Like many of you, I had never heard of Rowan County, Kentucky until a few weeks ago and I don’t think I could find Rowan County, Kentucky on a map if my life depended on it. I suspect that some people here today are still wondering why I would even bring up Rowan County, Kentucky on Rosh Hashanah.
The answer, of course, is Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis who just spent five days in jail for defying a court order to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples who apply for them. In fact, she made the papers again this morning for questioning the validity of the marriage licenses issued by her deputies during her incarceration.
Ms. Davis has cited her religious convictions as justification for ignoring the US Supreme Court ruling which established that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Now, some have tried to argue that Ms. Davis is being persecuted for her religious beliefs, that her religious freedom is being trampled. However, nothing could be further from the truth. She is merely being called out for trampling the religious freedom of others.
As an individual, she can believe whatever she wants about same-sex marriage. She can picket and protest. She can call the Supreme Court decision a travesty if she wants to do so. As a representative of the government, however, she cannot do those things. She must apply the law of the land equally and fairly. If she is unable to do so because of her religious beliefs and principles, then she has the choice to allow her deputies to do so in her stead or step down from her position. However, she may not make her personal religious beliefs the guiding principles of her office. That would be, in effect, establishing a state religion which is barred by the Constitution.
Whether we support same-sex marriage or not – and I do! – I think we can all agree that county clerks in small towns should not be able to impose their religious convictions on others. And yet, we know that Ms. Davis has fans and supporters. More than that, this is but one small example of how some adherents of religions see it as their obligation to force their religious principles and tenets upon others.
Pretty ironic coming from someone giving a sermon, don’t you think?
But there’s a difference between sharing your ideas, hoping that others will find them compelling and using one’s authority as a government official to compel others into adhering to your principles.
Fortunately, this religious battle is being fought in courts of law and will have a peaceful resolution. That is one of the things that makes our country so great. However, we cannot simply ignore it or dismiss it as the misguided action of an attention-seeking extremist. The actions of Ms. Davis – and the words of those who are publicly defending her – must be taken very seriously because they are part of a larger pattern that we see in the religious world today.
Further, the actions of religious supremacists like Ms. Davis and her supporters turn people off to ALL religion, which is obviously an issue for those of us who think that religion has something beneficial to add to people’s lives. And sadly, as we look around the world, we know that this sort of religious supremacism can be violent and destructive.
The most blatant example of this phenomenon is the Islamic State in Iraq andSyria – better known ISIS or ISIL. The Muslim extremists who are behind this militant group who now control territory with a population of more than 10 million have no tolerance for any form of religion other than their Sunni Islam. As a result, in addition to persecuting religious minorities, they have taken it upon themselves to destroy the idols, statues, monuments and shrines of any other religion in the region – even religions that haven’t existed in centuries.
For example, in recent days in the Syrian city of Palmyra which dates back over 3,000 years, the ISIS militants have destroyed three ancient tombs and a Greco-Roman temple. They had previously destroyed Palmyra’s Temple of Ba’al Shamin – dedicated to a deity who has not been worshipped by anyone for centuries. It was simply an interesting archaeological site. But when you have no tolerance for the existence of any religion besides your own, it’s not too much of a stretch to start destroying they symbols of other people’s religion.
We know that similar destructive acts have taken place in Iraq and Pakistan – the most famous example being the destruction of the giant Buddhas in Swat Valley of Pakistan. There is unverified speculation that Muslim extremists have destroyed archaeological remains under the Dome of the Rock in order to discredit Jewish and Israeli claims that the Temple once stood in that very same spot.
As modern citizens of the Western World, these actions seem abhorrent. Although I have no interest in worshiping Buddha or Ba’al, I appreciate the historical value of a giant 1,500 year old statue carved into the side of a mountain or a 2,000 year old temple. I recognize that they have value and they help tell the story of our human family just as the fossils of early hominids do. But the truth is, that’s a relatively modern concept.
If we look at the Torah – our Torah – we get a very different approach. In Exodus 34:12-13, we read the following: “Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. No, you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts.”
Sound familiar? To me, it sounds A LOT like what ISIS is doing across the Middle East. Now, the difference is that this text about 3,500 years old and the world was a much different place. No rabbi or Jewish legal authority would sanction that kind religious supremacism – or would they? I don’t know of any examples of Jews destroying ancient holy sites of other religions, but we certainly do have our own religious supremacists – and the most blatant example is the office of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Let me share with you a story. I think you’ll figure out why it tugged my heart strings, but I have a feeling it will tug some of yours as well. Last year, a public school in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rehovot began training a group of students with special needs for a group special needs Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Since most orthodox rabbis in Israel do not believe that developmentally challenged individuals can fully understand and accept the obligations of the Torah, they do not permit such ceremonies in their congregations. As a result, this is a niche that has been taken up by our sister movement in Israel which is called the Masorti (or Traditional) Movement. The rabbis of the movement have been organizing such special needs B’nai Mitzvah for about twenty years now.
The teachers and school administrators coordinated with a local Masorti rabbi and the event was scheduled for last May in the Masorti synagogue in Rehovot. I think you can probably see where this is going.
When the mayor of Rehovot – who is a member of the orthodox Shas political party – found out that the ceremony was going to take place in a non-Orthodox synagogue, he cancelled it. And because it was an official school event, he had the authority to prevent the teachers and aides from attending. Without them, it was impossible to have the ceremony.
