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Quebec's Bill 21 and   Religious Freedom

01/04/19 12:49:18 PM


I wrote this dvar Torah a few months ago when the CAQ came into power, and were considering a ban on religious symbols for provincial workers.  Last week the legislation, Bill 21 was tabled, and the party hopes that it will pass. Premier Francios Legault was quoted as saying that the bill is not about denying rights but about creating a "neutral" and secular society: “Secularism is not contrary to freedom of religion. Each can practice the religion of their choice. But we have to set rules, and that’s what we’re doing."

This bill is clearly not about protecting anyone's rights, or about any form of compassionate secularism. It is about fear, ignorance and is difficult to see as anything but racist. As I write in my reflections on Parshat Vayera, this bill is a dangerous move backwards in our vision of creating a free and democratic society.

Vayera 5779

Given at Congregation Dorshei Emet, October 27th, 2018

There are some things you don’t really think about until you read a news headline.  For most of my life, I had worn my kippah like most liberal Jews when I was in a synagogue or attending a program in a Jewish institution where it felt appropriate, but I had never made the jump to wearing it full time.  I do remember an experiment when I was a student leader at my university Hillel, and I decided to to wear my kippah for a full day around campus, in classes or wherever I was. I was surprisingly self conscious. I didn’t want people to make assumptions about how I identified.  I assumed that most people would be able to make the connection with my kippah and my identity as a Jew, but people might also make assumptions about other values.  

Considering that it is usually Orthodox Jews who wear kippot outside of the synagogue, I somehow was not sure what generalizations people would make.  They might think that I didn't believe in egalitarian values, or that I was a right wing supporter of Israel, or even that I believed in one kind of God or way of seeing the world. At this stage of the game, I was still exploring my own Jewish identity and I was a bit unsure about whether I was ready to take this plunge to wear the kippah full time, but it was clear that wearing this very visible symbol of my religious identity was a heavy choice.  But it wasn’t until many years later when I started rabbincal school that I made the vow to wear my kippah full time during the day, and it has been on since that day.  

What does this little piece of fabric symbolize, and  what does it mean to wear this clear symbol of Judaism on my head? I’ll admit, it actually has very little to do with faith, or honoring God, but for me the kippah is definitely a symbol.  First it is a powerful land enduring symbol of my identity as a Jew--it reminds of my connection with my history and my heritage and ensures that I stay rooted and reminded of those who came before me. It is also a reminder to live an ethical life, and to live with compassion and values both inside and outside my home.  If I wear a kippah I know that with every act I do, I am not only doing as myself, but I also do as a representative of the Jewish people.  I am not Orthodox, I am a liberal, feminist, constantly evolving creative Jew who is unable to put my Jewish identity into a box.  Yet, when I wear a kippah, I am proudly saying whether davenning shul with other Jews, at the Pride parade, sipping a cup of coffee in a relaxed but non Montreal Kosher certified cafe with friends, or an interfaith gathering, that I am Jewish and I want all to see.

And yes, there is a part of the act of wearing a kippah that is a simple act of pride and a statement of survival.  When I wore it on the streets of Warsaw when I was a rabbi in Poland, walking past the place where Jews were loaded on trains to the Ghetto.  Or when I wore it in the mall in the small town in Oregon where I worked, where many people had never met a flesh and blood Jew before. Or when I wear it in a French speaking village in eastern Quebec receiving curious looks from people who pass--I am saying in a very clear and simple way--Jews are here, we have survived and we are proud, and I am proud.  

This little circle of fabric is such a part of who I am that I do not feel like myself without it on, so much so that when I do lose a my kippah, which happens more than I would like to admit, and I am forced to go bare headed, I simply do not feel like myself.  Like so many others who wear a kippah, or a hijab, or a Sikh turban, a cross around their neck or any religious or cultural symbol, they are not just shapes, or a piece of fabric.  They are markers of faith and identity in a way that only the individual wearing it can understand, and they are core to who these people are and how they relate to the world.  To take away this experience of wearing these symbols, this core act away, is to take away much more than a piece of clothing.  It is, in a very real way, taking away part of one's life.

I of course bring this up, because kippot and hijabs, turbans and crosses have been in the news recently. As we know all too well, since the recent election, the new CAQ premier Francois Legault has been pushing to have a ban on governments representative wearing religious symbols, including hijabs, turbans and kippahs.  The reason given for this ban is “state neutrality”, a belief that a person should not make a statement about their religious beliefs if they are representing the government. They also hope to expand this ban to teachers, believing that children are especially susceptible to being influenced by not just the values of their teacher, but apparently also their clothing.

On the surface, if you read some of the articles about the proposed ban, it is clear that the CAQ knows how to try to influence the public, and their reasoning seems simple enough.  Yet, when they remind us that the cross would not be part of the ban, because it is a “cultural symbol” of Quebec, not a religious symbol, their whole system falls apart. As we know similar bans have been tried before, not only in Quebec, but also in multiple US states, France other European countries.  In many cases, the bans make it to the courts, or they simply are deemed by public opinion to be unfair or unethical, but in a few cases, the bans have survived.

