In Jewish tradition, the year is divided into reading of the Torah or Five Books of Moses. Each weekly portion (or parshah) is discussed over meals on the Sabbath. We are able in this way to remember ancient teachings, updating our understanding of their intent and historical context to our modern lives. Daily Kos and streetprophets’ diarist ramara asked me to post this week’s discussion in her weekly series of D’Var Torah. The parshah is Shof’tim, Law and Order (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9).
I was surprised to find the earliest roots of separation of Church and State in its pages. I wanted to share that discovery with my friends here at BPI.
In Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai while the Israelite people made a golden calf. Moses shattered the commandments to cover their actions (how can they be held accountable for a covenant he was personally responsible for smashing?). The Levites slayed the rebels; Moses ascended Mt Sinai and wrote God’s commandments on a new set of tablets.
But an anomaly occurred. While the first set of commandments dealt with ethics and community (thou shalt not kill or steal or bear false witness), the second addressed ritual (the rules of sacrifice and worship).
And why did God tell Moses to rewrite the tablets? Why didn’t S/he just do it?
The answers are quietly revealed in Shof’tim.
In Biblical days, there was no distinction between governance and religion. But in Shof’tim, this week’s parshah, a distinction is made between community judges, and the priestly class. The majority of disputes regarding community and relationship are heard by local magistrates, judges chosen by a community from within it; that community. Issues that cannot be resolved within community and decisions regarding ritual are settled by Levites, the Priestly class. The Holy of Holy is tended to by the direct descendents of Aaron, the Kohanim, an elite branch of Levites. Ritual is centralized in the Temple and maintained by a hereditary class. Judgements regarding governance are not.
In the Biblical world full of despotic, supposedly divine kings, this was a radical departure towards separation of Church and state. God answered the Israelites’ plea for divine presence among them by elevating the people. If we want God to reside in our midst, then we must create justice on Earth.
The Levites and Kohanim represent the birth of an intelligentsia among former slaves. They own no land of their own. In Shof’tim, Moses lays out the laws for their maintenance, which occurs through tithing during ritual gatherings. They are elevated, but they also become a dependent class. They are not rulers. They are servants.
The germ of Rabbinical Judaism, which was not practiced until Talmudic times, resides within the magistrates, judges chosen by the people for their wisdom, not inherited by an inbred aristocracy. The sages who codified oral tradition at the time of Akiva (circa 70 BCE) also taught the farming classes to read and write. Wisdom is the mark of a ruler. It is earned. It is not an inherited privilege.
Shof’tim also lays down the law regarding the role of future Jewish kings. Jewish kings will not dictate the law: that is, after all, given to us by God. Rather, they are subject to the same set of laws that rule the people. A king rules by understanding and following the law. The kings, like the priestly class, are reminded they are servants.
Because of its inclusion of community in the governance process, the Torah is a work in progress. Judgment and interpretation play a necessary role in its implementation. Each new generation must select the righteous among them to judge.
Next time a Constitutional revisionist claims that America is based on the Ten Commandments, share your understanding of this passage. They probably skipped over it when they read the Bible.