Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosilr@juno.com

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Vayikra (Leviticus) 16:1 - 19:1
Haftorah - Amos 9:7-15

I hope you all had as wonderful a Pesach holiday as I did. Between family, friends and a great celebration, this Yom Tov was very special. Let us strive together to elevate one another up the 49 levels of Kedusha (holiness) so that we can all receive the Torah on Shavu'ot (Pentecost) B'chol Libaynu -with all our hearts.

Our Parsha this week warns us of a serious problem that is at the very heart of Jewish/Gentile relations, the separation of church and state.

Many of us were brought up enjoying the freedom to practice our religion in absolute independence. In the not so distant past, of course, this was not the case for all Jews. Throughout most of our history we were limited in how we could express ourselves as Jews. State imposed religious ideology constricted our ability to advance socially, economically and spiritually.

In America and Canada as well as other free countries that have laws that separate church and state, Jews have experienced unparalleled freedom to practice our religion, to choose professions, and to enter universities, join country clubs, and frequent hotels, resorts, etc. This freedom is so cherished, that the possibility that it might be infringed upon in any way, activates super-sensitive nerves (yet, as a child in public school, I remember being required to act in a Christmas play until my parents and Rabbi protested).

In order to preserve these rights in America, a disproportionate percentage of Jews has been battling with local, state and national organizations to eliminate any religious coercion or even the appearance of religious coercion, in any shape, form or manner from the public forum.

Our Parsha warns us:
"Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; and do not perform the practice of the land of Canaan to which I will bring you, and do not follow their traditions...And you shall observe My decrees and My laws, which a person shall carry out and LIVE by them, I am Hashem." Vayikra 18:3-5

These verses are very puzzling. On one hand Egypt represented the most contemptible form of occult and death worship. Yet, we are taught that the Israelites had become almost completely assimilated into Egyptian society. On the other hand, we were being forewarned that when we enter the land of Canaan, the seven nations that control that territory were even more decadent than the Egyptians(Rashi [France, 1040 - 1105] on verse 3 regarding the phrase; "to which I will bring you").

Our national identity can only be forged successfully by adhering to Hashem's laws. We are taught that one of the purposes of remaining in the desert for forty years was to isolate us from any foreign influences, thereby forging a new "Jewish" personality, unaffected by other cultures and free from residual slave mentality.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh (Frankfurt, 1808 - 1888), in his celebrated work HOREB (para.505), explains the meaning of the words "do not follow their traditions" in the above commandment:
"You may imitate the nations among whom you live in everything which has been adopted by them on rational grounds, but not on grounds that are immoral or, based on their religion; but do not imitate anything which is irrational or has been adopted on rituals derived from their religion, or for forbidden [by the Torah] or immoral purposes. You may not therefore, join in celebrating their holy days, or observe customs that have their basis in their religious beliefs. You must not, however, do anything which disturb their holy days or mar their festival spirit: and do not parade your non-participation in their holy days in a manner that might arose animosity."

As Jews, therefore, we are required to abstain from any activity that would mar or limit a gentile from enjoying his religious celebrations. How then can we actively attempt to stop religious observances and decorations at Christmas time? The answer is that Jewish law does not permit us to do so. Jews must be assured that the observance of Christian holy days by Christians in no way infringes on our right to live a full and complete Jewish life. As long as Jews are not required to participate in way we should step back and not disturb their celebrations.

I believe (though I have no statistical evidence to prove it), that since religion was taken out of American schools they have deteriorated rather than improved. Drugs, violence and blatant promiscuity are commonplace in schools. Religion etches upon the minds of young people true values, morals and ethics. Once these values were taught at home. Unfortunately, today, many young people are not taught these values - for many reasons - broken homes, single parent homes, or just busy households where these values aren't a priority. Therefore it is important that G-d awareness and ethical morality are promoted in school. More tragic though, is that often, it is Jews who have been at the forefront of the movement to remove any religious values from the school system.

The Torah informs us that we are to keep our distance from the religious celebrations of our gentile hosts, but that we should not take away their value system from schools or from any public place, for THAT could be detrimental to the well-being of Jews in the future.

Jews are forbidden to participate in non-Jewish religious celebrations, but, we must be sensitive to the needs of our gentile neighbors and friends. We must be confident in our ability to withstand the influence of a Christmas play, or a Christmas choir and possibly even expose the gentile to Jewish forms of religious expression. Otherwise, we may lose the connection to our own value system, for the average Jewish or Gentile home today does not present a clear standard of behavior that encourages spiritual growth.

In a recent news item (Newport News Daily Press, Feb. 6, ‘97) the issue if separation of Church and State was featured:
"Gov. Fob James promised full defiance of an attempt of the American Civil Liberties Union to remove prayer and the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courtroom, the Associated Press reports.

James told a Baptist gathering that he would use state troopers and the National Guard to stop anyone trying to remove prayer and a religious display (the 10 commandments) from Judge Ray Moore's courtroom. ‘The only way that those Ten Commandments and prayer would be stripped from that Courtroom is with the force of arms,' he said.

ACLU attorney Bobby Segall dismissed James' remarks as ‘pure, raw political demagoguing.' The ACLU challenged Moore's display of a hand-carved replica of the Ten Commandments and his opening court with a prayer. In a ringing affirmation of the importance of separation of church and state powers, the court banned state-imposed prayer in the courtroom in all of Alabama's 67 county jurisdictions, including Judge Moore's. Moore has said that he will continue the prayers despite the ruling."

If Chas V'shalom (heaven forbid) armed battle takes place between state and national forces, it will not only be a terrible tragedy, but I believe that there will also be repercussions in the Jewish community. I know that this is a very sensitive and controversial position, but we must realize that when if we are involved in the inability to transmit morals, ethics and values, we will ultimately suffer.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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