The Times’ Op-Ed article Wednesday on a proposed Westhampton Beach, N.Y., eruv — a religious boundary within which Orthodox Jews would be allowed to carry out basic tasks during the Sabbath — prompted reader Robert Newman of West Hills to write:
“Law professor Michael A. Helfand omits a few important points. He does not mention that the eruv would also encircle numerous non-Jewish homes. Whether they are strings around your neighborhood or crosses on a hilltop, they are religious symbols. They carry much significance.
“No one is saying that the Orthodox Jews cannot do what they want on their own property or in their houses of worship. This is the essence of religious freedom. But imposing religious symbols on others, no matter how unobtrusive, is not the purpose of religious freedom in this country.
“Would Helfand approve of Christian symbols — even unobtrusive ones — around his home?
Michael A. Helfand responds:
I am pleased that Newman doesn’t rehash some of the more troubling — and discriminatory — narratives expressed by the plaintiffs in the eruv litigation. While Newman and I both agree that the eruv has religious significance and that it would include the homes of Jews and non-Jews, we diverge on what constitutes appropriate religious expression.
In contrast to other countries, the United States allows public religious expressions such as Muslims wearing head scarves in public schools and the sound of ringing church bells spilling out into the public square. Indeed, constitutional doctrine has evolved toward inclusiveness. Thus, religious symbols are welcome even in a courthouse so long as the display incorporates religious images from a wide range of faith groups.
This brings us to the ultimate question: Will a barely discernible eruv make the majority of Westhampton Beach residents feel like outsiders? Or is it more likely that prohibiting the eruv will make the minority Orthodox Jewish population feel like outsiders? Put in the words of one of the plaintiffs, is the message of this litigation that “if you’re Orthodox, know that not every place in the world is for you”? My own view is the latter.
I’d also like to address the question at the end of Newman’s letter: How would I feel if Christian symbols surrounded me? I am a law professor at Pepperdine University, a Christian institution whose campus entrance is adorned by a 125-foot tower inlaid with a 50-foot cross. Every morning when I see the cross, I don’t feel like an outsider; to the contrary, my university’s commitment to faith has led it to embrace my own religious commitments by both respecting my beliefs and accommodating my practices. Far from undermining my religious freedom, the Pepperdine cross enhances it. Speaking as a Jew, it represents religious freedom at its very best because it symbolizes how members of different faiths can be joined together in an environment of mutual respect.
It’s disheartening that some in the Hamptons are unable to see the eruv string in the same light.
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