The French ban from 2010 was especially harsh and still survives, moving beyond legislating what a person can wear and moving into people's daily choices.  The law in France said, that its goal is to check the spread of extremist viewpoints, in schools and other institutions. Yet it also forces disciplinary action against students who refuse for religious reasons to take part in activities that some religious individuals consider improper, such as swimming lessons with members of both genders or sex education classes. If a girl wears a long skirt that is fine, but if she does so because she is religious she will be punished.  We haven’t yet reached this point in Quebec, and I hope that we are not on our way.

We of course could have a conversation about the values inherent in the CAQ ban, about whether it is truly about neutrality for people from all faiths and cultures or  whether it is in fact is rooted in a fear of Muslims. Yet, one of the core issues is what happens when one group’s values are turned into law. What happens when the values of one group are forced on others and when people are not allowed to live their live with freedom to make their own choices?

This week’s Torah portion describes the famous argument between Abraham and God about God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham asking how many good people would need to be found in these cities to have them be spared.  The reasons for God’s decision is unclear, as we read : “And the Lord said, 'Since the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave'" (Gen. 18:20). The Torah tells us very little about what sins are being committed that would bring on such anger from God, but the rabbis fill in the details.

Rabbinic legends about Sodom describe that the land had a wealth of natural resources, including precious stones, silver and gold, where every path was lined with seven layers of fruit trees.  The people of Sodom were fearful of others coming into their land and taking their wealth, of corrupting their way of life, so they took the step to create laws to ensure that others would not feel welcome in their land.  In Sodom, it was not only that the people were unkind, it was that kindness was actually legislated out of the society. In Sodom, compassion and hospitality were deemed illegal, and the midrash tells us how far these laws went: “They had beds [in Sodom] upon which travelers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out” (Sanhedrin 109b). They not only avoided welcoming guests and abused them, but punished those who reached out to others. “Rabbi Yehudah said: They issued a proclamation in Sodom saying: ‘Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!’” (Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer 25).  These laws went even further, assuring that criminals were rewarded and victims were punished. If you injured another person, you were paid for hurting them. The laws prohibited giving charity, or helping those in need. One legend claims that when a beggar would walk into Sodom, everyone would write their names on a coin and give them to the beggar, but then no one would sell them bread. When the person died, everyone would then take back their money.

These are horrifying descriptions given by the rabbis about the lengths that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah would take to legislate cruelty, and yet while they might make us cringe, they are clearly symbolic examples of what could happen if a society takes the power to legislate too far into the lives of its citizens.

A society, a government can and should make laws to protect it people.  Every person should have the right to safety, to education and I would argue to access to healthcare and other needs.  We can work to create a society that is rooted in compassion and a desire to better the lives of those in need, by creating laws that ensure resources are available for those who need them.  There can be laws for helping people in poverty, there can be laws preventing violence and promoting tolerance, and I would argue that Canada is on the path for doing this better than most. Yet, for better or worse, no one, no person, no government can legislate kindness, and as we can see from the rabbinic texts, we also know that in reality, we also can’t successfully legislate cruelty and hold onto any semblance of a democratic society.  A person’s values, a person's beliefs and their ways of seeing their world are entirely theirs--what they read and learn, who they love, what they believe, what they wear--no matter how hard we may try, these are things that we shouldn't necessarily touch. We can create laws that regulate behavior, and we know that there are same places, some countries that have legislated behaviors that we would not condone.  But no matter how hard we may try, we can’t legislate the feelings, the values and beliefs that people hold inside their minds and their hearts.  

And going back to the CAQ ban--if only this was about religious symbols.  It is not, and this is what makes is so complicated and so wrong. As they say, it may be quite true that for many people the cross is a cultural symbol and that a person who wears it around their neck may be expressing pride in their Quebec heritage or identity, and therefore they should have a right to wear it.  But this is denying that for some, that same cross is actually a powerful reminder of Jesus’s love and their deep Christian values. And if this is true, we also have to know that a hijab, a Sikh turban, a kippah is also not necessarily symbolic of only one thing--it may be, as deemed by the CAQ to be a religious symbol, but it most likely is also like my kippah is for me, a statement of pride in my history, a reminder to live and ethical life, and simply a reminder that we are all different.  It is not up to us or any government to decide what this symbol, what any symbol means to me. If this is something the CAQ wants to take away, then they are taking away more than a symbol, they are taking away some of the most important values of our society--freedom of expression, and freedom of belief.

Laws should be to protect and allow to live in safety and freedom so that we can live up to our fullest potential, connection with our values and our identities in a way that feels right for us.  You can’t legislate goodness, any more than you can legislate cruelty, but if we start we working to create a society that honors and respects differences, that creates a safe space to express our cultural and religious beliefs and traditions, then people will be more likely to live with compassion and kindness towards each other. Banning this freedom of expression is the beginning of creating a society of judgment and ignorance, and I am not willing to head down this path. I am not taking off my kippah, because I will not take away my deep pride in who I am and how I connect with my tradition and history.  And everyone else should wear their kippot, their hijabs, their turbans, and their crosses with their own sense of pride, and above all know that no one is going to rip it away from them.  

Fri, November 22 2019 24 Cheshvan 5780