Politics & Scripture

Romney-Obama

Both President Obama and Governor Romney recently granted an interview on faith to the magazine of National Cathedral in Washington. Both candidates named favorite passages of scripture, with the choices revealing a fascinating difference in emphasis. One candidate's chosen passage focuses on charity, and specifically on helping the needy with their physical needs. The other candidate's passage discusses God's power over the world, and to provide protection for human beings who trust Him.

If you think you know which favorite scriptural inspiration belongs to which candidate, think twice.

It was Pres. Obama who cited Isaiah 40:31—"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (NIV)—and Psalm 46. And it was Gov. Romney who cited Matthew 25:35-6—"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me" (KJV).

What, if anything, can we learn from this seeming inversion of what we might expect the two candidates' theologies to emphasize? Why does the President, whose politics insist we are all collectively responsible as a human society to tend to the physical needs of the needy, emphasize God's sovereignty and ability to provide protection? Why does his conservative opponent emphasize handouts of food, hospitality and clothing? If the candidates chose these passages with an eye toward political traction, perhaps the inversion is a deliberate attempt to reassure religious swing voters that they are not the caricature the other side would paint. Pres. Obama is attacked as a secret Muslim and/or godless Communist, so his biblical passages imply his Christian faith is rock solid. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, knows that conservatism is often attacked as heartless, and one of his gaffes was a declaration that he was "not concerned about the very poor". So his biblical passage implies that he cares deeply about the needy, and his desire to cut government programs doesn't mean he doesn't value charity on a private basis.  Both choices can be read as damage control.

(You could argue that a New Testament passage might have made the Christian point for Pres. Obama more clearly than two Old Testament passages, but nobody is attacking him for being a secret Jew... Wait, scratch that, people in the Middle East probably are attacking him for being a secret Jew. But no significant voting bloc in America is doing so... Could the Old Testament choices have been aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote? Quite unlikely.)

What, if anything, can we make of Gov. Romney's decision to truncate verse 36? In the interview, the Governor didn't only mention the verses by name, he quoted them as above. But the complete verse 36 continues further than he quoted. The part of the verse Gov. Romney left out is in bold: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (KJV).

Drawing conclusions from this is awfully tempting. Is visiting prisoners not tough enough on crime for the Republican candidate to include in his favorite quotation? Did Gov. Romney stop where he stopped so as not to bring up the issue of health care, and the similarity of his Massachusetts plan to the President's national version? Or was the truncation simply a forgetful mistake? (And if he did forget the verse's conclusion, what (if anything) can we make of that?)

On all counts, the answer should be that there's nothing we can make of this at all. In a reasonably sane world, I'd be the first one to criticize a blog post like this one and say, "Are you crazy? Have some respect. Don't assume the candidates chose these passages cynically. Why not give these two leaders the benefit of the doubt and assume they both made their choices solely out of a genuine affinity for these verses, and not read political calculations into their choices?"

That's what I'd think in a sane world... Meanwhile, in this world: so vitriolic has this election been—so divisive and rhetorically dishonest—that the kind of cynical speculations in which I've just indulged (and I have indulged in them, I will say, not without a small hint of guilt) don't feel very much out of place. Both campaigns have at various times advanced such blatantly unfair arguments against the other side that I have a hard time imagining that either of these two candidates could let an opportunity to score even the tiniest political point go by, and simply choose their favorite passages without running it by a pollster.

Could Beit Shemesh Happen Here?

Conversations about of the place of Jewish law in the regulation of public space will always, naturally, be radically different in Israel than in America. But isolated American Haredi communities can and do pose similar problems.

A case in point: Rethinking Secularization Theory: The Case of the Hasidic Public Square.

Kiryas Joel is a legally recognized municipality about fifty miles northwest of New York City composed almost entirely of Satmar Hasidic Jews... The community operates according to a strict code of halakhic observance and modesty norms... and total social segregation from the surrounding towns and villages of Orange County is considered essential to the preservation of the community... Inasmuch as Kiryas Joel is a community that brooks little dissent or deviation from the norms enunciated by its religious leaders, it fits into this tradition of illiberal religious groups in the history of American religious sectarianism.

