Saturday, July 23, 2011

Church-and-State and the Politics of Leadership

Note: I delivered this as a d'var Torah (sermon, or literally "word of Torah") at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA, on July 23, 2011. To learn more about my sermons, click here.

Let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson. I’m thinking about a particular doctrine attributed to Jefferson that has relevance to a religious setting.  What might that be?


Yes, the separation of church and state.  The “church and state” phrase comes from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, who had complained that in Connecticut religious liberties were seen as “favors granted” rather than as rights.  Without commenting on the role of state government in his reply, regarding the federal government Jefferson wrote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

In his draft version he included a statement that further defined this separation as “Congress [being] thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorized only to execute their acts.”  His marginal note indicates that this portion was to be removed so as not to offend members of his party in the eastern states. What interests me about this private version of the letter is that the language “acts respecting religion" seems to take the implementation of separation beyond the concept of establishment.

Let me tell you why I have Jefferson on my mind.  As I read Mattot in preparation for this morning, I was looking for an angle different from those I explored when I spoke about the parashah in 2007 and in 2008. Perhaps because of Rabbi Glanzberg-Krainin’s terrific d’var on leadership two weeks ago at Beth Sholom Congregation, I found myself drawn to the issues of leadership in Mattot and the sticky relationship that emerges with the interplay of politics and spirituality.

That led me to the haftarah that we read today because, despite it being one of the three prophetic readings of admonition preceding Tish-ah b’Av rather than thematically connected to the Torah portion, I find some alignment between them where leadership is concerned.  Finally, as I contemplated these issues, I thought of a piece about the separation of church and state that my brother, Jonathan Wolfman, recently published on his blog (click here to go to the posting).

According to Jon,

“The reason Jefferson wrote with such terrific thought and passion on state and church separation is that he knew both secular civil society and religious institutions are safer from each others’ often over-arching power when basic law keeps them apart. Jefferson also knew that people are often weak and often afraid, and when they are they’re pleased to give over to their religious leaders and the religious institutions of their parents and ancestors what may for the moment appear to be the knottiest, most resistant social, economic and legal concerns. Jefferson understood that this was a devil’s bargain.”

I have great respect for my brother’s intellect and know that he has read far more broadly and deeply than I on such matters.  Nonetheless, I thought I’d do a quick review for myself of Jefferson’s writings on the subject rather than take his word for it.  For the most part, Jefferson stuck to the protection of religion from government, and not the other way around.  But he did express strong skepticism about the impact of religious authority on civil liberties, believing, as he wrote in 1800, that “by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, [the clergy] have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.”  In 1813 and 1814 respectively, he wrote: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” and “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.”

So with this as the philosophical legacy of the 3rd US president and principle author of the Declaration of Independence, as Americans and as Jews how do we reconcile a Jewish literary tradition that inextricably links politics with religion, where the laws governing society are handed down by God and prophetic writings delve into the reigns of kings?

I find that in Mattot, and in the words of Jeremiah that constitute today’s haftarah, the literature grapples with the mix of spiritual and political leadership.

Let’s look at the last portion of Numbers 31, beginning with verse 48.  We read of the sacrifice that the commanders make on behalf of their troops, giving far more than required from their booty as an offering to God, so those in the ranks can keep all theirs for themselves.  It would seem they make the political decision to reinterpret the commandment around supporting the Levites and the Tabernacle in a manner that would yield the required financial result while helping to bolster the fortunes of their charges and thus their allegiance, not to God but to the officers.  Moshe and Eleazar accept this independent political decision without comment, and the text fully attributes the gift to God as being “in behalf of the Israelites.”

Going back to the opening lines of Mattot, Moshe imparts God’s words about the obligatory nature of a vow. Unlike the more typical scene, in which God speaks through Moshe to the Israelite people as a whole, this time the narrative confines the audience to “the heads of the Israelite tribes.”  Though all of us bear the responsibility of vows,  Moshe tells only the leadership about this obligation.  Might we assume, then, that the leaders bear responsibility for informing their people, giving them an opportunity to exercise authority and thus a political voice somewhat separated from the voice of religious authority?

