People mourn in front of Le Carillon bistro and Le Petit Cambodge in Paris on Nov. 16, 2015.
Maya Vidon-White—Corbis
By Rabbi David Wolpe
November 17, 2015
IDEAS
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

The moment someone punches you in the face might seem like a strange time to figure out your philosophy. But in fact, being threatened or hurt is an opportunity to re-examine what you are made of.

As the Paris attacks reinforced, we face a foe who has no doubt about what they believe, or how committed they are to that belief. ISIS is a fanatically devoted death cult. To counter such a challenge with pusillanimity is to court disaster. It is urgent for the Western world to ask itself anew—what do we believe?

Confronting the dangerous ideological foes of the past—Soviet communism or Nazism—the West was clear and firm in its counter-narrative. We have to be just as clear today. We ask Americans to fight and die for the ideals of this nation, and one of the ways we honor that sacrifice is to clarify for ourselves and for the world what those ideals are. An unarmed side loses even in a battle of ideas.

Primary among the beliefs that are a pillar of our Western monotheistic heritage is that every human being is in the image of God. Our declaration of Independence secularized this into every individual having the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You need not believe in God to agree that the first ideal for which we fight is the dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of the envelope of life circumstances that surround them. People can be more or less accomplished or more or less successful, but all are equally deserving of life and dignity.

The second ideal is freedom. Freedom means more than “you don’t get to tell me what to do.” Real freedom presupposes a society that both removes obstacles and provides avenues to human flourishing. A group that dictates religion, dress, intellectual inquiry and artistic expression is not only violating freedom in a negative sense—”you may not do this”—but in a positive sense—”I will not provide ways for you to educate yourself in this field.” Freedom is not only the right to close your door, but the chance to open your business or write your book.

The third ideal is the solidarity of free people. The spontaneous declarations of unity with France express the sense we have of being in this together. Not because we were both attacked, but because we stand for the same things. The solidarity of freedom will ultimately prove more robust than the uniformity of servitude. Dignity, liberty and the alliance of those who choose their lives—these are the underlying ideals with which we confront the enemies of civilization.

Rev. Martin Luther King said: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” In a struggle against evil, we have to cherish the sacrifices made for the ideals of goodness. We draw on the roots of our traditions for the fruits of our freedoms—the dignity of people, the solidarity of the free, the hope that one day the whole world will come to see those blessings not as a gift, but as a universal human right.

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