JEWS BEGAN YOM Kippur recently with the haunting chant of Kol Nidre (“all vows”).
In this prayer, promises made in the past year are declared null and void.
To the uninformed, it may seem as if Jews are backing out of solemnly made vows, which has been used for generations to accuse them of being dishonest and untrustworthy.
However, as always, there is a historical context to this prayer. It refers only to those promises made under duress from governments, especially theocracies, that demanded pledges to convert or otherwise violate their faith.
Obviously, any vow taken willingly would never be negated, only those that, if refused, could result in imprisonment, expulsion, or death.
Judaism has flourished in America because the Founding Fathers were aware of how oppressive a government could become when controlled by a religion.
The Pilgrims who came to these shores were indeed seeking freedom from religious tyranny, hence the claim made that America was founded as a Christian nation. However, those very Puritans immediately established a society based on absolute religious intolerance, where secular and religious laws were the same.
Along with the loss of the right to vote, property and even banishment, anyone who did not follow the strict view of this Christian theocracy was also subjected to imprisonment and torture for things like breaking the Sabbath. This oppression reached its pinnacle in the communal hysteria of the Salem Witch trials and subsequent murder of innocent citizens.
When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they remembered the lesson of Salem and intentionally left out any reference to religion, except to state there would be no religious test for public office.
When the states refused to sign the document without a Bill of Rights , the very first amendment included the protection of religious freedom.
Along with protecting that freedom, it also stated there could be no government establishment of a religion.
Those early Americans had seen what could happen when religious laws were enforced as the law of the land.
We must always be vigilant in protecting our religious freedoms, for without them we are in danger of becoming a theocracy.
Because Jews have endured persecution for millennia as a minority religion, we are particularly aware when these freedoms are in jeopardy.
Today, along with the Jews, Americans of other minority faiths, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, earth-centered and indigenous faiths, watch with alarm as candidates have announced their intent to run for office as legislators and judges, while insisting their particular Christian beliefs will supersede the Constitution.
All people of faith see the world through the lens of their beliefs and wish to see their ethical principles accepted in their culture. However, in America, where the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land, using a specific religious belief to pass laws affecting all citizens violates that cherished document.
It is logical that people wish to put their beliefs into action, and Judaism has always stressed action over faith.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet, but ought to be.”
Clearly, many see the importance of actively living their religion, but it is crucial to do so without violating others’ religious rights.
Let those from all faiths in our democracy take a solemn and willing vow to work together to protect the most vulnerable, thus creating a just and compassionate society.
While respecting the deeply held faith of each, let us put our common beliefs into action and bring us closer to tikun olam, the repairing of our world.
Kein yehi ratzon … let it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community.