True religious liberty does not require religious individuals to minimize differences in the tenets of their faith, said Jewish Rabbi Meir Soloveichik.
Instead, he maintained, religious freedom demands that people of faith live “both as stranger and neighbor” within society.
“We do not need to deny our differences to achieve a covenant,” he emphasized.
Quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Great Britain, he explained that “utopias have no room for differences, and difference is what makes us human.”
Rabbi Soloveichik is a professor at Yeshiva College in New York, known for his writings on the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and society.
He presented the opening address at the National Religious Freedom Conference in Washington, D.C., on May 30. The gathering, which drew a diverse group of religious freedom advocates, was sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program.
The rabbi explained that “America is the first country in a long time founded around an idea,” and that religious freedom “is the philosophical lynchpin of what lies at the heart of American ideals.”
This theory is evident throughout American history, he said.
To illustrate his point, Rabbi Soloveichik recounted the story of Jonas Phillips, a Jewish merchant living in the early United States. He explained that shortly after the formation of the country, Jews wishing to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature were required to swear an oath upon a Christian Bible, a blasphemous act for the Jewish people.
Phillips, who had fought in the Revolutionary War alongside other Jews and Christians, found that this requirement was in opposition to the founding principles of the country, Soloveichik explained. The merchant sent a letter to George Washington protesting this practice and affirming that “all religious societies are on an equal footing.”
To the founders, Rabbi Soloveichik said, being an American meant both respecting the distinction between religious groups and standing for religious freedom for all members of American society.
This perspective acknowledges that “deep religious differences” can’t be dissolved, he noted. However, it also maintains that “religious certainty is not an obstacle” to a free society but instead allows society to be more honest.
And because true religious freedom does not minimize the philosophical differences separating different faiths, he explained, it also enables those faiths to find true common ground.
The rabbi observed that the refusal to minimize religious difference also allows room for individual belief, an important part of any political society.
A “just society,” he emphasized, will accept these differences and respect a person’s freedom to abide by his or her religious beliefs, treating the individual “as equal, without sacrificing religious faith” for social uniformity.