Saperstein focuses on Jewish values


Rabbi David Saperstein

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Rabbi David Saperstein has been called many things in Washington. A profile of him in The Washington Post called him “the quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill.” Newsweek named him the most influential rabbi in the country in 2009, and major news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Religion News Service identified him as one of the most influential people in shaping religious issues in elections.

But Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he works for the common good, which is why at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, he will continue the Interfaith Lecture Series with “The Use and Abuse of the Jewish Tradition in Contemporary Political Debates: A Jewish Perspective.”

Saperstein and the Religious Action Center work with other public interest groups to find the common good in the nation and its public policy. Although he will speak from a Jewish perspective, he said the work he does applies to all religions.

“A central challenge facing all religious communities in America is how within the internal value system of our respect of religious faiths, we are taught that we ought to use the lessons (of our personal faiths) and applying them to nonreligious societies, such as the United States,” Saperstein said.

Different faiths take different sides of this debate. Some believe it is their mission to impose their religious law on American policy, Saperstein said. Others believe that their religious laws are binding only for themselves, but their ethical values are universal.

Saperstein said that he will explore how the Jewish tradition sees its laws and values as being applicable to America, and how these values can and should enhance the moral debates in America.

“I’m going to set forth a methodology that I think comes within the Jewish groups and that links together not just all streams of Judaism, but I think is very close to the way that other faith traditions think about the same challenges,” Saperstein said.

Saperstein’s background in both religion and politics gives him a unique perspective. He comes from a long family line of rabbis and Jewish scholars but is also an attorney and a professor of Jewish law and of First Amendment church-state law at Georgetown University’s law school.

“For 3,000 years, the Jewish tradition has held social justice to be central to the religious life and communal life of the Jewish people,” Saperstein said. “We brought forth to the world a vision of relationship, of a God who calls on humanity to be God’s partners in shaping a better world … so that’s woven into the ritual, the liturgy, the sacred text, the historical experience of the Jewish people.”

His career represents the vast applicability of the Jewish tradition in American policy. He has served on the boards of several national organizations, like the NAACP, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the People For the American Way. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him as a member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In his lecture at Chautauqua, Saperstein will take the same interdisciplinary approach.

“I really just hope the audience walks away with a deeper understanding of how Judaism thinks about how religious values of one faith can be applied in a universal sense to a nation of many faiths,” Saperstein said, adding that he will address topics like economics, gay rights, abortion, the environment and foreign policy.