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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lessons of Thanksgiving

Throughout our history, the Jewish People has always championed causes of religious pluralism and a reverence for the rule of law, whether for Jewish law or the legal systems of the countries in which we have resided. The holiday of Thanksgiving serves as a foundational narrative for both the value of religious pluralism and the creation of the greatest legislation enacting the freedoms of religious practice that have ever been known to humanity; for those of the United States of America.

Thanksgiving is unique among our country's national holidays. Its roots are found neither in the ritual traditions of the Christian faith nor in the events or personalities of our country’s national history. In this sense, Thanksgiving is indeed reflective of a formative, pre-American narrative. It is a root-narrative shared alike by every migrant group that escaped persecution and coercion elsewhere to seek freedom. All Americans can derive important lessons about the freedoms we cherish from the story of Thanksgiving.

The first lesson is that laws are an expression of human experience, at least as much so as they may create the context for our future experience. We often imagine that our laws themselves protect our freedom. But, the Pilgrims flight from the religious persecution and coercion of Europe, in search of an opportunity to practice their faith freely, reminds all Americans that our underlying historical narratives of persecution and liberation are at the heart of all legislation that guarantee our freedom. Therefore, one important lesson of Thanksgiving, intuitive to the Pilgrims and transformed into legal codification by our nation’s founders, is that it is only to the extent that we remember our stories of liberation as Americans that we are likely to protect the laws that, in turn, protect our freedoms. No law stands forever unless it is reaffirmed; unless we remind ourselves of its purposes. Our legal protection does not depend upon the law itself, but rather upon our acute awareness of our collective national narrative, beginning with those who preceded the birth of our nation and inspired its great, new vision of freedom.

The second important lesson of Thanksgiving relates to the essential social contract that is implicit in American citizenship. This social contract must reflect an uncompromising commitment to religious pluralism in our society. There are two principles that must always comprise America’s pluralistic social contract: (1) Every faith community deserves its freedom of religious belief and practice in our country; (2) Likewise, all faith traditions must champion the value, practice, and legal tradition that protects religious freedom in America in order to ensure that any of us continues to enjoy the blessings of such freedom in our country.

As Americans of any faith, we must always remember that the social contract of religious pluralism requires of us not only to defend the freedoms afforded our own and other faith communities but also to demand of ourselves and of others that we and they do the same. There is an assumed “legal consideration” among all parties to the American pluralistic social contract whose enduring existence cannot be assured without our equal pursuit and implementation of both of these important components.

Thanksgiving is a festival of gratitude. In the Jewish tradition, we refer to this value as hakarat ha-tov – literally “the acknowledgment of the good” bestowed upon us by our Creator and/or by our fellow human beings. To be grateful, however, is not simply to feel a feeling or to recall with symbolic ritual a sense of gratitude dating back to the past and even felt sentimentally or substantially in the present. It is vital that we remain committed to the religious freedom enjoyed by all faith communities and committed to laws by our nation’s founders; it is equally important that we insist that such commitment is shared by all other faith communities - and their leaders, in word and in deed. Along with the retelling of the American story, from the period prior to our nation’s birth and onward, nuanced and broad adherence to both principles of the social contract of religious pluralism will ensure that our freedoms endure.  In this regard, to be vigilant is to grateful.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, located at 5721 Crestridge Rd., in Rancho Palos Verdes. To learn more about the synagogue's extensive children's and adult programming, or to attend religious services, please consult Ner Tamid's website,, or call (310)377-6986.