Strangers and Neighbors

On Sept. 10, the Agora Institute hosted a lecture by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik. Entitled “Religious Freedom and the Flourishing City,” this lecture, which was part history lesson, part political treatise, provided a compelling vision for religion in 21st-century America. Rabbi Soloveichik is a prominent Jewish theologian. In addition to being Rabbi of the Congregation Shearith Israel, he is also the director of Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought.

Rabbi Soloveichik framed his lecture around the metaphor of strangers and neighbors. As people of various faith traditions, we are strangers and neighbors to those who do not share our religious beliefs and convictions. We are neighbors because we dwell together – dwelling not just in terms of geographic proximity but also as people in relationship with one another. There can be, indeed should be, love between neighbors, even if they do not share the same religious tradition. Nevertheless, we also are strangers and will need to remain strangers for as long as our religious traditions differ.

What does religious liberty look like within the context of a society that is made up of strangers-who-are-also-neighbors? The danger in current political thought is to say that religion is private and must be kept out of the public square, as if freedom of religion extended only to private worship. But this, Rabbi Soloveichik argues, is not in keeping with the founding vision of America. Religious freedom must also include the freedom to serve society as an expression of one’s religious convictions. This is particularly true when one’s religion values service to society as a greater good. If we are not free to express our religious convictions in service to our country, then we are not truly free at all.

This belief, that freedom of religion must include the right to serve society, animated the life of Jonas Phillips, a Jewish merchant and veteran of the Revolutionary War. During the early days of America’s founding, Phillips wrote a letter to George Washington in which he lamented that Jews wishing to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature were required to swear an oath upon a Christian (Old and New Testaments) Bible, an act of blasphemy for the Jewish people. He asked for that requirement to be removed so that there would not be a barrier keeping Jewish citizens from being able to participate in civic society.

Perhaps the most stirring picture of this stranger-neighbor dynamic at work in the flourishing city comes from an intriguing vignette from American history that Rabbi Soloveichik shared. On the morning of July 4, 1788, at a patriotic parade, a newspaper reported that “the clergy of different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, [were] walking arm in arm.” This parade must have been a powerful scene to behold, neighbors walking arm in arm. But when the parade was over, the people gathered around tables of food, and the Jewish patriots gathered around their own table of kosher food. Thus, these neighbors were also strangers, their religious differences irreconcilable.

As our country becomes more diverse, Rabbi Soloveichik’s words will continue to increase in importance. We would do well to remember these lessons from history and to guard the right to religious liberty for all in our country. We must, for the sake of the flourishing city, live as both stranger and neighbor, working together where we can, disagreeing when we are compelled to and loving one another all the while. A good starting place for us today is learning to listen to others with empathy and choosing to celebrate the common ground we share. When we do disagree, a commitment to civility and a willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt in their motives will allow space for healthy conversation.

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