Thursday, November 7, 2013

Clarifying the First Amendment

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
This is probably one of the best known lines in the Constitution.  It is also one of the most poorly understood.
There is a case before the Supreme Court now.  Two women in upstate New York are suing to ban a blatantly Christian prayer that opens a public meeting.  The women, one Jewish, one atheist, state that being forced to participate in the prayer when they attend the meetings on other business infringes on their First Amendment rights.
Let's break down that famous line from the First Amendment.
What does "prohibiting the free exercise of religion" even mean?  It means that whatever your faith, you are free to practice it as you so choose.  If you wish to cover your eyes and say the Shema twice a day, you may do so.  You may burn incense in front of a golden Buddha.  You can attend church and light candles to the Virgin Mary.  You can say "There is no G-d but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet" with complete sincerity.  You can cast a circle in Central Park on October 31st and invoke Hekate.  You can join the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  I don't care.  And neither does the US Government.
What you may not do is force me to join you.  And that's where the whole "respecting an establishment of religion" comes in.
If a hundred very devout Christians want to start a prayer club in their public school, they may.  They may not, however, insist on leading the Lord's Prayer before algebra class.  And it's the same thing here.  Go to church and pray for the welfare of the government.  But a town hall is not a church.  And a government meeting that people need to attend for business is not the place or the time to pray to a deity.  Why?  Because you're essentially holding those who do not share your beliefs hostage.  And that's not OK.
There are those who say that the US is a Christian country anyway, so let the prayers continue.  But what if it wasn't?  What if we were majority Buddhist, and every government meeting included lighting incense in front of a golden Buddha?  Those whose faiths prohibit idol worship would be outraged.  Similarly, what if we were majority Rastafarian, and every meeting included passing a bowl for a ceremonial smoke?  (Although that would make government meetings more interesting...but I digress.)
We need to remember the old rule that our rights stop at someone else's nose. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting back to the basic text

There is nothing more interesting than watching people argue about the meaning of a three-thousand-year-old text.
I started thinking about this when Thing 1 told the parsha over Shabbos.  Of course, she repeated what she had been taught by Morah (whose critical thinking skills are suppressed by dogma), so Esav became EEEEEVVIIIIILLLL.  This of course, was Mommy's little introduction to the difference between commentary and text.  Unfortunately, we often confuse one for the other.
Was Esav really evil?  Rashi says so, but there is nothing in the actual story that would lend itself to that interpretation.  After all, Yaakov, the "embodiment of truth," screwed his brother out of his birthright AND his blessing.  Yeah, Esav was mad enough to kill, but when they were reunited years later, all he wanted to do was literally kiss and make up.
It seems that we know more about Rashi's interpretation of the text than we do about the text itself.  I had once mentioned to Chavie (she dropped me like a hot rock after I left Builder, which is why you don't hear from her anymore) that Yaakov kissed Rachel.  Her response?  "No, he didn't!"  I made her pull out a Chumash and look it up.  Oops.  Guess they never covered that verse in Bais Yaakov.  ("And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept." Bereshis 29.11  It's in this week's parsha if you want to look it up.)
Of course, arguing over Bereshis is just family history.  The real fun is Vayikra, or Leviticus, a book that spurs heated debates even among non-Jews.  Or at least one particular verse does.  "And with man, you shall not lie as with woman; it is an abomination." (Vayikra 18.22)  This verse comes from the parsha Acharei Mos.  This parsha also contains a DETAILED description of the Yom Kippur service that G-d demands.  Now, I have not been to every shul in the world, the US or even Brooklyn, but I have never seen the kohanim of a shul push a goat off a cliff.  What?  You didn't know about that?  Yeah, see, we're kind of supposed to do that on Yom Kippur.  In Yerushalayim.  In other parts of Leviticus, tattoos, pork, and shellfish are banned.  When those who protest gay marriage expend even a tenth of the energy they spend on gay marriage attempting to shut down Red Lobster, I might, (might) take them a little more seriously. Until then, I'd like to remind you that the Torah is not up for cherry-picking. 
In fact the Tanach is not up for cherry-picking.  Instead of worrying about the meaning of the exact punctuation of the third verse in the second chapter of Masechtas Shabbos, I think it would be beneficial to study the Nevi'im.  I mean REALLY study them.  They have some pretty harsh words for those who think that having four hecchsherim on your potato chips exempts you from not being judgmental and cruel to others.  That you can be as racist as you want as long as you only use the right kind of pre-torn toilet paper on Shabbos.  That the right yeshiva matters more than the ethics being taught therein.  Let's get our heads out of the commentaries and back to the actual text.