Despite Jefferson’s fondest wishes, human reason and man’s so-called moral sense have not made America a light unto the nations.Unlike the modern State of Israel, whose founding was largely secular, the American founding was largely religious. Not only were American universities, such as Harvard and Yale, established by clergymen, but several state constitutions provided for religious education.
Church and state were thus intertwined—which is not to say there was no struggle for power between politicians who saw in religion or religionists either their enemy or allies.
With the adoption of the Federal Constitution in 1788, and more so with Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, the process of separating church and state accelerated. Jefferson, a democrat from Virginia, hated the clergy, and the feeling was reciprocated. He believed that unfettered human reason and man’s innate “moral sense” were sufficient to make America the model of mankind. Seldom has secular humanism had such a (mistaken) champion.
More realistic or sophisticated than the “Sage of Monticello” was his vice-president, James Madison. Madison held that the political activity of the clergy—he had his own state of Virginia in mind—was corrupting the church, that separation of church and state would purify religion and, at the same time, remove a bitter source of conflict from state politics.
Whether the separation of church and state purified religion in Virginia is questionable. Certainly it did not improve the state’s moral character: Virginia became America’s stud farm for breeding slaves.
In any event, if we ponder such key terms as “thought,” “speech,” and “behavior,” America today is a secularized society—notwithstanding God-fearing Christians whose identification with Biblical Israel may yet save America.
Be this as it may, and despite Jefferson’s fondest wishes, human reason and man’s so-called moral sense have not made America a light unto the nations. Contrary to the intentions of America’s founding fathers, various judicial rulings have legalized various perversions and gay marriages, while removing religious tenets such as the Ten Commandments from the public domain. Madison, who championed the Bill of Rights, never dreamed that obscenity and pornography—the staple of the entertainment media—are forms of “speech” protected by the First Amendment. Religion, though still a force in America, has not prevented the rampant hedonism and vulgarity of American society.
Turn, now, to Israel, which so much emulates America. Polls indicate that almost 90% of the people of Israel view politics as corrupt. Israeli politics, however, is predominantly secular. To be sure, corruption will also be found in the religious parties. This fact prompts some religionists to wonder whether “politics and religion” should be separated in Israel.
Whatever my own views on the subject, let me play the devil’s advocate and question the value of having religious parties in the Knesset.
No one can seriously argue that the religious parties have elevated the character of Israeli politics. Nor is it obvious that the political activities of these parties have inspired the Jewish people to new heights of intellectual and moral excellence. Indeed, their wheeling and dealing with the secular parties before, during, and after elections generate cynicism among religionists and contempt among secularists.
Of course, it will be argued that the religious parties have (1) secured government funds for yeshivas essential for the preservation of Judaism; (2) prevented the passage of certain laws that would undermine Jewish family values; and (3) helped maintain public recognition of various religious observances without which Israel would lose its raison d’être as a Jewish republic.
There is truth in this argument. However, whether these achievements required religious parties is not clear. Indeed, one may well argue that Israel would be better off—”religiously”—were it not for those parties, and for the following reasons.
Politics involves bargaining, sometimes rather shoddy. This is universally expected of politicians. But we want something more from religious leaders. We expect them to set an example of sincerity, of intellectual integrity, of selfless dedication to Torah values (whether we are Torah-oriented or not). And if they have to compromise, it should not be at the expense of basic principles: they should not play fast and loose with Jewish law (Halakha).
This is why some people think that politics as well as Judaism would be better off without such parties in the Knesset. Contrast the Congress of the United States.
Because the Congress has no religious parties, its two major parties, Democrat and Republican, vie with each other for religious voters. No leader of these parties (Barack Obama excluded) would ever make explicit statements offensive to the religious community.
Such is not the case in Israel. With religious parties in the Knesset, secular parties of the Left, know they will not receive any votes from the Orthodox community. Hence they are not deterred from taking anti-religions positions.
Conversely, if there were no religious parties in the Knesset, secularists on the Left would compete with secularists on the Right for religious voters, and this would require them to moderate their attitude toward the Orthodox. At the same time, religious leaders might take a more principled stand on such issues as yielding Jewish land to Arab despots and releasing Arab terrorists who have murdered Jewish men, women, and children.
Of course, in a democracy one cannot prevent the existence of religious parties, and I don’t expect the religious parties in Israel to self-destruct. Nor am I here recommending that they should. Still, I wonder whether they do more good than harm in the long run. Surely this is something for religious Jews to think about—especially those attuned to the convergence of Torah wisdom and quantum and relativity physics. This convergence may prompt both secularists and religionists to transcend the obsolete modes of thought that modulated the now stagnant state of Israel—a stagnation also evident in America.
And so, in the name Passover, the Festival of Freedom, let’s leave Egypt or the bondage of the “Old Order” behind us.