“God, grant that true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one may, in the issue, tend to the support and establishment of both.” – John Witherspoon, May 1776
For the past several months, our city has been engaged in a multi-tiered debate on public policy. On the surface, the central issue has been extending the protections of our Human Rights Ordinance to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. Beneath the surface, however, there has been a simultaneous and necessary debate over the role of religion in our society. Because I serve as the co-chair of the Interfaith Committee at ONEJAX, I was approached almost a year ago by those in the business community who were planning to move forward with this legislation. They wanted to know how the faith community would respond. I suggested that the city would be divided, but that those in support would likely be more quiet than those in opposition.
Sitting in the City Council chambers last month when the vote was finally taken, I was saddened by the truth of my own words. In his famous sermon to his New Jersey congregation, just months before he became the only clergy person to sign the Declaration of Independence, Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon taught the value of faith in public policy. “I do not wish to oppose anybody’s religion, but everybody’s wickedness,” he declared. We cannot be free, as Passover reminds us, until everyone else is free as well.
It is not Passover, of course, that looms this month on our Jewish calendar, but rather the High Holy Days, a time for reflecting on our past and making resolutions about our future. Our tradition teaches us to stand together and confess our sins in the plural, so that no one need be singled out, and all can share in a commitment to self-improvement. Our city is a city of faithful people, though people of differing faiths. Should religious beliefs have played as strongly a role in the Human Rights discussion as they did? In my opinion, absolutely. I strongly support the dual freedoms of religion and speech, even for those adamantly opposed to what I believe to be right. At the same time our faith need not be silent in response. Indeed, as the prophet Habakkuk suggests, “the righteous person must live by his faith.” We are proud to be not only the oldest Jewish congregation in the city, but also the most welcoming, inclusive, and diverse. We need to put our beliefs into practice, not only on Shabbat and holidays, not only when we come to Temple, not only in our own homes, but everywhere, every moment of every day.
This month offers us a time to reflect, to resolve and to respond. Let us make this New Year better than all that have come before it by changing our lives and changing our world in the process. On the eve of revolution, Witherspoon preached, “I beseech you to make a wise improvement of the present threatening aspect of public affairs and to remember that your duty to God, to your country, to your families, and to yourselves is the same.” So, too, may it be for us, as our faith guides us into the Days of Awe ahead, and even more so to the days of decisions beyond. Becca, Leah, and I wish you and your families a very happy, healthy, and hopeful New Year.