Sunday, February 8, 2015

Love, Law, and Social Justice--A Countercultural Jewish Response to the Add the Words Discussion, Hearing, and Vote

Before voting down our amendment to add the words to Idaho's Human Rights Act, most of the Republican lawmakers argued that we cannot legislate morality, quoting biblical verses such as the "Golden Rule."
While some of this is, I believe, just hypocrisy and rationalization for the moral failure implicit in their "no" votes, this attitude also reflects one strand of the Christian tradition, which has often derided Judaism as "legalistic" (as opposed to the New Testament's supposed emphasis on love). This notion of love over law, rooted in some aspects of Christianity, liberal and conservative alike, has also become part of our secular culture. Just consider the famous teaching of the Beatles, heard at so many of the anti-war protests of the 1960s: "All you need is love."
Judaism does NOT believe that all you need is love. For love is essential, but it does not always translate into justice. In Judaism, we celebrate law.
But our embrace of law is not the dry legalism that some falsely portray it to be. For us, law is the primary vehicle for social change. We realize that changing the law will not immediately change the hearts of those legally bound to follow it. But we have an important talmudic principle that applies here: "Mi-tokh she lo lishma, ba lishma--what is done at first with the wrong intention or for the wrong reason, can, in the process, take on the right intention, and eventually be done for the right reason." In other words, behavior precedes, rather than follows, belief. No, you cannot legislate kindness. But you CAN and MUST legislate justice--and then live with the faith that, over time, kindness will follow.
Besides, quite frankly, justice matters more than kindness. As a Jew, I do not care if my landlord, employer and public accommodations providers (yes, including my florists and cake bakers) love me or are even kind to me. I don't need their love, because I have more than enough love from my own family, friends, and community. What I need from those who hire, house, and serve me is simple: fairness. Nothing more, and nothing less. And how do we change their behavior, to bring it in line with fairness? We make fairness the law. I believe this is true for my friends in the LGBT community as well. They don't need their bosses and landlords to love them. What they need are jobs and business transactions and places to live that are free of fear of unjust firing, eviction, and harassment.
While he was not Jewish, Rev. Martin Luther King understood this very well. This is not surprising, for as his friend and fellow activist, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, Dr. King practiced a version of Christianity that was deeply rooted in the Jewish traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures (aka "Old Testament"). And so, in response to those who argued that one cannot legislate morality, Dr. King famously preached the following in 1963:
"Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also."
So yes, Republican policy makers, we can and should legislate morality. Because all of your talk about the Golden Rule, unaccompanied by the teeth of the law, is a bunch of empty platitudes.
For three days, members of the LGBT community shared their gut-wrenching stories of harm. Their job was to change hearts. They succeeded.
Then Republican legislators, without exception, refused to recognize that their job is to align the law with what is fair. When you serve the people in the Statehouse, "loving your neighbor as yourself" means extending legal protection to those neighbors. Period. That is your job.

By failing to make law, you fail to do that job and prove that your ethical platitudes are bankrupt.

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