Also on the subject: Sh'ma's February 2007 issue on Haredi Judaism.

From the J-Vault: Sunday Laws

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This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Jews in the American Sunday Laws (1934)

"Altho the Federal Constitution provides against legislation infringing the religious liberty or conscience of any group, or of preferring one religion as against another," wrote Jacob Ben Lightman in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the JJCS), "there have, nevertheless, been statutory enactments from time to time, providing for the observance of the Christian Sabbath, Sunday." (Spelling geeks take note: "Altho" above is not a typo -- it's spelled that way in the journal.)

There is no Federal Sunday law. But the policy of Anglo-American law has been to retain the status quo of any and all existing laws of any state at the time of its entrance into the Union and to permit such state to formulate what laws it will, provided they are not in conflict with the Federal Constitution. Under such Anglo-American policy, the Sunday laws were permitted in the various states, practically unchallenged, until found obnoxious by certain religious minority groups ; namely, Christian Sabbatarians and Jews.

It was the latter who brot the issue to the fore. To observant Jews the Sunday laws were obnoxious because of their religious conviction that Sunday was not the Sabbath, and because they felt such laws to be economic discriminatory measures. This, because they were virtually forced to refrain from persuing their trade or business two days a week; that is, Saturday and Sunday. Yet the Constitution of the United States provides against the undue deprivation of one's property.

If, then, the Sunday laws were to be reconciled with the Constitution, it became necessary, from the point of view of judicial opinion, to clarify the position of the Jews with regard to the Sunday laws. This was attempted in a number of cases that were argued before the American Courts.

Lightman goes on to review the history of Christian sabbath law from Constantine to the American colonies.

Read the whole publication here.

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David Elcott on Faith in Academia

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses the place of religion in an academic setting.

Insisting on Forever

Jonathan S. Tobin is incensed in Commentary that Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh doesn't accept the formula of Israel as "a Jewish State." Nusseibeh feels that the term "Jewish state" implies either a theocracy (if Judaism is a religion) or apartheid (if Jewishness is racial or ethnic). He instead suggests "that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish."

As Tobin correctly points out, "that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state." Nusseibeh's is a classic distinction without a difference.

Still, I can't seem to bring myself to care as much as Tobin what Palestinians think about Israel being a Jewish state. "The reason for Israel’s demand is simple," writes Tobin. "Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over."

Forever Jewish, he wants from them? Forever is a pretty big deal. Will Israelis agree that even one inch of the West Bank will be forever Palestinian? (Giving up entirely the messianic visions of the Hebrew Bible.) Forever is an entirely unreasonable demand to make of either side. Maybe it's just me, but I say let's work on a practical peace deal for the forseeable future and leave the question of forever to a higher Authority. Both parties should be willing to let the other nation live in peace in its own state, and both parties will doubtless continue to dream of the messianic utopian day in which our side gets all the land back. As long as everybody's stays calm and respectful in the here and now, who cares about competing dreams of forever? Let the songs and dreams embrace and contain the conflict, and let the practical reality contain only peace, tolerance, and mutual dignity and security.

Tobin is right when he says that "Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves." (What a Jewish state means is a topic of constant debate among Jews.) That's all the more reason to say it's an unnecessary waste of time and diplomatic capital insisting that Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state.

Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

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Gov. Christie: Shari'a Concerns Are "Crazy"

The video below demonstrates that not every popular Republican has jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, best known for his (to put it mildly) bluntness, reacts to criticism of his appointment of a Muslim judge to the state bench:

We've had something of an anti-anti-Islam theme going on this Jewish policy blog for the past few weeks, but I think that's appropriate. It's not only that Muslims and Jews share key values, as the JTA reported this week. It's also, naturally, that American Jews have a strong communal knowledge of what it's like to be a vilified religious/ethnic minority. The fact that our two communities are so bitterly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues makes it all the more important to recognize these and other points of commonality.

