Between God and Country

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by R. Gil Student

My article in today’s Jewish World Review

In a classic episode of All In The Family, a television repairman tells Archie Bunker that he cannot finish the job because sundown on Friday was approaching. As a religious Jew, he had to observe the Sabbath. Archie offered to pay him extra to finish the job on Friday night, opining that turning down money is also against the Jewish religion.

Offensive stereotypes aside, neither Archie Bunker nor anyone else should have the right to tell someone how to observe his religion. Freedom of religion means freedom to practice my religion as I understand it. This country was built on the idealism and strong community spirit of religion. Yet, despite the great progress Jews and other minorities have made in the past decades, Orthodox Jews still face religious barriers.

Personally, I believe that Leviticus 19 forbids shaving beards with a razor but allows use of some electric shavers, which technically avoid this prohibition. Therefore, I feel religiously free to shave my beard and did so for many years. Other Orthodox Jews follow a stricter tradition, some never completely shaving off the beard and some never trimming it at all. Orthodox Jews who maintain their beards have recently suffered discrimination. In 2009, a medic in Pikesville, MD, sued for discrimination because he was forced to choose between his beard and his service as a medic. In the same year, a rabbi in Florida was rejected for service as an army chaplain because refused to shave his beard.

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.


  1. Your position seems inconsistent. You support a law to force private employers to hire the Orthodox Jew with the beard or who can’t work on Shabbos against their judgement, while simultaneously support a law protecting employers who want to discriminate against a gay married couple.
    I suppose that you could distinguish the cases by saying that in the case of the beard or Shabbos, the employer was not motivated by a protected religious principle. But the result would be perverse: if there is a secular reason to not hire the Orthodox Jew, this should be overridden by law. But if the employer had a sincere religious belief that Orthodox Jews were the devil incarnate, his discrimination would be protected.
    Or else you could try to distinguish that same-sex marriage is not motivated by religion while the beard/Shabbos is. That sounds questionable, since same-sex marriage like any other marriage will often be religiously motivated.
    I think that people’s religious liberties are likely protected better with fewer laws regulating private employers/businesses, since any such law can always end up forcing you to do something that you don’t believe in.

    • I don’t see the inconsistency. When there is a conflict between two rights and no compromise is possible, one has to take priority. I am asking that religious freedom take priority. I could argue from a secular viewpoint about the historical importance to this country of religious freedom but in our community–where our ability to observe the Torah is a life necessity–I should not need to do that.

      • Rabbi Student, thank you very much for the response. But I don’t think that the statement of a general preference for the right of religious freedom solves the paradoxes that I presented. Let me try to draw them in sharper relief:
        If I’m an old-fashioned Christian with anti-Semitic views, and/or I don’t want to hire someone who celebrates Sabbath on the wrong day and thereby commits a heresy, your principle would indicate that I should be able to avoid hiring the Jewish Sabbath observer, even if it has nothing to do with the job. It fits your principle, but seems opposite to your desired goal.
        On the other hand, if my religion highly values marriage and thus I marry my same-sex spouse as a heartfelt religious commitment, then an employer (and shopkeeper?) should not be allowed to treat me any differently from other employees/customers. Is that your position? Similarly, it fits your principle but runs up against your goals and policy preference.
        I would also add that what you seem to be looking for is religious accommodation, not just freedom. You are telling the employer to make changes to his practices, even if they are not anti-religion, in order to make it easier to practice the religion that you are free to practice. Not that this is wrong, but it should be made explicit what is being asked for.

      • I agree. i would add, that I dont think any one is advocating for a right not serve or employ an individual because they are gay, this is discrimination, but only for the right not to be forced to participate, even indirectly in a same sex marriage. These two things are very different.

        • Moshe Shosan:
          You can read the text of the Bill that R. Student is supporting here.
          It prevents the state from sanctioning individuals or businesses who discriminate between employees in certain ways based on the employer’s religious convictions about marriage. So it increases the latitude of an employer to treat employees differently (discriminate) based on the the employer’s view of marriage.
          So hypothetically, an employer could say that his religious view is that the Pharisees were complicit in Deicide and therefore any marriage conducted under their rules are repugnant. So all people married by Rabbis are not treated the same as other employees or potential employees.
          I get what the Bill is trying to do and I do believe we should try to avoid compelling people to violate their religious beliefs in order to stay in business even when we find those beliefs repugnant, for example even if those beliefs are effectively anti-Semitic.
          But this greater freedom for people to conduct business in the way they see fit according their beliefs is inconsistent with a desire to have the government step in to regulate businesses so that they hire people who don’t work on Shabbos or who refuse to shave.

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