The Meaning of Religious Freedom

On Friday night Jews will gather in homes around the world for our annual Pesach Seder, a joyful telling of our people’s story of the quest for religious freedom. Using symbols and eating special foods, we will tell of our history of slavery and degradation, how we were redeemed from bondage by God and were summoned to be a holy nation tasked with embracing an ethical and moral way of life. We will tell of our rejection of intolerance and oppression, of the need for outrage about suffering imposed by the strong on the weak and that it is not right for one human being to impose his values and way of life on another. We will read about the Jewish people’s long standing mandate to honor and take care of the stranger in our midst, the commandment most often mentioned in the Torah. On Passover night, we will talk about religious freedom, what it means and why it is a sacred and cherished gift.

Religious freedom has been in the news these past days as Indiana’s State Legislature has passed a bill—the “Religious Freedom Bill”—and Governor Mike Pence has struggled to justify what appears to be a pathway to legalized discrimination based on a person’s sexual preference or religious beliefs. The very idea that a person could possibly be denied service in this country based on their way of life is nothing less than shocking. In a nation that still bears the scars of ugly racism and struggles to heal the wounds inflicted by racial intolerance, in this 50th year since the March on Selma, it is simply unacceptable for any one of the states of this great country to create a legal pathway for someone to deny service to another person because they don’t approve of their way of life or their beliefs. Such legislation does not uphold religious freedom, it impedes it.

From the Jewish perspective, the real meaning of religious freedom is the opportunity to be devoted to a special purpose and to use our days to make the world a better place. Once freed from Egyptian slavery, the Jewish people went directly to meet God at Mt. Sinai and there willingly entered into a covenant. That covenant spelled out a special way of life we were to follow, a way of life that would enrich our lives with meaning and inspire us to make the world a better place. For the Jewish people, religious freedom does not imply the absence of obligation or commitment, and it certainly doesn’t imply that we are entitled to discriminate against others because we don’t like the choices they’ve made. Rather, for us religious freedom means that we have an opportunity to do something good as individuals and as a community. We engage in prayer, study, ritual practice and celebration for many reasons, but chief among them is that these acts should inspire us to perform acts of loving kindness and to improve the world.

Tomorrow night we will speak of our journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to redemption. Our story is not one of self-pity, nor is it one written out of anger or self-righteousness. It is an inspirational story, a summons to heal the world and uphold the inherent dignity of all human beings precisely because we know what it feels like to be the victims of discrimination and oppression. It is a calling to use our religious teaching and values as a catalyst for good. Unlike what’s going on in Indiana, that is the real meaning of religious freedom.

I wish you a fulfilling and joyous celebration of Pesach. I hope that the words of the Haggadah will inspire you and that you will be in the company of family members and cherished friends. I hope that you will create new memories that will last for generations. And I hope that you will spend part of Pesach with the Oheb Shalom family (services for the first two days of Passover, Saturday and Sunday, begin at 9:30 AM).

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