Once when Napoleon conquered a city, he decided to reward his three bravest soldiers. He called them into his tent and asked each of them what they desired.
The first asked for a mountain of gold. The second requested that the Emperor free his city. The third asked for a piece of salted herring.
After Napoleon left, the first two soldiers turned and stared at the third in shock.
“At least,” he said, “I may get a herring.”
Sometimes, the story goes, it best to approach life with limited expectations. Part of me wants to keep that maxim in mind as we approach the opening of the 2016 session of the Idaho Legislature — for rumors of impending legislation do not bode well for those concerned with religious freedom and social justice.
In the past, our Legislature has tended to make a mockery — or worse — of religion, wielding it as a club against our state’s most vulnerable citizens. Despite the Hebrew Bible’s repeated injunctions to care for the hungry and seek justice for the oppressed, here in Idaho, lawmakers more frequently use religion as a shield for bigotry, greed, homophobia and misogyny.
Why, then, should we expect anything new this year? I anticipate that once again, many in the House and Senate will equivocate on adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act — and some of them will defend their anti-gay fear and prejudice under the guise of “religious freedom.”
Any legislation that compromises full equality on such false pretense should be roundly rejected.
Sadly, those who purport to speak for religion are also likely to be leading attacks on Planned Parenthood, clamoring against welcoming refugees, and doing nothing about the epidemic of gun violence that is sickening the soul of our nation. Every legitimate faith teaches us to love our neighbors — yet the keepers of the faith so frequently seek to control women’s bodies and fail to recognize the Divine Image in the presence of those who do not look or talk like themselves. And despite the horrific spree of shooting after shooting, their response to guns is: pray for the victims and pass the ammunition.
A Jewish teaching implores us: Pray as if everything depended on God, act as if everything depended on you. To which a friend and member of my community reminded me: “People need to be clear about what prayer does and doesn’t do. Prayer changes us, establishes a relationship, grounds us, so that we can more thoughtfully and more courageously act. It doesn’t absolve us somehow from acting. Imagine if you were in a relationship with someone who only said nice things, but acted as if they didn’t really care about what you wanted? Lip service is not love, and is not my religion. If you believe in love, and hunger for peace, then act.”
Like Napoleon’s soldier, I might grieve less if I lowered my expectations and made my peace with religion bolstering oppression and inaction. But in the end, I refuse to let go of my hope for a better, more inclusive and peaceful future — even (or especially) during the Idaho legislative season. The God of the Torah and of living Jewish tradition will not allow me to settle for the injustice of the status quo. Low expectations may yield little rewards, but working towards miracles changes the world.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.