Blog Against Theocracy: "To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance"
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Sun Jul 01, 2007 at 07:08:12 PM EST
Originally posted at dKos.

I am a somewhat religiously observant Jew. I believe in God. I don't work on the Sabbath (though a stringently religious Jew would point out that I do m'lakha). I keep strictly kosher. I don't merely read my sacred texts; I study them in great detail. I celebrate religious holidays. I pray regularly. My Jewish identity and heritage are very important to me.

Like most American Jews, I am a Democrat. I am a liberal. I am a progressive. And I believe it is not only bad government to impose religion or religious ideology on the general public, it's also lousy theology. Below the fold, I explain why in the context of a few key historical documents and the historical context in which the original users of the Bible interpreted it.

On August 17, 1790, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, Moses Seixas, sent a congratulatory letter to President George Washington, who was visiting the city that day. At that time, there were approximately 300 Jews living in Newport. Recognizing that their people had suffered numerous indignities and persecutions at the hands of theocrats spread out over 3500 years, they were grateful to live in a nation conceived under the banner of equality of all people, regardless of religious affiliation.

Seixas wrote:


Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits -- and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to Newport.

With pleasure we reflect on those days -- those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword -- shielded Your head in the day of battle: and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People -- a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance -- but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine:

This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual Confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in New Port, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

Having been repeatedly expelled from their ancestral homeland and subsequently expelled from nearly every European nation, having been subjected to numerous massacres, discriminations, denigrations, forced conversions, insults, and restrictions based on nothing but their faith, the Jews of Newport recognized the unique opportunities available to them as citizens of a new nation that seemed to open its arms to them. After all, didn't the Declaration of Independence of the United States declare that "all men are created equal"? Weren't the states about to complete the process of amending their newly ratified Constitution to include a clause guaranteeing freedom of religion?

President Washington wholeheartedly assured his Jewish constituents that they would always be welcome in the United States of America:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

It's all there on paper in President Washington's letter, in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution, and in dozens of other documents of legal and historical significance: people of all faiths and people of no faith are all equal under the law, all welcome in US society, and all entitled to every right and privilege accorded to every citizen of our great country. Christians of all denominations (not just a privileged few) as well as atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, etc., etc., etc. -- all have the same rights regardless of majority or minority status.

If the Father of Our Country so enthusiastically endorsed a liberal policy of toleration toward adherents of all faiths (and, by extension, those who adhere to no specific faith), if the Declaration of Independence so explicitly recounts the equality of all people, if the Constitution so clearly protects the right of all people to practice their faiths without undue government intervention, who would dare try to impose their faith on all others in the United States? Who would dare label as "unpatriotic" those who seek to preserve this fundamental right?

I'll tell you who: dominionists. Far right conservatives. Theocrats. Dangerous, ignorant fools. Bigots. Republicans.

Dominionists from the Indian River School District in Delaware ran a Jewish family out of town with death threats and other harassment after the family complained about the district's official promotion of Christianity.

Far right conservatives claim that it's all but inevitable that Muslim children will grow up to be terrorists.

Theocrats cheered when Brian Bosma, the Republican Speaker of the Indiana House, told representatives of the Indiana Jewish community that their concerns don't matter because Indiana Christians outnumber them 40-1.

Dangerous, ignorant fools promote pseudoscience in our classrooms and criminally irresponsible environmental policy in the name of their religious beliefs. (As a side note, how weak is the God they believe in if He/She/It couldn't create a world in which anything -- even evolution -- was part of the Divine plan?)

Bigots cheered when Virgil Goode, the Republican congresscritter from Virginia, made his racist comments in reaction to the election of Keith Ellison, the first American Muslim elected to Congress. They continued cheering when one of their champions, Dennis Prager, insisted that Ellison should not be permitted to swear his oath of office on the book he considers holy because it would undermine American civilization.

Republicans revel in the malevolence of their leaders. They think nothing is wrong with their candidate for mayor of Indianapolis, Bob Parker, pontificating about those evil Joooos and the Democratic Party. They celebrate Supreme Court decisions that eschew the best medical science available to us today and threaten the lives of innocent women for the sake of an inaccurate reading of the Bible. They claim to be defenders of life, but they defend the lies behind a war that has already destroyed thousands of lives and will continue to do so for at least the next 18 months, and they are unreasonably hostile to potentially life-saving research. They oppose equality for same sex couples not because such couples damage society in some way -- though Republicans claim they do, all evidence to the contrary -- but because the Bible, written thousands of years ago, doesn't have such nice things to say about homosexual activity.

And on this last subject -- the use of the Bible to promote discrimination, bigotry, and socially irresponsible policy -- let me say a few words using as an example one of the most contentious political issues of the day. Theocrats object to equal rights for same sex couples on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 --

Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

(There are two Hebrew words for "abomination," by the way: to'evah and sheketz. Remember them -- I'll come back to them shortly.)

I'll ignore for the purposes of this diary that the verses about homosexual activity are explicitly about male homosexuality and say nothing about female homosexuality. I'll also ignore for the purposes of this diary that it is not anatomically possible in any conventional sense for a male to "lie with a male as with a woman." But if we wanted to impose Biblical views from 3000 years ago on our society, shouldn't we know how the readers of the Bible 3000 years ago interpreted what they read? Shouldn't we apply the Bible consistently, without giving undue weight to one passage over another?