In response to the outcry and outrage this decision caused, the mayor’s office issued a statement saying that an official school event could not take place in a Masorti synagogue because it would have led to the religious coercion of any orthodox families in the class. Now, none of the parents of the children in the class complained about the ceremony taking place in that venue. It was the parent of a child in ANOTHER class in the school who complained to her rabbi, who then went to the mayor, causing the cancellation just days before the scheduled event.
The four children eventually did have a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony at the President’s residence in Jerusalem – NOT in a synagogue. However, the officiating rabbi was orthodox. The Masorti rabbi who had worked with the students all year was barred from attending, let alone officiating. Prime Minister Netanyahu said and did nothing.
Netanyahu said and did nothing because his current coalition includes two orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism. And when it comes to forming a cabinet, these parties don’t care about finance or foreign affairs or any of the other “major” portfolios. They care about education and religious affairs – so that they can maintain the funding of their schools and their control over religious sites and religious life in Israel.
And so we have the ultra-modern state of Israel – one of the most tech friendly, business friendly, gay-friendly countries in the world – with an ultra-orthodox rabbinate maintaining control over issues like citizenship, marital status and access to religious sites. It is no different than the religious supremacism of Kim Davis in Rowan County, Kentucky.
Let me give you just a couple of examples. If a Jewish couple in Israel wants to get married by a non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel, their marriage will not be recognized by the state. If a married couple seeks a divorce from a non-Orthodox rabbi, the divorce is not recognized by the state and the Orthodox Rabbinical Courts can compel a man or woman to appear before them even if they have already gone through a divorce proceeding in another religious court or a secular court.
If anyone here decided to move to Israel and become a citizen under the law of return, you will need a letter from a rabbi confirming your status as a Jew. I have written quite a few of these letters over the years. However, my letters are no longer sufficient. You will need a letter from an orthodox rabbi. So, you would need to find an orthodox rabbi to write a letter for you. If there has ever been a conversion in your family under the auspices of the Conservative or Reform movement, your status as a Jew may be rejected.
Just two months ago, Israeli MK David Azoulay, who is also the Minister of Religious Affairs in Cabinet, was asked about Reform Jews by a radio interviewer. His response was: “Let’s just say there’s a problem. I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”
When leaders of the American Jewish community responded with outrage (again), this time PM Netanyahu and other government officials made the appropriate statements and forced MK Azoulay to issue a non-apologetic apology in which he said (of course) that his words were taken out of context. He never said the word “slichah” – sorry or forgive me – a word that we know well from the liturgy this time of year.
Just as Kim Davis has drawn a line between her version of Christianity and all the non-believers and just as ISIS has drawn a line between their version of Islam and all the other non-believers, I am afraid the Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews have gone down the same path. They are drawing a line and we – all the non-Orthodox Jews of the world – are the non-believers on the other side. It’s a very sad development because it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Any of you who have seen a full set of the Talmud knows that it takes up a full shelf on a book case. Why? Because we preserve all the arguments, disagreements and disputations of previous generations. If we only put the prevailing opinions, the Talmud could be a very short collection of teachings. However, we include all the minority opinions as well. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that there has never been just one version of Judaism.
Further, we have never insisted that the whole world ought to be Jewish. The Torah has multiple examples of righteous, God-fearing people who never became a part of our covenant. Perhaps, the two best examples are Bilaam – the free-agent prophet who blessed the Children of Israel with words that are part of our liturgy to this day “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael – How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” Although we still use his words to pray to God, he never entered into the covenant of Abraham.
And Yitro – the father-in-law of Moses and the Chieftain of Midian – helped Moses establish a legal system for the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt. Rather than trying to convert him, Moses simply accepted his advice and blessings.
If it sounds like I am pessimistic about how religion is trending around the world, I really am not.
There are over one hundred county clerks in Kentucky and only three have protested about issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The separation between church and state will be preserved in this country – even in the smallest, most religious counties of Kentucky. Further, I believe that there will be an enlightenment or a reformation of Islam and that the extremist form of Islam that we see spreading around the world will lose its appeal and power. I also believe that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel will ultimately lose its power due to its corruption and moral bankruptcy. But, these things will take time.
It is my fervent hope that Israel will lead the way, stripping the Chief Rabbinate of its power, promoting religious pluralism and creating a separation between religious law and state law. We can help make that happen by only supporting organizations in Israel that promote religious tolerance.
Of course, we can support our sister movement Masorti, but we can also support orthodox organizations that are just as frustrated by the Chief Rabbinate as we are. One example is ITIM – Jewish Life Advocacy Center, which was founded by an orthodox rabbi to help Jews who were getting turned off to Judaism by the Chief Rabbinate. Because the truth is: THAT is why this issue is so important to me.
I don’t care if the chief rabbinate accepts my conversions or marriages. I know that they are valid and the members of our community know it as well. I DO care that these religious extremists and supremacists turn people off and get more media attention than thoughtful religious leaders like Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was the Episcopal bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000.
He said the following: “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”
In the coming year of 5776, I hope you’ll join me in using Judaism as the vehicle for getting closer to God – not because it’s the law of the land, not because you have to, but because you want to.
Rabbi Avi Friedman.