise Clause only covers belief systems.  However, both the Founders and various Supreme Court rulings over time have found that "free exercise" applied to religious practice, as well.  However, the Free Exercise Clause is not a carte blanche for "anything goes."  In regards to freedom of speech, you cannot yell "Fire!" in an open movie theater.  And with respects to the Second Amendment, we prohibit felons from possessing fire arms.  As a society as a whole, we find that some freedoms need slight curtailing so that overall freedom [of religion] can be maintained.  Two such cases that come to mind are Reynolds v. United States (1879), which banned the Mormon practice of polygamy, and Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which declared that a generally applicable drug law applied to Native Americans who would typically use peyote for their religious services. 

If one needs more clarity on the balance between Establishment and Free Exercise, one only need to look towards the Northwest Ordinance, which not only was drafted within the same time period of the Constitution, but approved by the very same Congress that approved the Constitution.

I will conclude with a couple more passages that are relevant to "religion in America."  The first is Article Six, Section Three, which states:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

My secular and liberal friends think that the fact that there was no religious test to get into office meant that government should be absolutely separate from religion, but what they fail to realize is that most states at that time had official state religions.  Therefore, the implementation of this article was more pragmatic genius than it was a stab against religion.   

Finally, we have the Fourteenth Amendment, and to be more specific, the Due Process Clause, which states:

....nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law....

The Due Process clause is of value.  As previously stated, states used to have official religions.  Now with the Due Process clause, such an occurrence can never happen, and religious freedoms are now also protected on the state level.  It is because of this clause that most of the Supreme Court cases surrounding the theme of religion in America are on the state level.

Now that we have sufficient Constitutional background, I only find it fitting that the next topic of discussion is what the Constitution does not say, mainly the topic of "separation of church and state."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Problem of Orthodox Judaism and Excessive Codification

Although I am not an Orthodox Jew, I nevertheless enjoy Conversations, which is a publication from The Institute of Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a Modern Orthodox organization.  As their website states, they "offer a vision of Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually sound, spiritually compelling, and emotionally satisfying."  For those of you acquainted well enough with the Jewish community, these are all things that the Orthodox community severely lacks, and I applaud this organization for setting the example of what Orthodox Judaism should be.  With that in mind, I want to tell you that I received my latest volume of Conversations.  There was an article that I read that was of utmost interest.  It was written by Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, and the article is entitled "On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity."  In essence, what this article ends up being is a constructive criticism of the Orthodox community, most notably of how they inaccurately perceive the functionality of Jewish law to the point where the current halachic system has extinguished any notion of spirituality (i.e., a sincere, intimate relationship with G-d) for just about any "outsider" who is potentially interested in living a "halachic lifestyle."

Since the article is lengthy, what I will do is give you a bulleted list of his main points, most of which are given verbatim, and then I will give my reaction to the article:
  1. There are countless young Jews who search for an authentic Jewish religious way of life, but are unable to find spiritual satisfaction in the prevalent halachic system as practiced today in most Ultra- or Modern Orthodox communities.
  2. Jewish law is codified in much greater detail than ever before, making many wonder whether our ancestors were really observant.
  3. The majority of halachic literature today is streamlined, allowing little room for halachic flexibility and for the spiritual need for novelty.
  4. One of the Talmud's greatest contributions to Judaism is its indetermination, its frequent refusal to lay down the law.  As such, the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah are un-Jewish in spirit, as they oppose the heart and soul of the Talmud. 
  5. Elu v'elu, which means "these and those are the words of G-d (Eruvin 13b)."  Think of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.
  6. Such codices [as the S.A. and M.T] lead to intellectual laziness.
  7. The Torah, which is the word of G-d, can only be multifaceted.  Like G-d Himself, it can never fit into a finalized system, for it is much too broad in scope. 
  8. Each person receives the Torah individually, according to his own personality and exceptional circumstances.  Only one text was received [at Sinai] due to the fact that there was a need for unity and affiliation amongst Jews.  A fixed text was necessary to facilitate discussion, not agreement.
  9. We surely must move beyond the conventional way in which halacha has been applied.  If the existential predicament of blending autonomy and tradition is not resolved, it will ultimately distance many fine Jews from the Jewish tradition and religious observance.  This internal danger is greater than the external threat of secularism.
My Remarks: Before I begin, I just want to say that I do not have to be in the Orthodox community to be able to point out inherent flaws within a given system.  If you are Orthodox and decide to shoot criticism my way, just remember this--anything that shifts the criticism unto me personally will only be seen as a form of deflection and merely showing you skirting the issue at hand.  After all, the basis and inspiration of these sociological observances are that of an Orthodox rabbi.  With that disclaimer in mind, let us begin.