Background:

BJPA Publications on Islam
BJPA Publications on Jewish-Muslim relations
BJPA newsletter on Jewish-Muslim relations, September 2010

Other recent Islam themed blog posts:

July 18
July 28
August 1

From the J-Vault: When Government Cuts Social Services Funding

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"What price will we pay for state aids to religiously sponsored institutions and agencies?" asked Philip Jacobson:

What effect are these aids likely to have on our voluntary institutions? Is there a danger here for the American Jewish community...?

...Will federation boards come to take for granted the continued availability of tax dollars, and devote funds to other purposes?... What will happen if and when these tax dollars are no longer forthcoming?

This week, from the J-Vault: Community Relations Implications in the Use of Public Funds by Jewish Services (1960)

Today, Congress attempts to cut federal spending drastically. In 1960, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Jacobson warned that for religious institutions, accepting public funding for social services was a dangerous game. Most of his argument leans on a strict interpretation of the First Amendment; he worries that Jewish and other religious social service agencies will either be complicit in eroding the separation of church and state or in eroding their own sectarian missions in order not to do so. But Jacobson also worries that in accepting  public funds, Jewish (and other sectarian) agencies will set themselves up for a hard fall if those funds were to be cut off.

However, "I am not an advocate of abrupt withdrawal," he writes. "[T]he patient has been addicted to heavy injections for some time and the cold turkey
treatment does not seem to be warranted."

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Cain's Incomplete Apology, and Religion in Politics

After offending Muslims (and at least one Jew) last week by saying localities have the right to ban mosques because Islam includes the concept of shari'a law, Herman Cain has now met with Muslim leaders and released an apology:

...While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

As I expected, we discovered we have much more in common in our values and virtues. In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes. Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists...

Cain's apology is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, he ought to have stated specifically that he now realizes that localities do not have the right to ban mosques, if in fact he has come to that realization.  If he has not, and he still believes localities may ban mosques, then his apology for causing offense is utterly hollow. If he has changed his position, then he should say so directly; dodging the specific issue just leaves him looking weaselish. (Speaking of weaselish, see also the phrase "..any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution...")

Second, Cain again makes the problematic assertion that shari'a has no right to "interfere" in the American legal system (see the first sentence excerpted above). It is actually quite tricky to pin down what this might mean, and once again a glance at parallel concepts in other American religions is instructive. Does Cain believe that shari'a should be held to a different standard than Jewish halakhah and Catholic canon law? If so, he continues to favor bigotry. Even if this is the case, I can't imagine he'll be up front about it, so let's assume he would say he believes that religious legal systems should all be held to the same standards. How, then, would Herman Cain define interfering, and how precisely would he seek to curb it?

I have emailed the following questions to Herman Cain's campaign:

  1. Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
  2. If a Muslim citizen believes shari'a law reflects God's will, and that shari'a prohibits gay marriage, and so votes for a candidate who opposes gay marriage, does that count as "interference"?
  3. If a Jewish citizen believes halakhah reflects God's will, and that halakhah requires a middle ground between the standard pro-life and pro-choice abortion positions, and so votes for a candidate who is centrist on abortion, is that "interference"?
  4. If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
  5. When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
  6. When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
  7. When, today, pro-life Christian clergy instruct their flocks that God wants the United States to protect unborn life by force of law, is that "interference"?
  8. Please provide a clear, specific hypothetical example of something that would be "interference": an example for shari'a, for halakhah, and for canon law.

We'll have to see whether or not some campaign staffer sends answers.

(As I mentioned last week, the gold standard for addressing these questions, in my opinion, is Prof. Stephen L. Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.)

From the J-Vault: Diversity in Democracy (or, Jewish Difference and the Common Good)

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"[T]here are some among us," said Isaac B. Berkson, during an address in honor of a Columbia professor, "who hold that the retention of Jewish cultural characteristics is not consistent with the processes of democracy. These believe that only such differences as maybe termed religious should be retained by the Jews. It appears to me that such a view rests on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the nature of the democratic process."

