Traditional Jews in America who read these broadsides against Judge Barrett can easily imagine similar ones about themselves. We might wonder what the reaction would now be were a member of our own religious community appointed to a position of prominence. After all, the Jewish liturgy’s expressed aspiration, in an existence filled with injustice, is “to fix the world through the kingship of God.” We believe ourselves bound by a covenant to other Jews, and many of our observances mark us as different, just as they did in Seixas’ day. Like Muslims, Sikhs, and other minority faith communities, we dream of our daughters and sons experiencing American equality without suffering for their beliefs. We continue to celebrate Seixas’ legacy, and work for an America where what Justice Kagan said about her grandparents will be true about our grandchildren: that their Jewishness, “strange as it may seem to some, would prove no barrier to their accomplishments.”
None of this precludes tough questions about Judge Barrett’s worldview. At times, discussions of her religion seems to serve as a proxy for her views on abortion and other moral questions, and many apparently look to her religious practices as a guide to how she will rule on these matters. Yet as a widely published academic, Barrett has been more open than most nominees about her beliefs, which are those of a traditional Catholic, and has signed an ad supporting “the right to life from fertilization to natural death.” Judge Barrett has also been open about her jurisprudence, which is that of an originalist. She has described Justice Scalia as her mentor, and asserted that her Constitutional interpretation is guided not by her own faith but by the meaning of the document at the time it was written. Senators can, and should, ask her how a self-proclaimed originalist can objectively separate one’s own opinions from an understanding of the text. A judge’s jurisprudence — as well as the propriety of such a nomination so close to an election — are worthy matters of debate, and they are appropriate reasons to oppose or support Judge Barrett’s nomination. But her faith is not.
A century after Moses Seixas, his great-great-niece, Emma Lazarus, would also eloquently describe the American idea in a poem that now appears on the Statue of Liberty. It depicts an America that made room for difference, which, as Kagan perfectly put it, extends the “promise of opportunity to all, regardless of belief.” Supreme Court nominations are often heated, but we cannot forget the lessons of Seixas’ story. The legacy of Washington’s letter, of religious pluralism, is a promise too precious to lose.
Meir Soloveichik, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, is the director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
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