Perhaps part of their role is setting an example; the Israelites are not simply to hear the laws of vows, but to witness their leaders adhering to them.  Or, as leaders, do they have the power to make vows on behalf of those under them, so they must be all the more cognizant of their implications?

We see this last paradigm play out in Numbers 32 verses 20 to 24.  The leaders of the Gadites and Reubenites have requested to settle west of the Jordan, rather than with the others on the east.  Moshe strikes a bargain, exacting from them vows, as leaders, that their tribes will serve as the shock-troops in conquering the land to the east. Moshe declares, “But if you do not do so, you will have sinned against the Lord; and know that your sin will overtake you. Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do as you have promised.” The leader’s vow is binding, for himself and for all his people.

How fascinating that this deal-making allows what seems to be an adjustment of God’s intended outcome, negotiated entirely as a political—and in this case socio-economic—matter among the leadership.  As with the disposition of the spoils of war, a secular approach to governing seems to emerge in parallel to the religious, though Moshe certainly fills both political and spiritual roles.

In the haftarah, Jeremiah takes a Moshe-like stance, insisting that he is not equal to the role of prophet and acquiescing only when God insists.  His objection is that “I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy,” in response to which God “put out His hand and touched my mouth, and Adonai said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth.”  Returning to my argument earlier, that leaders have a special responsibility regarding the spoken word because of their positions of power, it makes great sense to choose as prophets those who express modesty with regard to the use of language.  This implies a leadership of humility and selflessness, which we can see as a valuable asset for the community particularly when political power is at play. 

And certainly this is about politics.  God appoints Jeremiah “over nations and kingdoms” with the authority “to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”  Jeremiah is to pit himself against a leadership of arrogance and self-interest in which “they shall come, and shall each set up a throne” in opposition both to the “towns of Judah” and to God.  And the humble Jeremiah is to prevail.

In both the Torah and the haftarah readings, we find that religious and political leadership intertwine, and in each case God’s intention for the people faces opposition from those who want political or socio-economic status. For Jeremiah, there is no negotiation independent of God’s word, but for Moshe and Eleazar it appears that they do have and exercise this authority.

Of course, that’s a far cry from Jefferson’s stance that religious leaders represent a danger to civil liberties and that government imperils religious freedom.  But do we see here an early acknowledgement of how difficult it is to mesh political and religious institutions?  And if so, is that the lens through which we, as contemporary American Jews, can begin to reconcile our dual traditions as represented by Torah and by the writings of Jefferson?

Torah does not separate church and state, but certainly it recognizes the difficulty of merging these two sources of power and shows an early example of negotiating purely political solutions.  And it acknowledges that power in the hands of humans can be destructive unless tempered with humility and an overriding drive to serve. It took some time, but the evolution to Jefferson’s legal construct of a wall separating church and state seems logical: both his worry that, given the opportunity to amass power by dictating religion, political leaders would crush citizens’ freedom to worship as they choose, and his concern that religious leaders, given the opportunity to broaden their reach, might lack the requisite selflessness to preserve civil liberties.

Yet the separation of church and state still suffers ongoing assault and this affects us as Jews.  In my brother’s essay, he invokes Jefferson in the context of decrying Texas Governor Rick Perry’s plans for a state-sponsored, evangelical Day of Prayer on August 6, using—in Jon’s words—“tax monies collected from Christians, Jews, Muslims and adherents to every other religion represented in Texas, along with money from agnostics and atheists, in part to rent Reliant Stadium in Houston.”

And here we are nearly 50 years after the school prayer decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, a case my father helped to initiate as an attorney volunteering with the Philadelphia ACLU. He learned in the process that his own, Jewish first-grader could recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart as a result of his public school education in Cheltenham, PA. Yet school prayer remains an issue still under debate and in the court system.

As we see in Mattot and in the haftarah, the politics and power of the church-state relationship aren’t easy. But we do need to tease them out and, I believe, more definitively apart than we have yet achieved.