I find R. Cardozo's analysis of the situation to be precise.  The problems that Cardozo describes outline the very reasons why I have decided not to live in an Orthodox community, even in spite of my affinity for Jewish traditions.  Mainstream Orthodox Jews have reduced Judaism to an exceptionally narrow form of religious behaviorism in which the baseline is piety.  The over-codification of Jewish law violates the very spirit that Talmudic discourse was meant to transmit from generation, that being of דבר אחר (alternative opinion).

The regression of the halachic system that has made halacha what it is today began with Maimonides.  Prior to Rambam, Jewish law was multifaceted and flexible, and it somehow managed to consistently uphold Jewish values.  When Rambam came into contact with the ever-so codified Muslim law (shar'ia law), that all changed.  That influence caused Rambam to write Mishneh Torah, not to mention that most Jews during that time were lost as to how to best practice. (One has to note that even though there were attempts to codify prior to Mishneh Torah, this was the first codification with any form of gravitas in the Jewish world.) The fact that the title of his text was titled "Second Torah" not only reeks of chutzpah, but also come with an inherently authoritarian bent.  And it's no wonder there was a wide range of adverse reactions to the book when it first came out, from prohibition of reading the book to actually burning the book.  It was a violation of the Talmudic precept of דבר אחר.  Unfortunately, more codification was underway. The Shulchan Aruch came along, and the rest is history.

When asked for a reason why such a law exists, many practicing Jews fall back on the answer of "such and such text tells me so."  It's robotic, not to mention, as Rabbi Cardozo points out, a form of intellectual laziness.  The halachic system as practiced by most observant Jews lacks spirit and spontaneity. Halacha has become a mind-boggling complexity of nuances that have become so numerous that no one man can know all of them.  As such, it has become dry, insipid, and irrelevant for many who want to be observant while maintaining a sound sense of spirituality in a secular world.  Halacha is used as the proverbial stick that Orthodox rabbis metaphorically beat its congregants with in order to keep them in line.  It's no wonder that nearly 90% of Jews are non-observant!  

Rather than be an impersonal form of societal control in adherence to a skewed form of Jewish practice, halacha should inspire people to lovingly and willingly foster a relationship with G-d. Yes, there are certain principles and maxims that Jews should stick by, but on the whole, there should be a sense of autonomy to decide what is best for the individual.  As Pirke Avot 1:3 points out, the best kind of relationship with G-d is one with kavannah and a liberated volition, not one in which fear of divine retribution is your primary motivator.

I hope that many of the changes that R. Cardozo suggested in his article are actually implemented.  A paradigm shift is necessary for Orthodox Judaism to thrive in the long-run.  However, since the trend in the Orthodox community is towards the acquiescence of Haredization, I will not exactly hold my breath in anticipation for these reforms to occur.  A turn to an even more stringent, authoritarian practice as mainstream will surely be the death of Orthodox Judaism, that much I can say.  I just pray to Hashem that Orthodox Judaism pulls off a reversal in its trend towards ever more codification.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Libertarian Explains How You Can Be Pro-Israel and Libertarian

One of my friends, Aaron Biterman, recently posted an online entry about the defense of Israel from a libertarian perspective.  Some of you are probably wondering how the two mix.  After all, if you talk to enough libertarians, it's almost as if they were strict isolationists.  I know I used to think that once upon a time.  At the very least, as Biterman points out, one should advocate for Israel's right to self-defense from autocrats who want to deprive Israelis of their most basic freedoms.  I've come across enough libertarians who are on the deep end when it comes to Israel, the first one coming to my mind being Ron Paul.  But as Biterman states, "The same libertarians defending Israel’s right to self-defense can simultaneously defend a non-interventionist foreign policy. There is no contradiction, except by those who would have Israel wiped off the face of the earth due to an erroneous claim to ‘property rights’."  I found it to be a good read, and if you happen to be a pro-Israel or Zionist libertarian looking for some clarity on the issue, I'd highly recommend this article. 

Good Riddens to Helen Thomas

Like most Jews, I'm glad to see Helen Thomas go.  In all sincerity, who says such idiocies?  The fact that America has given her the ability to have four decades of "experience" in journalism while being able to express such stupidity is beyond me.  Moments like these only augment my cynicism--this is who we, as Americans, consider to be a good reporter?  One who doesn't even do something as basic as find out the most simple facts before she tells the Jews to "get the hell out [of Israel]" and "go back to where they came from?"  You must be joking! 

She might have angered a lot of Americans, but "surprise, surprise," she made new friends with Al Qassam, who so happens to be the military wing of Hamas.  Yes, that is the same Hamas that is a well-known terrorist organization who has been spending its entire existence in attempts to eradicate Jews [unsuccessfully] from Israel.  This wretched woman got off way too easy by simply retiring.  May G-d deliver this woman the retribution she deserves, because quite frankly, such stupidity and hatred is unacceptable.  In case anybody hasn't seen the footage to figure out why I am riled up, here you go:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Why People Are "Spritual But Not Religious"

A good friend of mine recently sent me a CNN article entitled "Are there dangers in being 'spiritual but not religious.'"  One of the amazing trends I found in this article is that 72% of millenials (i.e., 18-29 year olds, i.e., my generation) consider themselves "more spiritual than religious."  With this in mind, it should go without saying that in terms of looking at past generations in contrast with millenials, millenials are the most irreligious. 

