The "G" Word

Friday, 6 May, 2022 - 11:43 am

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the event arranged by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, honoring Israel, at the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion. After the formal program, I had a chance to meet and speak to Governor John Bel Edwards along with several of my Chabad of Louisiana colleagues.​

I introduced myself as a Rabbi from New Orleans and thanked him for not being afraid to bring G-d into the public discourse. I told him that when he encourages citizens to pray, whilst addressing crises such as the pandemic or a hurricane, it makes me proud that he is the governor of my state. He modestly replied that while some may be uncomfortable with his approach, he has received encouragement from others. He then said to me that he did not expect to hear this from me, because I was the first Jewish person to ever express that sentiment to him.

Now I understand why Jews are wary of this type of thing. The separation doctrine has always been seen by Jews as a protection against the encroachment of a predominantly Christian society on Jews and other non-Christians. Sometimes that encroachment is insidious, and sometimes it’s well-meaning, yet equally inappropriate. But we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Under the banner of the separation doctrine, we have made a religion out of secularism. We cringe at the mention of G-d or prayer in a public setting. We are afraid to speak of a morality based on a Higher Power in our public discourse. We are raising generations of young people for whom obligation to G-d and Divine values, is simply not on their radar.

Removing G-d from the public discourse leads to the potential (some would argue actual) result of relegating our society to an amoral state. From there it is a short slippery slope to immoral.

Of course, we need to stand strong against a violation of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Never should we be subjected to one group’s version of religion over another. But the framers were not advocating for removal of G-d from American society. Certainly, atheists or agnostics have their rights protected as well. Nobody can force them to accept or practice any religion. But, in the same way, they cannot force others to adhere to their way by removing any reference to G-d. The declaration of independence explicitly speaks of rights “endowed by a Creator.”

This is a complex issue that cannot be properly addressed in this forum. There are nuances and subtleties that must be tackled as the issue is analyzed and discussed. There are major issues being dealt with in our society as we speak, where the shadow of this issue looms large and cannot be ignored. The big picture question is, are we better off in a G-dless society or a society where G-d plays a central role, while we work diligently to ensure that one religion is not given ascendancy over another?

I will conclude with a story. Once during a journey, the Baal Shem Tov instructed his disciples to hastily exit the carriage in which they were riding. They rushed away from the wagon and their driver. A few hours later, they encountered the wagon driver and were ready to continue their journey. He asked them why they ran away. The Baal Shem Tov replied that he sensed they were in danger of being murdered. The wagon driver admitted that at the time he had been overcome with a temptation to murder them and take their belongings. It had since passed, but he wondered how the Baal Shem Tov knew. The Baal Shem Tov replied, that they had driven past a church and he saw that the driver did not cross himself, so he knew that driver was, in that moment, a G-dless person, who would stop at nothing for personal gain.

Over the millennia, we Jews have been persecuted both in the name of religion as well as by the G-dless. The answer is not as simple as the story might imply, but I hope this starts a conversation about these complex questions. I welcome any respectful feedback and dialogue.

In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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