Shofetim: Faith and Law

scales of justice“When he [the King]  is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll….let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere Adonai his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching…” (Deut. 17:18-19)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  (First Amendment Constitution of the United States of America)

This week’s parasha is Shofetim, one in which the judicial system is laid out for the Israelites, once they get into the Land.  Other things are covered, including what to do with false prophets, ethical warfare, (one of my favorite texts, which I’ll address maybe next year at this time….mark it down) and what to do with the Levite Priests and land holdings.

But this snapshot of a King with a copy of the Teaching by his side struck me as remarkably pertinent in light of the upcoming primaries and elections next year.  So many people this year (ok, mostly Christian men) of faith keep proclaiming the depth of their beliefs, and that this makes them the best candidate for office. They speak of changes they’ll make in the law based on their personal faith system.  And doesn’t the text from Shofetim back that up?  It seems to say that the King should have the Torah by his side, that is, the State shall be ruled through the lens of Faith.  Doesn’t that conflict with the idea of the First Amendment?

No.  Not if you look at both texts carefully. First of all, God isn’t too happy about setting up a King inside the Land anyway.  God feels that the Torah should be good enough.  But, if the people want to be like other nations, and they really want to set up their society with a King, well then, ok, but God has some suggestions.  The Torah text says that the King/Ruler/President/Prime Minister should have a copy of the Law beside him.  He reads it, keeps his faith in God, and observes the Law personally.  If, indeed, one is ruling from within a theocracy, then this would suggest that laws for society and laws within a faith group are one and the same.  The holy texts dictate secular law – or rather, there is no such thing as secular law.   But theocracies don’t work – never have – and we are not a theocracy.  Here, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith (even no faith) society, we make a distinction between faith and law.  Faith guides your personal life, and helps you make decisions about your behavior, but law is determined separately.  This is where the First Amendment comes in:  government doesn’t establish religion.  Government doesn’t legislate from faith.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

This is a very nuanced distinction, but one that is so crucial, so important, and so hard to keep in our sights. I can hear you thinking, “Well, Anita….what’s the difference between relying on your faith to pass moral, ethical laws, and having your faith dictate law?”  Like I said, it’s nuanced.  But if the laws you want to pass stem from a point of view that excludes people, or makes one group dictate behavior to another, well then, my guess is it has crossed the line to legislating faith.

I think about this every time I read this passage, because it usually comes around an election (or gearing up for one!)  At the very least, it should make us think carefully about where and how our laws are being developed in this country.

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