“You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21
Through the ages, the above verse has served as a guiding Jewish principle. This call for enhanced sensitivity to oppressed minorities placed Jews at the forefront of a variety of noble struggles, particularly in the United States. As noted by author Charles Silberman, “American Jews are committed to cultural tolerance because of their belief-one firmly rooted in history-that Jews are safe only in a society acceptant of a wide range of attitudes and behaviors, as well as a diversity of religious and ethnic groups.”
It is precisely for this reason that all Jews should link arms in battle together with this country’s Catholics over President Obama’s mandate to provide cover for contraception in health care plans provided by the Church.
Of course the contraception issue is a contentious one, from a Jewish perspective; it is certainly not a black and white issue. According to a Public Religion Research Institute Poll even 52% of Catholics are of the opinion that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide contraception coverage. What is clearly at stake here however, is far beyond the popularity of, or one’s beliefs regarding, one’s life choices. It is our collective tolerance for governmental forays into the realm of religious practice.
Without doubt each individual has the right to decide on the path best suited for them. Likewise each religious institution has the right to define its moral positions. The State has no business compelling the Church to compromise on its standards.
It is true that the President tweaked the policy “to require religious employers such as universities and charities to cover contraception in employee health plans, but shifted the responsibility for paying for it away from the employer and on to its health-insurance provider,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
However, quite rightly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to oppose the compromise, saying they still had “serious moral concerns.” Namely that the President’s plan still obligates them to provide cover for a health care practice that is against their religious principles.
As Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said, “A legislative remedy to this overreaching and unprecedented incursion of state power into the domain of religious freedom and the rights of conscience is still necessary.”
In recent months Jews were reminded of just how historically unique the American freedoms we enjoy are, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in October preventing the ban on the practice of male circumcision. The effort was first “struck down in late July by a California judge who said it would infringe on religious freedom,” according to Reuters.
Around the world, efforts that would curtail the Jewish practice of shechitah (humane slaughter of animals for consumption) have also gathered momentum.
The famous statement commonly attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller comes to mind, “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
As ‘strangers in the land of Egypt’ Jews know well the pitfalls posed in opening the door of this legislation. Few have benefited so wholesomely through basking in the saving grace of the First Amendment. It is thus our duty to fight for the preservation of its purist principles as we have done for so many of history’s most just causes.