Rabbi Yaakov Menken of the Coalition for Jewish Values joined American Greatness Publisher, Chris Buskirk, on the Seth and Chris Show to discuss developments on questions of religious liberty since the election of President Trump. You can tune in to the discussion at the link below or scroll down to read the transcript.
Seth Leibsohn: We’re mass communicating here. Welcome to the Seth and Chris Show. I’m Seth Leibsohn, he’s Chris Buskirk. It is Monday, November 20th.
Chris Buskirk: We’re joined by a special guest who I’ve been looking forward to for a while since I booked him, Rabbi Yaakov Menken is a friend, and a friend of the show. As his title would suggest, Rabbi Menken is in fact, a rabbi. Yeah, we’re good like that. We can figure these things out and we want to talk about his perspective on some of the religious liberty issues that have been percolating out there both legally and in our culture for a while. Rabbi, welcome.
Rabbi Menken: Thank you for having me.
Chris Buskirk: It’s always a pleasure. I read those two items that you sent to me and it was interesting. One of the things I know that was in a lot of religious people’s minds in 2016 as we were leading up to the election, it’s sort of receded for the moment, but it never really goes away is that a Hillary Clinton administration would, I think, have been really disastrous for religious liberty, but so many of the issues that were on the front burner under Obama would have certainly had the heat turned up, under Clinton have been “back burnered,” but they’re not gone. What are the issues as you see them?
Rabbi Menken: Well, the phenomenal change is that the Trump justice department has now filed in favor of the Masterpiece Bakery baker, Jack Phillips. The Masterpiece Bakery case, of course, is the fellow who refused to bake a cake for a same gender marriage. He didn’t have a problem with baking cakes for gay people. That’s a false depiction of what the situation is. It’s all about the fake news surrounding the actual story. He just said, “I regard my creativity as a celebration of my religion and I participate in the religious sacrament of marriage when I design a cake and so for me to participate in a same sex marriage would be violating my faith,” and for that, he was sued for discrimination.
Chris Buskirk: Right. Right, and so how—
Rabbi Menken: You should know of how thoroughly the fake news is, I think you’ll love this. I’m now Rabbi Space Alien.
Chris Buskirk: Why is that?
Rabbi Menken: You’re going to love this, because the over at the Centennial Institute, Colorado Christian University’s think tank on public policy. They had a rally because, in fact, there in Lakewood, Colorado, right where Masterpiece Bakery is, and they had a rally for Jack Phillips and they asked me to come speak at the rally and join everybody else. And I kind of I warned everybody, I said with the fake news is fakes news. I told a really terrible pun, and then I said don’t boo, because you know how the media will broadcast this, “Christian university boos rabbi.”
Chris Buskirk: Right, right, exactly.
Rabbi Menken: Right, you know that’s what coming. Okay, so then I make a very good example of … I said, of course they’re confused, because there’s only two genders to work with. That’s why they’re getting confused between saying, I can only participate in a biblical marriage, which is one man and one woman, like it says in the book of Genesis, versus discriminating against something else. I said if space alien’s come to earth, they would solve the problem. Space aliens are of course, not a matter of same gender, ET comes to planet earth, and the courts decide that Bill or Sally can marry ET. But the problem is, that’s not a biblical marriage, it’s not between one man and one woman, despite what it says on Star Trek. They’re not going to be able to procreate, have children, with human beings. Therefore, Jack can’t bake them a cake. See? The whole point of that example of course, is to find something that has nothing to do with gay marriage, and yet, in certain segments of the media that was immediately portrayed as, “Rabbi compares gays to space aliens.”
Chris Buskirk: Let me ask you this, is how big an issue-
Rabbi Menken: I’m not making this up, I’m not-
Chris Buskirk: No, I know. Look, we see it all the time. My stock example here is to say that if Donald Trump was seen walking across the top of the White House pool, meaning walking on water, The New York Times would blare a headline the following morning, “President Trump can’t swim.”
Rabbi Menken: Yes, exactly.
Chris Buskirk: I mean, this is, it’s all how you portray these things. The issue that I know you’re concerned about, I am to, is how the courts and some of the civil rights offices that are buried within state government and federal government, how are they handling religious liberty issues today under the Trump administration, and how has that changed, if it has?
Rabbi Menken: I don’t know that it has changed. None of the court cases have been dropped. There are five or six other cases coming through the courts that are all waiting to see what the Masterpiece Bakery decision will be. There’s a florist in Washington, there’s a media company in Massachusetts, and a T-shirt producer if I’m not mistaken, and the … I think Kentucky or something like that. All who are represented at this rally, because all of their cases are following on the tails of Masterpiece Bakery. From what I understood, none of them have been dropped yet. That is alarming but it’s not as if Trump can, himself, change who the judges are.
Chris Buskirk: Right.
Rabbi Menken: He can only appoint new ones when they retire.
