A graduate of Yeshiva University’s MTA high school and then Yeshiva College, with unfinished rabbinic studies at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary offering the prospect of ordination if he finds the time on some future sabbatical, Dr. Michael Helfand, 36, might seem out of place at Pepperdine University, a Christian university where a 50-foot crucifix stands out at the campus’s entrance.
Instead, he said, he sees the California institution as “the Christian Yeshiva University. It’s extremely familiar. It has a set of values that in many ways mirror my own, and those I grew up in. It has a very similar mission to that of Yeshiva: to take learning of a wide range and incorporate that into religious life. I feel I really understand the institution, and the institution understands me.”
Dr. Helfand holds a doctorate in political theory from Yale, where he also earned his law degree. He teaches at Pepperdine’s law school and heads its Jewish studies department.
A native of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Dr. Helfand is flying in from California to be a scholar in residence next Shabbat at Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, and to speak next Sunday night at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael on “Religious Liberty in the Age of Same-Sex Marriage.”
Dr. Helfand even has appeared on lists of potential future presidents of Yeshiva University — a prospect that the Yeshiva College valedictorian receives with loud, sustained laughter.
“I care deeply about the future of Yeshiva University,” he finally said. “The future of the modern Orthodox community hinges on its viability. I hope they find an amazing person.”
Pepperdine is an institution that sees itself at the front line in the culture wars, fighting for a besieged Christendom religion fighting a tide of secularism. “There are times I feel I have the opportunity to watch another religious community work through the same kind of issues my own Jewish community worked through,” he said.
“One of the things I’ve learned quite a lot about is how to think about the other, how to think about people who come to an issue with a different worldview. Our Jewish community does a real good job at that, but sometimes we take some things for granted. Having the opportunity to be a little more of an outsider to some of the conversations has really impressed in me the importance of taking other people’s perspective’s seriously.”
For many conservative Christians, the June Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, marked a watershed. A Pepperdine professor was among the signers to a “Statement Calling for Constitutional Resistance to Obergefell v. Hodges,” in which the signatories pledged “to refuse to accept Obergefell as binding precedent for all but the specific plaintiffs in that case” and to provide “full and mutual legal and political assistance to anyone who refuses to follow Obergefell for constitutionally protected reasons.”
Dr. Helfand believes that Jews have “a unique but important role to play in many of these debates. On the one hand, we’re a religious community, and on the other, we’ve always been a minority community. When you have clashes between same-sex marriage and religion, we are able to really understand both sides. That’s different than some religious groups that might not have had quite the experience we had with being a religious minority,” he said.
At Yale in 2009, Dr. Helfand wrote his dissertation on “A Liberalism of Sincerity: Lockean Toleration and the Internal Point of View,” which set out to “reconcile multiculturalism’s concern with the collective and liberalism’s focus on individualism” — and along the way to provide guidance for the American legal system, offering it a way to take a more positive view toward religious arbitration courts, such as the Rabbinic Council of America’s Beit Din of America, where he has and continues to work.
“It is an attempt to think really carefully about what religion looks like on the inside, and how the state can accommodate that,” he said of his dissertation.
It’s an issue that remains timely.
“Take the recent Hobby Lobby case,” he said. “One of the primary issues in the case was should for-profit corporations have religious rights. There are many people who are extremely skeptical of the idea, who think that when you’re engaged in religion, you’re not engaged in profit-making activity, and when you’re making a profit, by definition you’re not engaging in religion. The government took that position.
“I think that’s a mistake. That mistake stems from taking a particular view about how religion works, taking a particular view of how to ‘render unto Caesar,’ that sometimes we engage in commerce, sometimes in religion, and the paths don’t cross. As Jews, we have the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, and one quarter is dedicated to the rules of the commercial sphere. If you ask someone are you still religious in the commercial sphere, the answer should be yes. The problem is when the government takes what religion looks like to them and assumes it should look like that to everyone.
“There is no question that we’re in a period in the world where Christians face more persecution than they maybe ever had historically, since the early days in the Roman empire,” he continued. “The experience of being in a religious minority is something that’s becoming increasingly familiar to many religions. The question really is, how do we extract and learn a lesson from all that as we try to figure out how to build a society that is sensitive to who people are and to what they believe.
“At the center of some of these questions are strong competing values, people who really want to live their lives in accordance with whom they are and what they believe,” he said. It’s an oddly unfamiliar way of looking at the clash between gay marriage proponents and opponents — one that sees the two sides as equals — and one that flows naturally from his lens on John Locke’s 18th century political philosophy of religious toleration.
When he speaks to Jewish groups, as he will next weekend, “I’m hoping to bring that conversation to the Jewish community, and to think how we can do a better job of engaging these conversations,” he said. “My fear is that our conversation about religious liberty will be reduced to conversations about the challenges of same-sex marriage or the challenges of contraception and abortion, the questions that have come before the Supreme Court in recent years. As a result, we’ve forgotten how religious liberty protects smaller religious groups from being run roughshod over by majorities. I fear that we forget how religious liberty protects the most vulnerable. It is being seen as a dirty word, politically toxic.”
And as for the particular topic of his Teaneck talk: Can a synagogue be forced to rent its space for a same-sex marriage?
“Part of me is a little resistant to focus on the same-sex marriage/religious liberty debate,” he said. “It makes it seem that’s the center, when in many ways that’s the periphery. That being said, there are concerns.
“There are ways synagogues need to think about what they believe, how they want their social halls to be used. Given a shul’s religious commitment, there might not be a conflict but there can be issues. One can imagine shuls that are resistant to having their building used for certain kinds of events, and I think there are ways to address the issues. Shuls will have to give some thought to being simultaneously sensitive to ensuring there is no discrimination in rental services, but at the same time provide space for Jewish institutions to live out their lives in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs.”