We can divide this question into two interrelated issues:1)Should religious leaders involve themselves in politics?; and 2)How should a politician’s religion influence his politics?
It is appropriate that I write these words during Chanukah, when we celebrate both the miraculous Hasmonean-led victory over the militarily superior Syrian-Greeks and the single-day supply of oil that lasted eight days in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple).Nachmanides, the towering medieval rabbinic authority, posits that while the Hasmoneans had wonderful intentions of preserving our Torah, they and their descendants were punished for usurping the kingship, and ultimately cut off from the Jewish people.How could that be?Nachmanides explains that they violated the Torah’s restriction against kohanim (priests) of mixing religion and politics (Genesis 49:10).As kohanim, the Hasmoneans’ main task was to serve God in the Temple, while leaving state matters to others more suited to the often-sullying world of politics.The Torah is clear – synagogue and state must have separate leaders.
That, however, is not the whole story.The Torah also mandates that Jewish kings must carry an actual Torah scroll with them at all times (D'varim/Deuteronomy 17:19), which seems to blur the lines between synagogue and state.Briefly, it seems clear that the king’s constant possession of a Torah scroll is meant to remind him that, notwithstanding great political or military power, he must be loyal to the Torah and serve God.His primary task remains political – he should not be issuing religious rulings, as religious leaders should not be issuing political promulgations.
Clearly, this is easier said than done, as there can be much overlap between the religious and political, as recent debates regarding stem cell harvesting, the environment and gay marriage indicate. In sum, religious leaders, especially those who lack experience and knowledge of political issues, should generally steer clear of politics, and focus on purely religious issues, such as inspiring their adherents to both greater observance and being better overall people (yes, I know that sounds a bit simplistic but I’ve got limited space here).In the rare occasion where a religious leader is sufficiently broad-based to be a successful politician, he must be especially careful, as any blunder will reflect poorly on Judaism, as we unfortunately see constantly in Israel. If a religious leader does enter politics, especially in the US, he must recognize that he was not elected to act as a rabbi, and must serve the interests of the entire populace.
A “plain” observant Jew who enters politics must also be on his best behavior at all times.As we know, politics can bring out the worst in people, and a Jew contemplating entering this world must have confidence that he can be one of those rare politicians who can maintain his honesty and integrity.If he will have to compromise his Jewish values and observance, he should take a pass.Otherwise, while religion will clearly inform his worldview, if he will risk his constituents’ best interests to preserve his religious priorities, I would suggest he stay out of direct politics and, like any other citizen, seek to influence things from outside.Again, he is not being elected as a rabbi, and if he doesn’t understand that, he should perhaps become an actual rabbi and leave legislating to the legislators.
As citizens of whatever country we live in, we have the right to lobby and participate in the public debate, but this must always be done with seichel, or common sense.Judaism clearly has much to teach the world in the realm of public policy, whether regarding Wikileaks or healthcare, and Jewish authorities should most definitely participate in the public sphere, but we must never impose our views upon others.Judaism has tremendous treasures to offer the entire world, and we must engage the political world with the force of our morality and values.At the end of the day, a Jew’s mission is to be a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name, a generally risky proposition in the area of politics, but with both the proper intentions and representatives, that should be something we can attain.
It is fascinating to note the dichotomy between the American understanding and that of Judaism when it comes to the question of the influence of religion on public policy. In the United States, the separation of church and state is firmly ensconced in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It states clearly that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." In a sense, it has almost become "sacred" in that the two are never to meet in any context although we see that lines do become blurred in a variety of settings (the appearance of God on our money, prayers that open each session of congress, celebrations of various religious holidays in public settings, etc.)
However, when it comes to the Jewish perspective on this same issue, we find no such wall or separation. As a matter of fact, Judaism constantly reminds us as to how its leaders were to act and does not shy away from doing so. For example, the judiciary is giving strict guidelines but in a religious context "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:20). The kingship is also cast in a similar religious framework when the Torah tell us that when we are wanting a king "you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 17: 15). Furthermore, we are told that when the king "is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws" (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20. Our kings were to rule not through their own authority but that of God and God's Torah. Any breach of that relationship between God and king was to be the downfall of the king's authority to rule.