From a theoretical sense, religion offers all the spiritual needs a human needs: a way to connect to a Higher Power, a path of how to lead a good life, and ways (i.e., beliefs and rituals) to find ultimate meaning in life.  But, as the article shows, millenials have made a shift from the traditional approach on spirituality (i.e., religion). 

Upon sending me the article, my friend asked me the question "Why do you think young people are getting away from organized religion?"  This question made me pause for a while, and ultimately led to my response to below.

1) We live in a pluralistic society.  With the expansive multiculturalism and diversity in America, most millenials have been exposed to every major religious practice in the world.  As important as it is to have a sense of comparative religion, it has created a backlash of moral relativism.  From a statistical standpoint, it is not possible that all the religions can be correct.  You cannot simultaneously have one god, multiple gods, and no god(s).  An erroneous assumption made by millenials is that since one can only statistically be right, they just automatically go with the assumption that no religions are right.   

Plus, the backlash of moral relativism has also developed a mentality of "no one has a monopoly on the truth."  This is why you see many millenials [in the article] cherry-picking certain tenets or rituals from different religions, mainly because they want to view themselves as having more savoir-faire than past generations, but also because they're testing out the spiritual landscape.

2) Individualism and autonomy are two resultants of the hippie counterculture movement back in the 1960s, and they have stayed within the psyche of the typical American individual ever since.  American society emphasizes the society, whereas religion emphasizes the community.  In addition, for many millenials, organized religion translates into conformity, societal pressures, and dogmatic extremism.  Most millenials feel that strictures of organized religion impede them from having any sincere relationship with a higher power.   

3) People are lazier than they used to be.  Due to many technological advancements, millenials are more accustomed to instantaneous results.  We go online to chat on an instant messenger.  If we don't get through the fast food line in 30 seconds, we become irritable.  Programs of how to lose weight in just two weeks or "seven days to a happier you" are common in a society that wants everything right now.

Religion is a life-long journey that takes a lot of effort, time, and discipline.  If you are looking for a quick-fix for your spiritual problems, you're not going to go to religion because that would take too long.  Saying that you're spiritual might make you feel all wonderful on the inside, but the irony is that it usually turns into nothing more than a highly-self indulgent form of hedonism.  Being "spiritual but not religious" ignores the fact that there is a highly subjective element to it, and this is particularly true when it comes to morality.  If everyone turns down this path, who are we to say that Joe Schmo's spiritually-based morality isn't better than mine?  Also, the hubristic nature of the "spiritual but not religious" individual ignores the fact that priests, monks, imams, and rabbis have been pondering the important questions of life for centuries.  When it comes to developing wisdom, insight, or realization, there is something irreplaceable about millennia of tradition and the pensive thought that has come with it.

4) Religious institutions are not meeting the demands of its congregants.  It's time to shift over the analysis from society and its individuals over to religious institutions.  In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we get a sense of what went wrong with religious institutions:

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society.  It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.  Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, [and] insipid.....when religions speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless." (Between G-d and Man, p. 35)     

Ever since the Enlightenment period, religion, as an institution, has had problems in responding to the constant change that the period brought with it, whether it would be how to deal with science, technology, emerging ideologies that happen to conflict with the given religion's teachings, globalization, and a sincere pursuit for social justice. 

Although Heschel spoke these words over fifty years ago, the sad truth is that religious institutions have an overall problem with presenting a relevant, vibrant spirituality to millenials.  Since religious institutions are failing in providing something as simple as the spiritual needs of the millenial, the millenial seeks spirituality somewhere else, mainly within themselves.

5) Christianity is partially at fault.  It might seem harsh at first glance to blame a religion that a third of the world practices, but it is a theory I have been kicking around, and it merits analyzing.  As I previously stated, we are a multi-religious society, and millenials have had unprecedented access to information regarding other religions.  However, in spite of the increase of "spiritual but religious" millenials, 76% of Americans still consider themselves to be Christian.  The reason why this has any bearing on why people become "more spiritual than religious" is that in spite of being exposed to many religions, most Americans, even millenials, still view religion through a Christian lens.

Many millenials were raised in Christian households.  With the advent of the Internet, not to mention an unprecedented amount of children question authority figures, millenials have come to view Christianity as a non-sensical theology.  They sit in their church pews and realize how stupid it all is.  Not only do I have a lot of friends my age who have done that, but I also have done that myself.