Chris Buskirk: Yep, that’s right. That’s right. Let me ask you this. From your perspective as a rabbi in the Orthodox community, what do you see as the main threats to religious liberty right now? What are the things that we need to be paying attention to?
Rabbi Menken: I honestly think that that case, the Masterpiece Bakery, is probably the biggest one on the horizon. There are all sorts of little things going on. Actually, I’m sorry, this is another very important case, in Florida, Pensacola, Florida, had a cross on public property displayed there for 80 years, and along comes a group of people claiming to be offended observers. They’re bothered by seeing that there’s a religious display. If that were allowed to have any credibility at all, then that means that in the future, a jurisdiction might be afraid to allow any religious activities to take places on public property because then they might get sued. Even the fact of a lawsuit, obviously, even the threat of a lawsuit. There’s something called flaps, a lawsuit design to prevent public participation. The threat of a lawsuit is something which prevents people from doing things they ought to be allowed to do and-
Chris Buskirk: Well sure, you see this with institutions, whether it be businesses or non-profit institutions like a university in this case, or towns, counties, cities. Those sorts of things. They just don’t want the headache. They don’t want to-
Rabbi Menken: Exactly.
Chris Buskirk: They don’t want to spend the money-
Rabbi Menken: Exactly.
Chris Buskirk: They don’t want the headache so it’s easy for them to just fold.
Rabbi Menken: Once you have a headache. You have a problem. Masterpiece Bakery is one type of case, the offended observer is another, where all of a sudden, people can get … Of course we come at it from, the Jewish community comes at it from the perspective of a minority religious community, which has all too often seen itself on the wrong end of bigotry and discrimination, and so we’re very sensitive to the idea that those could be used as cudgels to use the court system to trample civil rights that have enhanced them, which is exactly what’s going on in the Masterpiece Bakery case, but could go on in so many of these others.
Chris Buskirk: Right, I mean, this is the season, right? I mean, October, November, December is the season where we get cases about nativity scenes and we get all these things, every single year because there is a group of people in this country, that they exist in order to agitate on behalf of eliminating these observances from public life.
Rabbi Menken: At what point are they not going to allow a religious group to parade down a street?
Chris Buskirk: I think their answer would be a soon as possible.
Rabbi Menken: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Freedom of religion was never designed to mean freedom from ever seeing any signs of religious life in America. That’s not what that-
Chris Buskirk: Not just that but it’s action, it’s practice, too. I mean Obama was explicit about this, which is that he hemmed that part of the first amendment, though, the expression, freedom of religion into what you do on whatever your Sabbath is, whether it be Saturday or Sunday, or whatever. Sure, whatever you do at a church or in a synagogue, and whatever you think, okay, as long as you never talk about it. As long as you don’t practice it, then fine. He had this very circumscribed view of religious liberty.
Rabbi Menken: Absolutely, I hear the music and-
Chris Buskirk: Yeah.
Rabbi Menken: . . . we’re going to break?
Chris Buskirk: Yeah, that’s right, we’re going to run into it, we’re going to run into a break, rabbi. We’re going to go to this break, but on the other side of this, I just wanted to talk about how can people of faith, and people who just, maybe not of faith but who believe in religious liberty and in genuine tolerance, not the phony tolerance practiced and preached by the left. How can we work together in order to reinvigorate the First Amendment protections that we’ve held dear. We’ll be right back with Rabbi Yaakov Menken. He is with the Coalition for Jewish Values. We’ll be right back.
Hi, I’m Chris Buskirk, he is Seth Liebsohn. Welcome back to the Seth and Chris show. We’re joined by Rabbi Yaakov Menken, he is with the Coalition for Jewish Values. Rabbi, question for you. This I know, a subject near and dear to your heart and to mine as well. We seem to always be fighting on all fronts when it comes to the first amendment whether it be just speech issues on the campus, religious liberty as it was a big issue under the Obama administration. I think remains a big issue, I think that is the number one flash point of conflict between the political left and political right. That is, it’s an area that concerns me greatly. How, while we have this opportunity now with a republican President, Republican majorities in Congress, how do we make the most of this opportunity and push back to try and reinvigorate the First Amendment protections that we have, in particular as they relate to its religious liberty?
Rabbi Menken: It’s very hard. I would start simply by noting that the First Amendment refers to the free exercise of religion.
Chris Buskirk: Right.
Rabbi Menken: If exercise, as I said at that rally, if exercise meant running off at the mouth, I could turn to my doctor and say, “Hey, according to the Supreme Court, I am exercising, because I’m talking to you.”
Chris Buskirk: Right.
