Emily Perper | Staff Writer
“The moral tradition of our religions can contribute to a rich moral debate about what the common good is in America and a more vibrant and robust debate about what the common good is for (the) world,” said Rabbi David Saperstein. “A new world is being fashioned before our eyes. That new world has within it the seeds of great possibilities but of deep and profound dangers as well.”
Saperstein is a rabbi, political lobbyist and lawyer, as well as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center. He is the current co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty. His lecture, “The Use and Abuse of Religious Traditions in Contemporary Political Debates: A Jewish Perspective,” was the third installment in the Week Two interfaith lecture theme, “The Role of Religion in Engaging Citizens for the Common Good.”
According to Saperstein, religious dogma should be used not to dictate laws but to provide a moral framework.
“In truth, the Jewish tradition does not suggest that the Jewish legal answer … should be binding upon a non-Jewish society,” he said.
This belief is rooted in a covenantal philosophy, that only the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai entered a contract with God and subsequently, Jewish law. Judaism is also not a religion that seeks to proselytize, Saperstein said.
Nevertheless, the idea of “ethical monotheism” pervades human history, Saperstein said, as he listed parts of Judaism that are universal to most philosophies.
First, there are other covenants, like that of Noah, who stood in for all of humanity. Noah’s encounter resulted in several universal laws, including laws prohibiting murder and stealing.
In addition, Jews are obligated to improve their surroundings constantly.
“The law of the land in which Jews live is the law that Jews live by, so long as it doesn’t require violating a religious law … or discriminated against Jews,” Saperstein said, meaning that Jews must work to improve the laws of the place where they live, rather than conform them to the standards of religious law.
Jews are called to be the light of the nations, not a light to the nations.
“The idea is wherever we are, we have to be a force for good,” Saperstein said. “We have to be a force for justice and peace … to work within the legal structure of the countries in which we live; to make it more just, more fair, more equitable for more people.”
Saperstein emphasized the importance of preserving the history of Jews and Judaism to understand the political discussions that occur today.
Next, he listed several principles that are shared by many societies and cultures throughout history, such as the infinite value of life, creation in the image of God and the fundamental equality of all people. Another belief is in the perfectibility of individuals in society.
“The Messianic times would come … out of history, through human initiative,” he said. “It would be brought about step by step through caring people, just like us, gradually making the world a better place. That doesn’t mean we can make ourselves perfect. It means we can constantly make ourselves better.”
This idea resulted in universal education, he said.
“Judaism was never a tradition that saw justice being played out in the passive articulation of the rights to which others were entitled,” Saperstein said, an approach that is less abstract and more pragmatic.
Saperstein also named the accountability of powerful leaders, the concept of distributive justice and the protection of God’s creation.
The final universal characteristic was freedom of choice, what Saperstein revered as “perhaps Judaism’s most significant contribution to Western thought.”
“While they are not intended to be binding on non-Jewish societies — and this is crucial — they may well be relevant,” he said. “What we as moral human beings are commanded to do by God is to test those human inventions, the policies our leaders put before us, by whether they further impede those universal values.”
Saperstein applied his ideas to two sets of philosophical issues. The first was economic justice.
“What is the role of the public sector?” Saperstein asked.
He explained that liberals and conservatives have vastly different ideas about this question.
“There’s no answer in the Bible to this question,” he said.
The Bible says only that the hungry should be fed and the orphan and widow should be cared for, he said, and in Jesus’ time, there were five social institutions set up to fulfill these needs.
“The government played the key role in ensuring that this would be done,” he said. “There was extensive government regulation of the economy.”
Jews paid voluntary charity dues, and the government collected these like taxes.
“The model of the Jewish tradition and the model of creating institutions that ensure that the poor will be helped and paid for by our taxes and regulated by the government is one that accords very strongly with the liberal model in the debates we have today,” he said.
Saperstein encouraged the audience to reconsider the harmfulness of debt and touted the Jubilee economic model of debt relief, which is being explored by modern organizations.
The Jewish stance toward social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, is “not quite conservative, not quite liberal,” Saperstein said.
The Scriptures make no mention of same-sex relations between women — only men.
“It would be hard to find anything that would say if people refrained from participating in those acts whether or not there would be any kind of penalty to somebody or discrimination allowed against someone simply because of their sexual orientation,” he said. “I don’t know what the argument would be about the biblical basis for such discrimination.”
Regarding abortion, Saperstein was frank in his admission that he believes women have the fundamental right of freedom of choice, “(which) argues powerfully in secular America,” he said.
The health of the woman comes first, he said, and different rabbis differ on the topic. He emphasized once more that the universal values shared by many religious and secular traditions, not Jewish law, should guide the United States.
“Good moral people can differ on (these issues),” he said. “But the one sin from all of our religious traditions is to close our eyes to injustice and close our ears to suffering.
“We are rather mandated to dirty our hands and (to) the gritty task of building a better world. The creating of the common good … is our greatest heritage.”