This week, from the J-Vault: Education in a Democracy: Democracy and Jewish Culture (1937)

Do Jewish particularism and a commitment to Jewish culture detract from universalism and a commitment to the common good? To the contrary, said Isaac B. Berkson:

Far from running counter to democracy, the maintenance of such cultural elements is a mark of democracy. Among other things, this may act as one of the important barriers against mental regimentation... [A]djustment to American life does not mean utter conformity.

Sub-cultures, religions, and other sources of genuine difference and diversity make the whole society stronger for being different, Berkson argues, and even where they introduce conflicts of opinion, this enhances democracy:

[D]iversity of opinion is a fundamental characteristic of democratic society—really more than that, is a necessary attribute of democracy. Tolerance of divergent opinion is in itself a great advance in the history of thought, but the democratic habit of mind goes much further than benevolent toleration of differences. It has faith in the value of diverse opinion as a positive factor in government and civilization. It uses the dissenting opinion as a means of arriving at the truth, of properly emphasizing aspects of the situation otherwise neglected, of correcting weaknesses in dominant, current view.

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Hyman Bookbinder z"l

Bookie

Hyman Bookbinder, the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, passed away last Thursday, as the Forward and the Jewish Week report. Bookbinder was also involved in founding the National Jewish Democratic Council, although he felt that American Jews should be active in both political parties. In tribute to his memory, an excerpt from "We Jews in the Democratic Process", a Bookbinder essay for Sh'ma from 1989:

In our pluralist society, each group is permitted to advocate and even press its own agenda, but, in the final analysis, it must be able to demonstrate that its interests are compatible with, and dependent upon, the general interest. No groups in America have understood this better than the Jewish community and the labor movement. It has become a political cliche these days to refer to the "powerful Jewish lobby"—too often carelessly called the "Israel lobby." I have often said that the Jewish lobby is not as strong as some think, but not nearly as weak as some would like. Jews have interests. We intend to defend them. We do not apologize for whatever strength and influence we have. Tragically, there were times when our strength—our ability to affect government action —was not effective enough. We had not yet learned how to use the precious right of advocacy; our people suffered dire consequences as a result. We are determined not to let that happen again...

...So American Jews have developed the skills for mobilizing our community and the general community on behalf of the security of our people —in Israel, in the Soviet Union, in our own country. But we have never forgotten that we are only six million Jews—less than 3 percent of all Americans. We must be able to persuade at least another 48% that our case is just, our concerns real, and that America's own ideals and interests are in harmony with ours. Getting this support, I am convinced, is not the job alone of the professional Washington-based Jewish lobby. In a very real sense we must think of the entire Jewish community as that lobby—the totality of Jewish influence in the country exercised by a wide range of secular and religious institutions, and by individuals publicly recognized as Jewish leaders and spokespersons. And in the larger sense we must think of the allies and the friends the Jewish community has acquired across the land—the churches, women, labor, civil rights, education, urban affairs and so many other groups in our society. We have won these allies, these friends, in two ways: by educating and appealing to them on the merits of our case, and by demonstrating our interest and commitment to the broader community's agenda.

There are some in our community who argue against involvement in these broader public issues, believing that our immediate Jewish problems require all of our attention and energies and resources. My response has always been that I am proud that over the years we have defined our Jewishness, our Judaism, as a commitment to justice for all people, to peace for all people, to freedom for all people. Such a commitment to universal justice does not short-change our Jewish interest; it is, in fact, the only way to protect such interests. But as a pragmatic lobbyist, if you please, I see this broader activity also as a necessary strategy to establish credibility, to make friends, to win trust. "How can Zionism equal racism," we want Congressmen and black leaders and journalists to ask themselves, "when Jewish representatives we work with or observe day after day are promoting fair housing and fair employment and fair immigration policies?"