So let's consider first what else the Bible calls "abomination." Let's look at a few choice selections. There's adultery:

And each hath committed abomination with his neighbour's wife; and each hath lewdly defiled his daughter-in-law; and each in thee hath humbled his sister, his father's daughter.

-- Ezekiel 22:11

And thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her.... Ye therefore shall keep My statutes and Mine ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the home-born, nor the stranger that sojourneth among you -- for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled -- that the land vomit not you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.

-- Leviticus 18:20, 26-28

So if adultery is to'evah -- "abomination" -- the Bible places it in the same category of sin as adultery. (Make no mistake -- I don't see anything wrong with homosexual activity; it's not for me, but as long as it's between consenting adults, who does it hurt? But adultery -- that hurts someone, so to me, adultery is a problem.) But where are the theocrats and their lackeys in the Republican Party when it comes to condemning adulterers or denying them basic civil rights? I'll tell you where they are:

Newt Gingrich was cheating on his wife while leading the charge to impeach President Clinton. He dumped her while she was in a hospital battling cancer. He later married the woman with whom he was having the affair. He cheated on her, too, with his congressional aid. Tom DeLay noted that his own adultery was of greater moral quality than Gingrich's because he wasn't cheating on his wife yet when he was engaged in impeachment proceedings. I guess it was also morally superior to the adultery of Reps. Henry Hyde, Dan Burton,
Bob Barr, Bob Livingston, and Helen Chenoweth, who were key Republican players in the Clinton impeachment.

And do I need to mention adulterers Rudy Giuliani, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Rep. Sue Myrick, Sen. John McCain, or Sens. Bob and Liddy Dole (who had an affair together when Bob was married to his first wife)?

What else does the Bible call to'evah? How about crossdressing:

A woman must not put on man's apparel, nor shall a man wear a woman's clothing, for it is an abomination unto the Lord your God.

-- Deuteronomy 22:5

Got that, Rudy Giuliani?

Now, these theocrats are almost exclusively Christians of a certain variety, yes? So I have to wonder how many of them observe the laws of kashrut -- Jewish dietary laws as described in the Bible. Violation of those laws is described as sheketz:

These may ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, that may ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are an abomination unto you, and they shall be an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses ye shall have in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that is an abomination unto you. And these ye shall have in abomination among the birds; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the gier-eagle, and the ospray, and the kite, and the falcon after its kind, every raven after its kind, and the ostrich, and the night-hawk, and the seamew, and the hawk after its kind, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the horned owl, and the pelican, and the vulture, and the stork, the heron after its kind, and the hoopoe, and the bat. All winged creeping things that go upon all fours are an abomination unto you. Yet these may ye eat of all winged creeping things that go upon all fours, which have legs above their feet, wherewith to leap upon the earth. Even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kind, and the bald locust after its kind, and the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind. But all winged creeping things, which have four feet, are an abomination unto you.

Got that? I know, it's a long passage, so let's break it down to the simplest, commonest part. Do you enjoy eating shellfish? Guess what? ABOMINATION!!! That's right -- according to the Bible, consuming shellfish is a sin roughly equal in egregiousness to homosexual activity.

Further, the ancient Hebrews, the original users of the Bible, did not interpret it in a vacuum. Consider the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a), in which the rabbis debate whether a certain oven is kosher or not:

We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile, Rabbi Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of Aknai.

Why [the oven of] Aknai? Said Rabbi Judah in Samuel's name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: "If the halakha (Jewish religious law) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" Thereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place; others affirm four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: "If the halakha agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halakha agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have ye to interfere?" Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: "If the halakha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: "Why do ye dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!" But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven."

What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? "He laughed [with joy]," he replied, "saying, `My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'"

That is how the first users of the Bible interpreted it -- it was a gift from God, but it was up to them to determine for themselves how to use it, and they would make their determination in the context of the era in which they lived. We live in a very different world from the one in which my ancestors first used the Bible; we ought to be flexible enough to adjust to the differences.

Now, there are myriad other differences I could mention -- for instance, we no longer call for the death penalty for people who work on the Sabbath or who wear poly-cotton blends, we no longer permit slavery or polygyny, etc. -- but this diary is already too long, and it all comes down to this: if homosexuality, adultery, and crossdressing are labeled identically in the Bible as to'evah, and eating shellfish is sheketz, which is a fundamentally similar concept, what do you call it when one is cited by Republicans as a reason to deny a class of people basic civil rights while the others are practically prerequisites for their presidential nomination? What do you call it when someone hides behind the Bible in the guise of patriotism, denounces all who dare dispute their One True Way as traitors, and treats them accordingly?

I call it hypocrisy. I call it lousy theology based on a very limited and fundamentally flawed reading of the Bible that hurts and harms us rather than helping and healing us. I call it a violation of the most fundamental principles of our Constitution, which call for defense of all people's rights, even when the majority would seek to oppress some class of people. I call it lending sanction to bigotry and assistance to persecution.

Let us be better than that. Let us hold our elected officials accountable to their oath of office, to defend our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and especially domestic. Let us be worthy of the ideals expressed by Moses Seixas and affirmed by President George Washington. Let us obliterate bigotry and obstruct persecution.

Let us oppose theocracy with every fiber of our being.


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