There’s an old Jewish joke that goes like this: A Jew finds himself stranded on a desert island for many years, until finally one day he is discovered. The rescuers observe that he has erected two structures which he’s labeled as synagogues. “Why two,” they ask, “when there’s only one of you?” “One is the synagogue I go to,” he explains, “the other is the one I’d never step foot into.”
Unlike Catholics, Jews can break up into as many denominations as their imaginations will allow. And each is presumably free to deny their ritual services to all others. Presumably.
There has been a to-do recently about Christian businesses refusing to cater the events of gay people, or who say they would refuse should the circumstances arise (though, curiously, no one is at all upset about the Muslim businesses that do and say the same). And now Jonah Goldberg and Aaron Goldstein have gotten themselves caught up in the debate on the narrower issue of whether a Rabbi refusing to marry an interfaith couple, is analogous to the florist, or pizzeria, or bakery, or chicken sandwich store, standing on their faith when asked to do something contrary to their conscience.
At first blush, the rabbi analogy doesn’t seem to fit the other cases, for surely religion is different from commerce. But wait. In Britain it does fit. For in December 2009, the United Kingdom Supreme Court held that an Orthodox Jewish school did not have the right to give admission preference to those who were defined as Jewish under a 3500-year-old law. For 3500 years, the more conservative branches of Judaism have, in accordance with the Torah, defined as Jewish only those who were born to a Jewish mother or who had converted to Judaism in accordance with the traditional procedures acceptable to that branch. But an interfaith couple where the mother was Christian objected and the court ruled in their favor, thereby trashing faith and tradition. With a single stroke, the UK Supreme Court arrogated to itself the power to decide who is a Jew.
There is an underlying assumption at work here that everyone must conform to a single state-approved identity, that individual differences and preferences must not be tolerated. And with every decision that denies to an individual the right to stand with those whom he prefers, our toleration of diversity is eroded. Jews have a prayer that they recite each morning. It’s a prayer in praise of the diversity that God has created. We thank God for making us who we are and for making others who are different from us. And that’s why the joke about the Jew who built two synagogues is so enduring. It captures our desire to be able to define ourselves as we wish.