Religious Freedom and Judaism: An Overview

The texts included in this chapter examine both sides of religious freedom. Religious liberty in Judaism—as well as other traditions—can thus be viewed through two lenses: first, what does the religious tradition, in its diverse voices, say about religious liberty internally (that is, for Jews speaking among and for themselves); and second, what does the tradition say about religious liberty for gentiles, or those who are outside the Sinaitic covenant. This introduction addresses these questions and highlights some of the global topics in Jewish responses to religious liberty.


Religious freedom does not come naturally to Judaism. In its core ethical statement, the Ten Commandments, the Torah begins by declaring exclusive worship of the God of Israel. The Torah’s authors understood that the temptation of idolatry was great, and the people could not be expected to come to pure monotheism through reasoning alone. The punishment for worshipping another God or the God of Israel the wrong way was death, either by a human court or divine decree. There was no room for the internal pluralism necessary for religious freedom among Jews, at least in any sense immediately recognizable to us. Moreover, according to the Torah, the best possible government is theocracy. Not a state run by theocrats, but, rather, literally ruled by God. In human terms, this would be anarchy, as “no king but God” indicates an absence of human government. Human kingship thus comes as a compromise measure. Israel wanted a king to repulse foreign enemies. Samuel counseled against this desire: “the king will take your children from you, sequestrate your land, your vineyards, and your animals (I Sam. 8:10-20),” but God tells him to accede to the people’s wishes. Even in the most charitable view, Israel’s kings proved a mixed group of men, with few dying a peaceful death, and many allowing idolatry to flourish in Israel.

In any case, in classical Judaism, the covenant (brit) between God and Israel determines the permitted and the forbidden for the community. Such religious norms do not derive from the individual conscience or the state. Religious freedom for gentiles, as represented in Jewish tradition, is more complex. Idolatry is forbidden to Israel, but seems to be largely permitted—outside of the Promised Land—to non-Israelites, though their worship is commonly scorned as futile and immoral.

Central to the intersection of Judaism and religious freedom is the fact that for the greater portion of Jewish history, Israel has not been a sovereign people with its own land and political autonomy. This means that Jews could do very little to change practical policies implemented by the dominant culture, whether pagan, Christian, or Islamic. (For various reasons, however, Jews often negotiated a mostly peaceful, if second-class existence in which they were free to practice their faith as long as they kept their place). Prior to the establishment of the modern, secular State of Israel in 1948, Jews have had political autonomy only during the biblical and Hasmonean periods, and the former was subject to the imperial ambitions of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian empires.

Judaism became a predominantly diaspora faith with the loss of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Texts from the rabbinic and medieval periods reveal a scattered people adapting to the transition from living under Roman (and largely pagan) rule to Christian and Islamic rule. Whereas the rabbis had an almost uniformly low view of paganism, their reactions to Christian and Islamic monotheism were more varied. Indeed, despite the deterioration of Jewish life in the late medieval period, especially in Christian Europe, one finds increasingly positive evaluations throughout the medieval era, such as those of Menachem ha-MeiriMeiri, who argued that. Christianity actually enlarged possibilities for Jewish religious liberty.

Within Judaism itself, the Karaite “heresy” and reactions to it helped define some of the contours of religious freedom during the medieval era. The Karaites were a Jewish group that generally accepted the Torah but rejected the binding authority of the Oral Law, thus separating itself from rabbinic Judaism. As the passages about the Karaites indicate, there was no consensus on how they fit into the Jewish narrative. Were they heretics, members of another religion altogether, or were they simply misguided, coerced by outside factors (and thus not legally liable for their heresy)? Deliberations about the Karaites would later mirror divisions over how traditional Judaism—what would become Orthodoxy—ought to deal with Reform Judaism and other Jewish liberalisms in the 19th century.