Rabbi Menken: That’s not what exercise means. Of course that’s incredibly dangerous. They say Christianity is a religion of creed and Judaism is a religion of deed, which is obviously an oversimplification. But a lot of our religion is based on action. We have to have free exercise. By the way, when it comes to business, I mean, we have entire bookshelves of literature, libraries worth of literature, on how to conduct business in accordance with our Jewish faith. So free exercise better mean exercise. That’s the point that really needs to be made. You’re right, we have the majorities right now. We have these opportunities. I don’t know from a legislative perspective, what could be put through now. But it would be wonderful if there was something that underscored the fact that exercise means exercise. It doesn’t mean your ability to choose a house of worship. It doesn’t mean how … Your right to free speech, free speech, that’s a different right. That’s a different one of the fundamentals. If we’re supposed to have the right of free exercise, that means how we practice. How we do. That has to be allowed to impact how we go about our day. It’s not a matter of Saturday or Sunday.
Chris Buskirk: Yeah, that’s right. It’s about how you live. It’s about how you act 24/7, seven days a week. The-
Rabbi Menken: You sound like clergy, right?
Chris Buskirk: Right, right. Right, I feel like as those words were coming out of my mouth, I felt like I was … You know how they put those messages up on the marquee in front of churches. I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I’m speaking in clichés here.” Is this something that, where the Coalition for Jewish Values is involved, is this something that, where you feel like this is part of your agenda, a place where you need to be either working with other like-minded groups or trying to push the ball forward on your own?
Rabbi Menken: I think it becomes a big, a role for us. We’re small enough that we are starting out. Us pushing the ball forward on our own, it’s probably not going to roll very far. Our impact is magnified when we work together with other organizations. What is scary is that, you take a traditional religious practice, rights issue, moral values, whatever, and the left will try to pigeonhole that as an evangelical position. They call it an evangelical position because that way … Oh, okay, so there’s certain people in the deep south feel that way. What about Catholics who agree completely? What about Mormons who agree completely? That adds a certain amount. When it’s Jews, when it’s an entirely different religion, all of the sudden people say, “Oh, wait a minute, we can’t pigeonhole it like that anymore.”
Chris Buskirk: Right.
Rabbi Menken: That’s where we hope to have greatest impact on that. That can include joining an amicus curiae in favor of public display of a cross in Pensacola, Florida, or a rally for an evangelical baker in Colorado.
Chris Buskirk: Is that something, can I, I just want to pause you there. Is that something that your group did in Florida? Did you file an amicus brief?
Rabbi Menken: Yes, there’s a group called Jews for Religious Liberty, a wonderful fellow up in New York who has that organization, and he tries to work with other Jewish groups who will participate in particular case, particular positions, happens to be at that particular amicus. He got four different Jewish organizations all to sign on.
Chris Buskirk: Let me ask you this. Since we’re talking about your organization, coalitionforjewishvalues.org, can you just tell listeners a little bit about how the group came together and what its mission is?
Rabbi Menken: Last February we got together because it was a group of rabbis who realized that the world is hearing these liberal rabbis claiming to speak in the name of Judaism, about issues where the actual Jewish position, based on Jewish sources, is not only extremely different, it’s exactly the opposite of what they’re saying. Our vision is a country where policy makers and citizens in general, anybody who’s interested, are exposed to authentic Jewish values and authentic Jewish teachings on these issues of moral values and moral positions. Getting it from a Jewish perspective.
Chris Buskirk: You make an interesting point, which I think is spot on, which irreligious people, and I don’t say that as a pejorative, but irreligious people, people just practice a religion tend to view anything that has to do with religious practice or religious observance as having to do, as you said it, “Well, that just what the weirdos in Alabama are doing,” right? Whereas it turns out that politically, so many different religious, meaning those who practice their religion faithfully, align very closely on these issues, whether it be practicing/observant Jews, practicing Christians, and I’ll make the distinction between Protestants and Catholics, right? Catholics often are viewed as different by, again, by people who are not religious. Mormons, et cetera. When it comes to-
Rabbi Menken: Muslims, by the by.
Chris Buskirk: Muslims too, and when it comes to these issues, of first amendment issues, boy we sure find a lot of common ground quickly, don’t we?
Rabbi Menken: It’s because we all depend on America’s tolerance for all of our varied religious practices to make it possible for us to freely practice our religion, as different as our religions may be. There may be plenty for us to argue about in a civil fashion, about discussing polemics, or this, that and the other. That is after you allow everybody the liberty to make their own choices.
Chris Buskirk: We just have a little bit of time left. I want to totally change gears on you, but I just want to get a quick read on one thing, which is we’ve got Thanksgiving coming up this week. What is the perspective of the Orthodox community with regards to a secular-ish celebration like American Thanksgiving?
Rabbi Menken: It really depends on who you ask. Obviously a tremendous debt of gratitude to this country for providing such a … If you look at world history and European history, this is a breath of fresh air, not just for Jews but for everybody. What we have in America, and America has really served a beacon and a model for other countries in the west. By the way, that’s why the radicals hate America so much, because it’s the leader in these freedoms. It’s the leader in letting us chose to live [inaudible 00:19:31] on our own.
Chris Buskirk: For that we must be profoundly thankful. Rabbi Yaakov Menken, thanks so much. You can find out more about his organization at coalitionforjewishvalues.org.