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  • A Religious Perspective on the Place of Religion in the Public Square
  • David Greenstein (bio)

The question of the place of religion in the public square is one fraught with tensions. It is one of the more urgent and contentious issues of the day. The question seems to be a point of intersection between two perspectives, each side feeling threatened by the other. Each is afraid of being attacked. Each is afraid of being inhibited and constrained. Each is afraid of being crushed or erased.

I first began to contemplate this issue during the period of the counting of the omer, poised between two fundamental days in the formation of the Jewish people and of Jewish consciousness. The period of s’firah begins with Pesaḥ, the festival of our freedom (z’man ḥeiruteinu), and culminates in the celebration of Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Torah (z’man mattan torateinu).

These two days represent two basic values—freedom (ḥeirut) and religious obligation (mitzvah)—whose relationship to each other is unclear. They can be seen as linked to each other in a straight line, one leading to the other: we were liberated in order to receive the Torah, the “true” freedom. Or they can be seen as complementary to each other, each one conditioning, mitigating, and also enhancing the other. Or, perhaps, they can even be seen as in conflict with each other. The first two possibilities are reassuring to many. But the truth is that those possibilities are really attempts at a response to the third—the possibility of conflict—which is, of the three, the primary one, the most fundamental and the most obvious: How can freedom be fostered without effacing religion from the public square and, ultimately, from the consciousness of responsible persons? On [End Page 20] the other hand: How can we be faithful to our religious commitments without stepping on other people’s toes? Each of these values tends to the absolute. Each on its own would, if given the chance, fill the public square altogether, leaving no room for the other.

Such tensions find concrete expression in the debates and controversies that we witness today, both here in the United States and in Israel—to name the two places I am most interested in. In my own state of New Jersey we have recently had a fierce political struggle over gay marriage. With President Obama’s announcement of his support for marriage equality, he has been confronted with renewed challenges in forging alliances with various religious groups who would be his natural allies, except for their opposition on this issue. And nationally, we have seen religious objections to provisions of the government’s healthcare program—specifically with regard to insurance coverage for contraception and abortion.

Some complain that, indeed, religion is being erased and effaced from our public square in the name of freedom. Others see a dangerous trend toward curtailing personal freedoms and rights in the name of religious ideologies. (Serious problems fester and erupt in Israeli society as well. But that must be left for another discussion.)

This conflict between freedom and obligation has been labelled a conflict between secularism and religion, as a conflict between secular and religious elements for control over the public square. Therefore, before I go on, I want to state, as a rabbi, what should be obvious: I speak about this issue from my own identity and commitment as a religious person. I am devoted, heart and soul, to making a life for myself and for others that is suffused by Jewish tradition. This has always been my commitment—even when I was adamantly certain that I would not become a rabbi. Even then, I had become convinced that my life would have no meaning without granting Judaism a major role in it. And I believe that, in this divinely created world, so richly various and wondrous, we are all called to live full and committed religious lives.

Though I work hard to share my vision of a meaningful life of holy striving, I know that I cannot unilaterally define for anyone else how to do this; nor can I compel anyone to follow my own vision...


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