There is no conflict between our great love and great hopes for this blessed land and our deep feelings for Israel and for our Jewishness; not only are such feelings compatible, they are mutally reinforcing.

From the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din

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Yesterday we noted Presidential candidate Herman Cain's objection to the practice of Islam in America because Shari'a is a system of laws -- just like Halakhah. Today, a closer look at a publication that was linked in that blog post, demonstrating that American religious communities have been engaging with religious law alongside secular law for generations.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din (1938)

Writing in Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service), William I. Boxerman describes the establishment of a Jewish court of arbitration in Baltimore:

Perhaps never was the need greater for eliminating from the regular courts such controversies as tend to bring discredit upon the Jewish people as a whole. For, with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, our defamers seize readily upon incidents which support their stereotypes of the Jew as an undesirable citizen...

...Furthermore, a Jewish court meets other definite needs in the community. Often the problems presented should not come into the regular courts because they concern Jewish tradition, religious observances, etc., which cannot be understood easily by a non-Jewish judge or jury... Sometimes, too, the courts offer no relief for the aggrieved individual because the offense against him is not punishable under the law; whereas in the Jewish court, which is not limited in its scope by the statutes, he may find a ready remedy...

...The value of the Jewish Court in providing an emotional outlet for individuals who feel themselves wronged should not be overlooked. The award actually entered in a case is sometimes not nearly so important to the client as the opportunity for expressing his feelings, for having himself declared to be in the right and thus vindicated before an impartial body...

...Because of the expense involved, many individuals with rightful claims cannot file suit in the established courts... The cost of the litigation in such a case would be prohibitive. Many clients cannot even advance the necessary attorney's fees. These claims, however, may be heard in the Jewish Court without charge...

...The procedure is informal; the arbitrators in each case may make and adopt their own rules. This individualized treatment has worked very satisfactorily. Litigants and their witnesses testify under oath; it has been found that the psychological effect of taking, an oath is even more important when the rest of the proceedings take place in an informal atmosphere. During the progress of the hearing, the arbitrators may interrupt as often as they wish in order to ask questions, to clarify points, or to elicit pertinent facts from the witnesses... The participants may speak either in English or in Yiddish... Since the hearing is not open to the general public, an individual need have no hesitation about discussing details which he would be reluctant to relate before outsiders.

The court does not adhere to the rules of evidence. This adds to the informality. Hearsay evidence, unsupported statements, and beliefs, all of which are taboo in the law courts, may be introduced. Lawyers may represent their clients before the court, but the absence of legal "red tape" has sometimes proved annoying to them. In one hearing, an attorney coud hardly control his wrath because the arbitrator repeatedly reminded him that he could not "object" to hearsay evidence.

Boxerman goes on to provide examples of cases brought before the court. Download the publication if you want to hear the description beginning:

"Galician swine, trying to cheat us on the dead!"
"Roumanian schnorrers! We don't owe you a cent!"

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Herman Cain Would Ban Mosques; Why Not Synagogues?

Herman Cain

"Let's  go back to the fundamental issue," said Herman Cain, while arguing that localities have a right to ban mosques. "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

Mr. Cain, does traditional Judaism count as "any one of our traditional religions"? If so, you've got a problem.

Cain apparently defines "religious purposes" as being inherently different from legal purposes. This conception of religion, however, carries a blatantly Christian (not to mention Protestant) bias. For many religious believers, true religion requires submission to Divine law, and for these groups, establishing a religious community requires establishing local religious courts.

This is certainly true of traditional Judaism, in which Halakhah (Jewish law) regulates every detail of Jewish life -- ritual, ethical, economic, civil, and quotidian. Not a single moment of the traditional Jew's day, no matter how seemingly trivial, is free from countless strictly defined mandates. Since disputes are bound to arise, the rabbinic court (bet din / beis din / beth din; pick your transliteration) has been a central institution for thousands of years. This has held true even in modern America. While the separation of religion and state has required the abandonment of the European model of state-supported rabbinic institutions, rabbinic courts operate on a voluntary basis in all American cities with significant Orthodox Jewish populations, and many Orthodox Jews make use of such courts to settle disputes within the community in accordance with Halakhah. The New York-based Beth Din of America, for example, handles not only ritual and family issues such as conversion, marriage, and divorce, but also civil and economic cases, all in accordance with Torah injunctions.

