Rabbinic Reflections: ‘One nation under God’

Does religion free us or bind us? I am not talking about rules or rituals, I am talking whether religion allows humanity to flourish or does it turn us into seekers of stability and nostalgia. Both are likely true, and yet I ask because I believe that religious calls for change and for stability need to be in balance. I believe America thrives when they are in balance.

The Jewish calendar is about to enter a period of doom and gloom. There is a day to commemorate the breaking of the walls of the city of Jerusalem. There are three weeks of admonition. There is the day commemorating the destruction of both Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE), not to mention the day Moses broke the first set of the Ten Commandments or countless persecutions that all fall on the same day of the Hebrew calendar, Tisha B’Av (the 9th of Av). All that negativity, warning, punishment, and loss requires a full seven weeks of consolation to get us through summer. Why does Judaism relive all of that annually?

Again, it is that balance. It is the sense that religion has the potential to lift us up, however often or hard we fall. It is the sense that whatever our own failings, there is more to life. It is also the sense that amid a chaotic, hateful world, there is reason to hope. Precisely when we can’t take anymore change, justice or love or mercy will come and bring us peace.

The Founding Fathers saw religion in all its forms: inspiring and belittling, exclusionary and inclusive, evangelical and reclusive. Their efforts to keep federal government and religion separate helped drive a balancing act among different religious perspectives that enriched our politics, helped grow our nation, and engaged us as citizens. It was far from perfect or peaceful, yet it was dynamic and productive.

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this balance of religious freedom and religion as confining. He wrote about religion in America stating, “Religion in American takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.” In contrast to religion in France at that time, America's religious spirit, even with its many rules, served to enable a spirit of freedom.

I am not sure if we, as Americans, have religion out of balance or not. I do know that people on both sides of the political aisle feel beleaguered. Hope, while it exists, is tempered; fear, where it exists, is right on the surface; and our common humanity is strained, at best. As we celebrate America’s birthday, let us celebrate our differences. Perhaps if we can appreciate commitments that bind one or another of us, we can find some of the freedom our Founders envisioned as a strength. Perhaps, we can exercise that freedom to become better citizens. In so doing, I believe we will bring balance to the spirit of freedom and the need for boundaries in a way that benefits us together as a society. It sure beats that doom and gloom.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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