Shoftim: Church and State

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Judaism has long understood that politics and religion are a dangerous mix. Political office was destined for those from the tribe of Judah and the religious functions of the state were carried out by the kohanim and levi’im. The Ramban asserts that the Hasmoneans, being kohanim, sinned greatly in trying to usurp the kingdom for themselves following their successful revolt against the Hellenists.

The Jewish version of separation of church and state is functional, not ideological. We demand that our political leaders be religious role models. Nonetheless their domain is political, running the affairs of the state in consonance with Torah values. Similarly, the kohanim are the teachers of Torah and are entrusted with the sacred duty of running the Temple. It was the kohanim who made up the bulk of the Sanhedrin, the supreme religious authority of the Jewish people.

It is no coincidence that the rules and regulations regarding these two fundamental institutions, the political and the religious, are described in the Torah in immediate succession. A cursory glance at these two parshiot would seem to indicate diverging attitudes towards these positions of authority. Our spiritual leaders, members of the Sanhedrin, are viewed as the teachers and decisors of Torah. It is the Sanhedrin we approach when a religious question arises. "If there arise a matter too hard in judgment you shall arise and go to the place which the Lord your G-d will choose and you shall do according to the word which they tell not veer to the right nor to the left. Those who flaunt their rulings shall die and you shall do away with the evil from Israel.” (Devarim 17:8-12)

The Sanhedrin is described in very powerful terms as having the right and duty to use the full force of law to enforce their judgments. This acts almost as a foil to the Torah's attitude toward the monarch. It is as if the Torah is afraid that the king will revel in sin. He is not to have a multitude of wives nor excess possessions (ideas unheard of in the ancient world) lest "his heart turn aside." (Devarim 17:17) He must constantly carry a Torah with him in order that he may learn to “fear G-d, to keep all the words of the Torah to do them.” (17:19) The parsha ends with the warning that the king may not veer to the right or to the left, the same expression used in the Torah's admonition to follow the Sanhedrin.

The Torah understands that power corrupts and wanted to ensure that limits were placed on such power. No wonder many commentators felt that having a king was a Torah concession to human weakness, much like the aishet yefat toar (woman captive taken in war) about whom we will read next week. Yet no such fears are expressed vis-à-vis the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin. The Torah was apparently not afraid of their potential abuse of power and seems to even widen their scope of their authority, demanding that the people “will do in accordance with all that they teach you” (17:10). This is most interesting, even puzzling, in light of the fact that as delineated by the Oral Law, the powers of the king and the Sanhedrin were quite similar. While the mechanisms were slightly different, they could both declare property ownerless and both had the potential to declare someone liable for the death penalty. One could even argue that it was the king who had more power. While teachers of Torah may waive the honour that is their due, a king cannot do so. There were also limitations as to when a king could be brought before the Sanhedrin and the king could declare war without seeking the permission of the courts.

If in practice their powers were so similar, why are the Torah's descriptions of their respective offices so radically different? The monarchy was generally an inherited position, whereas the Sanhedrin was an appointed one. As a cursory reading of Tanach shows, many of the kings were most unworthy of their position. Furthermore, the king is but one person, with few natural reins on his power; thus the Torah must place many restrictions upon him.

The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, was comprised of seventy-one individuals whose deliberations are to take place in an atmosphere of debate and critical analysis. It was the newest and least learned member of the courts who was obliged to speak first. Had we insisted that he speak only after his older and more scholarly colleagues, it might have stifled dissent and free thinking, rendering the Sanhedrin ineffective. There were natural checks and balances, something lacking in the king's court.

By its very nature Torah knowledge, properly understood, leads to humility; truly encountering the Divine can offer no less. However, political authority tends to corrupt. While we may encounter rabbis who lack a sense of humility, this tends to occur when the demarcation between Torah and state is blurred. Rabbis should not have to feel that their success is even partially due to being politically savvy. Torah must elevate us, helping us to develop refined character traits. Almost by its very nature, communal leadership, while crucial—it even overrides the obligation of learning Torah—is a rough and tumble area that runs the risk of weakening one's religious sensitivities. The realms of Torah and political leadership require different skills, personalities and temperaments. May the right people find the right jobs, enabling a harmonious unity of synagogue and state as all strive to implement the word of G-d.