Nor do these institutions operate with complete independence from the secular legal system. Parties to rabbinic cases can enter into binding arbitration agreements, mandating compliance with rabbinic decisions by force of secular law. New York and Maryland have both instituted secular laws intended to help Jewish women avoid becoming agunot-- a problem which exists only within the framework of Jewish law -- "wall of separation" notwithstanding.

In the first half of the 20th Century, some Jews sought out rabbinic courts specifically in order to avoid prejudice in the secular legal system. That was an era during which being Jewish was seen as being foreign, and Jewish religion was seen as inherently sinister. Today it is Islam which is seen, quite unfairly, as being inherently foreign and sinister. (Yes, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but lumping the world's billion Muslims in with a tiny, extremist fraction is foolish.) At a time when Presidential candidates score points by demonizing Islam, some American Muslims must see local Shari'a courts and local Islamic communal institutions as being more necessary than ever.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written that "If the religious community cannot define itself, cannot set rules for membership, including rules of behavior, then it is not, in any realistic sense, a religious community. This implies that protection of religious freedom requires a high degree of deference to the definitional process within that community..." (God's Name in Vain, 176.) Herman Cain and others who support anti-Islamic legislation are free to argue that Prof. Carter is wrong, and that religion must be prevented from operating as a legal system in any form. But if they wish to maintain that their position is not motivated by an unfair demonization of Islam, then they must apply this principle consistently, across the board. They must be willing to take a stand against Jewish legalistic practice and Jewish legal institutions as well. They must protest outside the Beth Din of America, and rail against rabbis sneaking Halakhah into the secular legal system.

If they will not do so (and I cannot imagine that they will), their supposed concern for the separation of religion and state will stand revealed as a fig leaf for simple prejudice.

American Jewish Liberalism, Affiliation, and Denomination

Obama '12

The JTA reports that President Obama's approval rating among American Jews has remained about 14 points higher than the general public's according to the latest Gallup numbers, despite some public disagreement and distrust between the Administration and Israel's government.

This may come as something of a surprise to many Jews who feel, based on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, that the Jewish community is becoming more conservative, or at least more trusting of conservatives when it comes to Israel. Dr. Steven Windmueller conducted a survey earlier this year of some 2,300 Jewish respondents, finding "a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues." He also noted "that among highly engaged Jews, those who are active within Jewish religious and communal life, there is a sharp divide on political attitudes and policies."

The emphasis is mine, and it brings up an important factor to keep in mind when bandying about anecdotal evidence among committed and connected Jews: the "feel" of where the community is among strongly affiliated Jews is not accurately going to reflect American Jewry as a whole, because a large portion of American Jewry is not in the rooms we're getting the "feel" for. (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always the weakest kind of evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.)

Marc Tracy, reacting to the Gallup news, points to a different distinction as one of the more interesting angles to this story:

 About half of one group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while more than one third of the same group disapproved of him; more than two-third of another group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while only one quarter of this group disapproved of him. The two groups? The former, who are not as bullish on Obama, attend synagogue weekly or nearly weekly; the latter, who do still like the president by and large, attend synagogue rarely or never. The observance gap, to my mind, is the more fascinating dynamic.

Tracy is right to highlight the interplay of the religious and political spectra as deserving more attention, but I might caution him against assuming that observance per se is the critical factor. A reminder is in order regarding the findings of my esteemed boss Steven M. Cohen, along with Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein, in their 2008 study of American Jewish political opinion. "[T]he truly significant gap," they found, "is the one that separates Orthodox Jews from all other Jews." Orthodoxy is closely correlated with observance, but as a not-insignificant number of ritually observant Conservative, Conservadox, Reconstructionist, trans-denominational, and even Reform Jews will tell you, the two are not synonymous.