However, millenials take their newly founded sentiment and translate it into faulty logic: since Christianity doesn't make sense, that means other religions do not make any sense.  As innacurate as this is, it causes millenials to discredit all religions in their mind, hence them becoming "spiritual but not religious."

Postscript: We have many factors in play.  Society has induced the notions of individuality, autonomy, and the need for immediate results.  This permeates a spiritual laziness because in all honesty, who wants to work at a long-term relationship with G-d when you can feel self-satisfied with vibrational healing and New Age music?  One also has to figure that if religious institutions hadn't let their guard down by not doing their job, none of this would have happened in the first place.  Religion without spirituality is boring, dry, and ultimately lacks any meaning.  This is what most religious institutions, whether that would be on the Left or the Right, face--an incapability to meet the spiritual demands of the millenial.  One the other hand, spirituality without religion (i.e., G-d) is nothing more than a wishy-washy subjectivity that attempts to justify hedonism and bad behavior.  By becoming "spiritual rather than religious," what many millenials have done is throw out the baby with the bath water.  Religious institutions have much to offer.  It's no accident that they have survived for so long--it's because what they have to offer has no substitute good.  Rather than do away with religious institutions, what millenials should be doing is fixing our religious institutions to provide both religiosity and spirituality.  However, before we can even discuss repairing them, we need to first realize that America is becoming spiritually bankrupt in more ways than one. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Darfur: Not Quite the Disaster We Thought

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  In Marc Gustafson's article, Rethinking Darfur, he certainly reminds us of that adage.  Gustafson goes into detail of how the Darfur activists have mischaracterized the conflict, mainly in the fact that activists, most of whom I presume lean to the Left, made it seem as if the rebels were downtrodden altruists.  It turns out that both sides are guilty of atrocities.  Furthermore, more people have died from malnutrition issues rather than the violence itself.  The fact that there was a peace agreement on the table before the activists tried to shift funding priorities from humanitarian aid to "peacemaking forces" put off any hope of ceasefire back in 2006. 

As Gustafson points out, what should have been an "open and shut" incident has been prolonged by misinformation by activists who were solely motivated by "good intentions," rather than basing their good intentions of sound fact-finding.  Their ignorance of how to handle international affairs caused much more suffering to occur.  But I'm sure that the activists will still sleep soundly because they're idiotic enough to think that their good intentions mitigate any actual prolongment of civil war for which they are responsible.  And to think I was actually duped into donating tzedakah money to the Save Darfur Coalition!  That sure will make me think twice before I give tzedakah in the future.   

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Flotilla, Shmotilla: A Falsified Diversion

In international news, yet another scenario occurred to provoke anti-Israel sentiment throughout the world.  The IDF had boarded a flotilla coming into a blockaded Gaza from Turkey.  What wasn't expected was a violent reaction, let alone a death toll.  As if it were a surprise, the U.N. immediately blamed Israel before doing anything resembling an investigation, and European leaders condemned Israel for its "disproportionate" response to attacking supposed peace "activists."

First of all, I will respond with the fact that there is nothing peaceful about Hamas.  Aside from the fact they have been firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, the very reason for needing a blockade in the first place, we also have the fact that Hamas' constitution calls for the eradication of the state of Israel.  One also has to keep in mind the "cheery" mood these "peace activists" were in the day beforehand, when they were cheering for the death of Jews (notice how mainstream media would never report anything like that):

Also, what kind of peace activists have you met that whack people upside the head with metal poles: 

I can think of only one country in the world that has to apologize every time it acts in its self-defense.  I can only think of one country in the world that has myth-like expectations thrusted upon it.  I can only think of one country that is inaccurately vilified on a constant basis, and that country is Israel.  It wouldn't matter if the maritime blockade were legitimate or if Israel is still making sure that Gazans get sufficient aid, in spite of the fact that Hamas is trying to annihilate Israel.  If this were any other country in the world, the international community would be giving them a pat on the back for protecting their citizenry.  But this is Israel we're talking about here.  The double standards used with Israel (i.e., too high of standards) and Palestine (i.e., no standards whatsoever) is mind-blowing, but it makes sense.  Israel just so happens to be the only Jewish state on the planet, and its existence alone, never mind its success, gets under the skin of so many people. 

What I can safely predict is that this flotilla incident will be used to ignore bigger problems, such as the ineptness of Hamas to run a government, the fact that the UN perpetuates the plight of the Palestinian with such NGOs as UNWRA, or the fact that most Palestinians would rather see their children go to suicide bomber summer camp rather than make peace with the Israelis.  Until people in this world can gain a better sense of right and wrong, I am afraid that Israel will erroneously be seen by many as an antagonist rather than what it should be viewed as: a beacon of hope, democracy, and prosperity in an otherwise dark abyss of totalitarianism.