It seems fairly clear that Judaism does see an important role for religion in public policy and public life. Its foundation is not based on separation between God and state but rather on the integration of the two. Holiness is not something reserved for purely religious occasions but is to invest every aspect of our lives. "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19: 2). The connection between every dimension of our lives and God is fundamental to our existence and is a basic dimension of our lives as human beings.
Does this mean that we should reframe our understanding of religion and public policy in the United States to align the two more closely? Not in a political sense. We must appreciate that the Torah speaks of a purely Jewish religious setting, not the one in which we currently live, a democratic society in which there are a multiplicity of faith and ethnic groups where each is allowed equal access and protection under the rule of law.
However, this does not mean that we, as Jews, do not have anything to say regarding public policy. Just the opposite, we have an obligation to take the moral and religious teachings of our people and bring them into the public discourse on various social issues that are of concern to all. That is not to say that we should impose our will on others. Rather, we must ensure that the wisdom of thousands of years of our tradition is brought to bear in the ongoing debate on important issues of social policy. We live in a country where religion has much to say, but not to the extent that one religion has the upper hand over any other.
Many of the candidates who won in the recent elections seem to have a conservative view of the role of religion in public life. What does our faith teach us about the influence of religion on public policy?
The whole idea that religion and public policy are separate spheres of life is actually a fairly modern phenomenon. The separation of ‘church’ and state was an American innovation of the late eighteenth century. Certainly it was not a concept known in the ancient Near East, where the rulers were seen as semi-divine and the national gods were seen as the ultimate rulers; or medieval Europe, where the Roman Catholic Church was a major power equal to, and in some ways ruling over, all the crowned heads of Europe. (Witness Henry the Eighth, who saw himself as an absolute monarch in England, until he tried to divorce his wife and found the Church in Rome standing in his way.)
Certainly the ancient Israelites saw no differentiation between God’s law and society’s laws. They were one and the same. Thus, when they were threatened by foreign powers, it was not because of bad public policy of their king’s, it was because they failed to follow God’s laws and God was sending the enemy to punish them. The solution, according to the Prophets, was to go back to strict adherence to God’s law, which meant feeding the poor, helping the widow and orphan, treating the stranger in their midst with justice. (See, for example, Isaiah 58). The ultimate expression of Biblical law setting public policy can be found in Leviticus 19, known as the Holiness Code. According to Leviticus 19, holiness came, not from fasting or prayer or sacrifices, but from leaving the corners of your fields unharvested so the poor can glean the food, having honest weights and measures in business, having honest courts that neither favor the rich nor the poor but judge each case honestly, treating the disabled with dignity and respect, treating the elderly with respect, paying your workers on time, and loving your neighbor as yourself. A pretty good prescription for public policy, isn’t it?
One of the foundations of the Reform Movement is Judaism’s dedication to social justice. The Reform Movement is the only Jewish movement that has a permanent advocacy presence in Washington, DC – the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (www.rac.org). The social justice imperatives that come from our tradition inform the work of the RAC and guide the work of the RAC’s main advisory body, the Commission on Social Action. The RAC engages in advocacy and education on a wide range of public policy issues, from global warming to reproductive rights, from nuclear disarmament to LGBT rights. Every position the RAC takes and every issue it takes on is founded in Jewish teachings and tradition. Further, all the major bodies of Reform Judaism, including the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Women of Reform Judaism, and the North American Federation of Temple Youth, all engage in social justice work and advocacy for public policy based on Jewish values.
The difference between social activism in the context of the Reform Movement, versus activism among conservatives or the Religious Right, is that, while some on the Religious Right would like to turn this country into a Christian theocracy, Reform Jews do not wish to impose Jewish law on the country. Rather, we look to Jewish law to inform our positions on questions of public policy and to inspire us to advocate for those policies and positions that most fit our values and beliefs.
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