Friday, September 06, 2002

Accommodating Religion

America is awash in mores and rules mandating accommodation to all sorts of groups and interests. Tons of money are spent to assure access to the handicapped and educational opportunities for children with special needs. We have laws that guarantee the civil rights of minorities, proscribe discrimination on account of sexual orientation and ensure equality in nearly all aspects of American life. Pluralism and tolerance are in and while there are violations of the norms, they are just that – violations.

We Jews especially embrace the ideal of tolerance and pluralism. We employ these words to justify or legitimate as Jewish our wholesale departure from the religious standards that have defined Judaism for centuries. There is, according to this view, a plurality of Judaisms and each merits tolerance, if not acceptance.

There is one important exception to this glorious rainbow proclaiming pluralism and tolerance and it happens to be the area of religion. Long ago, the doctrine of church-state separation was transmuted from requiring neutrality toward religion to advocating hostility. What religion can achieve for itself through ordinary political channels comes begrudgingly, if not surreptitiously. There are many manifestations of the secondary status of religious groups. One of these concerns discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

At breakfast in Jerusalem this summer, a middle aged man came over and thanked me for saving his job thirty years ago. He was working at Avon and when the company learned that he was a Sabbath observer, it wanted to fire him. I intervened and his job was saved. What I did was the beneficial fruit of the remarkable achievements of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) in breaching the iron wall of discrimination against Sabbath observers through legislation and litigation. We showed that it was possible to accommodate without difficulty religious persons at the workplace and other settings. Orthodox Jews – and member of other religious groups – are now hired by companies that previously turned them away. As a consequence, they are now afforded the opportunity to participate fruitfully in American life.

But for all that was accomplished, my feeling is that those of us who fought this battle have essentially failed. I should perhaps be satisfied with a half-filled or even one-third filled glass because significant numbers of religious Jews have been helped. Unfortunately, the empty portion of the glass represents the victims of discrimination, the many religious Jews whose lives have been harmed.

Laws are important, especially in combating discrimination, yet their reach is limited. Unless they take root in the ethos of the society and in the mores and minds of its citizens, they are likely to be treated as alien objects, rules that are to be ignored or even deliberately disobeyed. The harsh truth is that religious accommodation has not taken root. There is a die-hard notion that employers should be allowed to determine the hours and conditions of employment, irrespective of the religious convictions of potential employees. Likewise, the prevailing view is that hospitals, cemeteries and other institutions whose functions inherently touch on religious matters should be able to set their own rules.

The difference between civil rights violations and discrimination against religious persons is that while the former may still be widely practiced, they are also widely regarded as illegal and immoral and therefore illegitimate. The refusal to accommodate religious persons does not beget societal condemnation. It is regarded as understandable and imparted with a veneer of legitimacy.

As a consequence, religious Jews continue to be fired or simply not hired. Perhaps worse, great numbers are relegated to back office or other positions with little prospect for advancement. As the economic situation has worsened, the unemployment rate among the Orthodox has soared. There is pain everywhere in this community. Presumably, the know-nothing “scholars” who write about Orthodox life and confidently attribute the prevailing economic hardship to yeshiva education and to what they regard as parasitism among the very Orthodox will now be able to elicit proof for their hateful theory by pointing to the high unemployment rate of the Orthodox.

The attitude of organized American Jewry has been, at best, one of benign neglect. Over the years, few in the Jewish establishment have cared much for the notion of religious accommodation, not in the workplace or anywhere else. They have other battles to fight, other people to help. The needs and rights of religious Jews are, for them, scarcely a civil right.

Sadly, the situation isn’t much better within Orthodox life. COLPA has faded from the scene and major Orthodox groups do not regard discrimination against the Orthordox as a priority. Other areas yield better public relations and fundraising results. It is telling that the Seventh Day Adventists who also have a large stake in the matter spend $1 million a year on legal efforts assisting its members to combat discrimination. Jewish expenditures hover near zero. Our major advocates are New York’s Attorney General Elliott Spitzer and a courageous, insistent and talented senior member on his staff.

How far removed we are from understanding the obligation to accommodate religious persons was brought home to me this summer. The yeshiva that I am president of received its name immediately after the death of New York’s only Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Joseph. His gravesite in Union Field Cemetery in Brooklyn has become a place of prayer and pilgrimage for many religious Jews, mainly Chassidim. His one-hundredth yahrzeit fell on July 4th, obviously a legal holiday. Strenuous efforts were made to have the cemetery open and they finally succeeded because they included substantial payments to cemetery employees. What made the episode unsavory was the attitude of a key official of the New York Board of Rabbis who in correspondence prattled foolishly about kovod ha-briot and other clich├ęs without showing any understanding of the obligation to respect religious sensibilities.

We obviously have a long way to go to learn the basic ethical rule that, like other groups, the needs of religious persons must be accommodated. For American Jewry, it isn’t sufficient to hypocritically proclaim our belief in pluralism and tolerance and then to countenance their violation.