A nation built on religious freedom

By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

As the great-grandson of Jewish immigrants, I read Stephen Knight’s tribute to the United States with great interest (“Thankful to live in the United States,” R-J, 12/24/22). The Jewish people have been the quintessential “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, adorning the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The United States has become a new promised land for the Jewish people, as it has for so many others from all parts of the world who have sought out its promise of freedom and opportunity.

Like Mr. Knight, I celebrate the valiance of those who fought on Omaha beach, or at the Marne in World War I, or Khe Sanh in Vietnam, or in the hundreds of battles from Lexington and Concord to Iraq and Afghanistan. In all such places, citizens of my country have made the ultimate sacrifice for the ideal that is America.They have given us a precious gift and a precious legacy that I try, however poorly, to repay every time I say “thank you” to a young man or woman wearing this country’s uniform, or to a veteran displaying the emblems of his or her service.

Mr. Knight also writes that this country’s “most important documents, and, indeed, our entire judicial system, is rooted in Christ’s teachings.” This Christian heritage, he tells us, is the bedrock on which we seek “to build a society where every human life is celebrated and opportunity is equally available to every individual.”

Of course, in Genesis — a book that was ancient even in Christ’s day, and which he would have known in its original Hebrew — we learn that “God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him — male and female He create them” (Genesis 1:27). Jesus might also have been familiar with the Talmudic teaching that this particular verse shows us God’s greatness in that, when a man strikes many coins from a single mold, they all come out looking alike. But when God created humanity in His image, we all came out as distinct individuals. What makes the United States such a blessed country is that it enshrines this pluralism in its ideals as well as its laws.

The United States is not a Christian country. This point was aptly made in 1790 by President George Washington when he told the members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport that “it is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”  He went on to say that “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens …”

To that end, the first power the Constitution denied to the federal government was that of establishing a state religion. And the first right that it protected was the free exercise of religion. Our founders did so not out of some early sense of political correctness, but because they sincerely believed that creating good citizens required religious education. And the best way to guarantee a proper religious education is to allow people to exercise their own religion freely. For the majority of America’s citizens — then as now — that means the ability to attend the Christian church of their choice. But for all citizens it means learning to share that common ethic that sees something sacred in each and every human life. That is an ethic we have properly labeled Judeo-Christian.  

The prayers offered in my synagogue include a heartfelt plea for this country - for its citizens, its leaders, and for all who labor on its behalf.  We offer it in the full knowledge that we are blessed to be citizens of a nation whose guiding principle is the freedom, the dignity and the sanctity of every human life. It is a principle that has come to so many of our neighbors through the teachings of Jesus Christ.  And it is a principle that he, in turn, learned from his own Jewish heritage.

Bruce Alpert is rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford.


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