Importantly, the Cohen/Abrams/Veinstein study broke down political preference not only by denomination, but by sub-groupings within denomination based on the proportion of respondents' friends who were Jewish. The result, at least to me, is partially counterintuitive:

Among Orthodox Jews, those whose close friends are all Jewish, almost universally support McCain over Obama (90% vs. 10%), far more than those with mostly, or even fewer, Jewish close friends (60% McCain vs. 40% Obama). However, the impact of having many Jewish friends is the reverse for the non-Orthodox. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, having more Jewish friends is associated with greater support for Obama (and less support for McCain). Support for Obama grows from 68% among those with mostly non-Jewish friends to 77% for those with mostly Jewish friends. In similar fashion, it grows from 68% among those with non-denominational identity (“just Jewish,” “secular,” etc.) to 77% among those who identify as Reform.

Tribal insularity, it seems, has opposite effects within Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy! For the Orthodox, the further isolated one is from non-Jewish attachment, the more conservatively one votes, while for the non-Orthodox, insularity tends to perpetuate the liberal politics which have dominated American Jewry since Franklin Roosevelt.

Another helpful reminder from this 2008 study is that Israel is not the one and only issue that concerns American Jewry. "Jews do care about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than other Americans," write Cohen, Abrams and Veinstein:

Yet, with that said, the Israel issue ranked 8th out of 15 issues in importance as a presidential election consideration for Jewish respondents. Aside from the economy (a prime issue of concern for the vast majority of respondents), ahead of Israel on Jewish voters’ minds were such matters as health care, gas prices and energy, taxes, and education. Ranking just below Israel in importance for Jewish respondents were appointments to the Supreme Court and the environment. In fact, when asked to name their top three issues, just 15% of Jewish respondents chose Israel as one of the three, and these were heavily Orthodox Jews.

Independence Day J-Vault: Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas

USA

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Happy Independence Day! Today, a special patriotic installment of the J-Vault:

Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas "The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution" (1905)

In this excerpt from the 1905 American Jewish Yearbook, N. Taylor Phillips profiles Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas, the Hazzan during the American Revolution of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (which happens to be the oldest congregation, though not nearly the oldest synagogue building, in the USA).

...He was an ardent patriot during the preliminaries to the struggle for independence, and it is related that when at length the crisis came, rather than continue the Synagogue under British auspices, he closed the doors of the edifice, which act was fiercely contested, even families being split apart as the result of it. Many of the members of the Congregation were merchants in active business in New York City, and their interests naturally were with the Tories rather than with the feeble little band of patriots endeavoring to secure freedom for the Colonies. When the patriot members of the Congregation were about to flee from the city upon the appearance of the British fleet in New York Bay in August, 1776, preparatory to the occupation of the city by Lord Howe, the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas preached a sermon in English, in which he feelingly stated that the service on that occasion might be the last to be held in the historic old edifice situated in Mill Street (now South William Street), then approaching the half-century mark, and we are told that it was delivered with such force and eloquence that tears were shed by all present, men and women alike...

...[T]aking with him the sacred objects of holy worship, [he] established at Philadelphia the Congregation Mickve Israel, a majority of the members being patriot refugees from New York...

[Note: Mikve Israel's own web page traces the congregation's history back to before Rev. Seixas's arrival. See this page.]

Hazzan Seixas

...On the inauguration of President Washington as the first President of the United States, at New York, 1789, the Rev. Mr. Seixas with thirteen other clergymen of various denominations participated in the ceremonies, which notable fact may serve to remind American citizens for all time that our republic is founded on the very broadest principles, tolerating every race and creed, and American Israelites should ever recall with pride that the lives of Hebrews like the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas and his brothers, who cheerfully offered their lives and fortunes for the establishment of American independence, give to their brethren throughout the world a right of asylum on these shores which no truehearted or grateful American will ever have the temerity to challenge...

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