Few Americans have ever heard of one of my personal heroes, Asher Levy. Few, however, did so much to make sure that the United States broke from the pattern of the world in casting aside the model of religious persecution and creating the idea that "citizneship" in the United states could be open to all. The brief Wikipedia entry fails to capture the importance of his contribution. A somewhat more detailed description is available here.
When Asher Levy lived, there was no place, no place on Earth where Jews lived as full citizens, enjoying the same rights and privileges as all others. At best, they lived as protected people on the sufferance of others. Even in countries known for their tolerance, such as Holland, Jews did not live freely and worship openly as we in the U.S. do today. Jews were subject to special disabilities, and paid special taxes for the privilege of being permitted to even live in whatever place they called home.
Those who live free do not understand how the condition of servitude and the hopelessness of universal oppression conditions the psyche and defines the limits of possible. And it makes what Asher Levy did all the more extraordinary.
Jews came to New Amsterdam by happenstance. Fleeing the Spanish conquest of the Dutch colony of Recife, 23 Jews were dumped in New Amsterdam. Peter Stuyvesant sought to expell the Jews, but Jewish shareholders of the Dutch East India Company persuaded the company to grant permission for the Jews to stay “so long as they do not become a burden to the company or the community.”
Determined to isolate the Jewish "invasion," Stuyvesant persuaded the colonial council to adopt the same limitations on the Jews as elsewhere in the world. The Jews were frobidden to stand night gaurd -- a duty of all male colonists. To compensate for this "special treatment," the council also enacted a fee for Jews to pay to hire replacement guards. Had this disability remained, it would established in the New World the same discriminations and disabilities of the old. Religion would have remained a suitable dividing line between true citizens and second class residents permitted to live on sufferance, bounded by the old restraints of servitude and humiliation.
Amazingly, Asher Levy said no. He demanded the right to stand guard and refused to pay the tax. When denied, he sued in court. Singlehandedly, Asher Levy invented the idea of civil rights litigation and argued that the New World would not follow the pattern of the old. That here, at least, members of different religions would have the freedom to worship and still enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship. After a two year court battle, he won his case and established the principle that government would not seek to establish religion by imposing disabilities and special taxes on non-believers.
Asher Levy's victories continued. He sued for the right to operate as a butcher without being required to slaughter hogs. This established yet another vital principle. That we DO NOT give up our faith to enjoy citizenship. One need not choose between being Jewish (or any other religion) and being a citizen. Where accomodation can be made, the government ought to do so. Every Seventh Day Adventists taking an SAT on Sunday instead of Saturday owes a debt to Asher Levy and his lawsuit to operate a slaughter house without slaughtering pig.
Finally, as a crowning achievement, Asher Levy won the right to sit on a jury and judge Christians as a "peer". It is almost impossible to appreciate today what this meant. For the first time, whether or not one was considered an equal fit to sit in judgement depended not on whether you were a brother in Christ, but a brother citizen of the new land in which all could practice their own faith.
This is what the Freedom of Religion means to me, and why I love and honor this country. Yes, we as a people have often fallen far short of our ideals. I do not forget that while Asher Levy was winning rights for me and my coreligionists, the evil of slavery was laying its foundations; that the country which could break from the religious persecution of the old world could still conceive and birth a system that would treat fellow human beings as cattle and create a system of prejudice and oppression that reverberates to this day. Nevertheless, it is a land that enshrined the ideal of freedom and equality -- and that too reverberates to this day.
As I write this, it is the Fast of the 17th Day of the Jewish Month of Tamuz. This begins a period of three weeks of mourning, culminating in the 25 hour fast of the Ninth of Av. During this time, we remember the lengthy and bitter days of our Exile since the Destruction of the Temple by Titus in 70 CE, and we pray that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will forgive our sins and bring the final days of Redemption. And in that long bitter history, in which Jews were expelled from nearly every nation of Europe and Asia and North Africa, forced to suffer segregation, with the best that one could hope for was tolerance, the United States of America stands out as a beacon of hope and freedom. Because Asher Levy fought the incipient forces of theocracy, challenged the status quo, and won.
This is what freedom of religion means to me. This is what I have to lose, and why I blog against the theocracy.
Stay tuned . . . . AND GOD BLESS AMERICA!