Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Freedom to Choose
Thirty years ago, we witnessed the horror taking place at Tiananmen Square. On television, we had first-row seats to the unbelievable sight of tanks bearing down on a student protestor and the brutality of the Communist regime against democracy seekers. Their passionate and life-threatening demonstrations were heartbreaking pleas for freedom.
Their anguish is reflected throughout history. In Torah, the Hebrew word “tza-a-kah,” describes the heartbreaking plea of the Israelites in Egypt. More than any other cry, it’s this unique plea for help that aroused God’s response. Transformational change began when the scene was set for the Israelites to make an exodus from Egypt. Their freedom was the beginning of a long journey that would take them from bondage to revelation at Sinai. Since that day, Torah and its teachings have guided the Jewish people to live as a free people. Freedom, defined, doesn’t mean living according to just any law or rule. Freedom isn’t the same as moral relativism where anything that feels right is right. Instead, freedom is the privilege to choose to live according to a set of rules and laws. At best, that choice is made as a community of people or a civilization of tradition-bound peoples who seek meaning in perpetuating their customs and traditions.
In Judaism, we learn in Talmud, “Dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law. In the United States, American law comes before Jewish law. For example, a Jewish wedding document, a ketubah, does not constitute a marriage decree without a marriage license from the state. Similarly, a “get,” a Jewish divorce decree, does not constitute a divorce without a civil court proceeding. Within the Jewish community, we can observe unique religious obligations, but they don’t come before or above U.S. law.
More notably, on the case of abortion Judaism is pro-choice. Judaism is pro-choice, because the pro-life movement has drawn such severe lines that it prevents Jews from engaging its own ethical treatment of abortion. We need Roe v Wade, because within the pro-choice model there’s room for clergy to be engaged by their followers. In clergy counseling, appropriate decisions can be made that are consistent with one’s faith. I have been approached by couples for such counseling, and the ethical decision they ultimately make enables them to fulfill their personal covenant with God. Severe abortion laws leave no room for personal choice that is guided by one’s faith and clergy.
The Tiananmen Square protestors didn’t seek an exodus from China, or a completely counter-cultural experience. Rather, they sought freedom to participate in fashioning their future in a more democratic political environment. The legacy of their effort resonates in us, because it is only within a democratic political environment that we, as Jews, can thrive. We trust and cherish the Constitution and American law; they reflect Jewish values and democratic freedoms. They also provide for freedom from state-sanctioned religion so that we can abide by our own faith and fulfill our covenant with God, as we are commanded to do.
Sometimes we have to protest to preserve our rights even in America; other times, we have to protest for those who can’t protest for themselves. Thankfully, we are free to choose our future, but we are never free from the duty to preserve it. In our daily prayers, we say, “Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Who has made me free” (sheh-asani ben/bat chorin).
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST. Listeners around the greater Houston area, and now the internet, tune in to hear his words about life and its meaning from a Jewish point-of-view. Each radio program is available as a Podcast, called “Heart to Heart with Rabbi David Lyon”. Click here to listen online, or download the iHeartRadio app.