The rabbinic and medieval era also witnessed the creation and expansion of one of the best conceptual tools leading to a robust Jewish interpretation of religious freedom, that of the Noahide law, the Jewish understanding of natural law. Natural law, tied to no particular tradition, is the minimum moral standard that applies to all people, everywhere, and at all times. Most religions have some conception, even if not always explicitly formulated, of the moral worth and inherent dignity of all persons. The concept of the Noahide law, formulated in the rabbinic era and discussed in that section, gives Jews a language for articulating this notion, one that emerges from Jewish tradition but is based on wisdom, which is universal, rather than revelation, which is always specific.

Documents from the modern era express concern with problems unimaginable in earlier eras. In the middle of the 18th century, European Jews slowly and fitfully began to gain citizenship. This gain occurred with a concurrent loss of Jewish communal autonomy. Jews were no longer to be viewed as a corporate body, but as individual citizens whose religious choices were a private matter. Identification with Judaism was to be completely voluntary. Emancipation radically redefined what it meant to be Jewish: it was now seen by political authorities and elite culture as a choice, whereas previously it had been understood as inscribed from birth, nurtured by the community within, and enforced from without. This novel situation gave individual Jews more religious freedom than they had ever had, and diminished communal liberty proportionately.

The passages from Moses Mendelssohn, on one side, and traditionalist rabbis, on the other, underline the emerging tensions between communal loyalty and individual desire in terms of religious freedom. Acknowledged as one of the signal voices in modern Jewish thought, Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a devout Jew and a committed liberal, set the narrative on religious freedom for contemporary Jews. The passages here show a nuanced Mendelssohn, one who distinguished—conceptually if not explicitly—between a secular public sphere that does not insist that religious persons bracket their beliefs in public and an aggressive secularism (laïcité). The public sphere, while secular, recognizes that while pragmatism and bargaining are part of political life, most people in a polity have a primary identity with a history and culture much older than any nation-state; aggressive secularism, on the other hand, because it has nothing that precedes it, can be overwhelmed by the political because its vision of human flourishing is framed exclusively through the instruments of the state. There are rights that are prior to the state, and religious liberty is one of these rights.

Mendelssohn noted that it was not Judaism that needed to change, but the state. The state must recognize the status of religious liberty as a right, for if it is not a right, then it is an entitlement, a status that leaves it vulnerable to negotiation and even revocation. Secularity, as defended by Mendelssohn, furnishes a public space for people with prior commitments—commitments that transcend the limited horizon of any nation-state—to live and work together, a place where discrimination based on religious practice and belief is legally discouraged and morally censured. Aggressive secularism, on the other hand, offers an invidious bargain to members of religious communities: religious citizens relinquish prior commitments to their religious communities and their loyalty to a morality that precedes the state in exchange for the protection of—and from—the state, economic opportunity, and legal equality. In other words, cultural autonomy is bartered for citizenship. This dilemma has emerged anew in the 21st century.

The final section deals with the State of Israel and the return of Jewish political authority in its own land. For the first time in modern history, Jews exercise authority over non-Jews, and this new situation calls for new formulations of religious freedom. By law, religious liberty is guaranteed for all in Israel, but on the ground the situation is more complex, due to the state’s Jewish orientation, both cultural and religious, as well as the control exercised by the official rabbinate on matters of personal status. Documents in this section include passages from the Israeli government on religious freedom—largely in reference to the protection of the liberties of non-Jewish minorities—and passages from major rabbinic figures about how religious the state ought to be and how this affects religious freedom.

Acknowledgements

This Sourcebook on Judaism and Religious Freedom is a product of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The RFP is made possible through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation. The Sourcebook was prepared under the direction of Timothy Samuel Shah, the RFP’s Associate Director and Scholar in Residence. Those who provided assistance in its preparation include Thomas Farr, the RFP’s Director; Kyle Vander Meulen, the RFP’s Senior Project Associate; and Amy Vander Vliet, Berkley Center web editor and database manager. Also providing invaluable expert help and review were David Novak, RFP Associate Scholar and Professor of Philosophy and J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto; David Saperstein, director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center; and Randi Rashkover, associate professor of Religious Studies and director of the Judaic Studies Program at George Mason University.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.

Opens in a new window