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Separation of Church and State

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JewishTreats.org

Recently @JewishTweets mentioned, in passing, a website created specifically to give cheers or jeers to those who would or would not say “Merry Christmas.” Many of the jeers were given to local municipalities–once again raising the issue of separation of church and state.

Traditionally, the ideal Jewish nation is one with a pious king (as the standard set by King David), but with a clear separation between the civil leadership and the religious leadership. The king is the head of state; the High Priest is the religious leader.

This system worked well when the two leaders did not interfere with each other’s direct succession. Sadly though, one finds much civil discord throughout Jewish history brought on by kings’ appointing High Priests or taking the priesthood for themselves. After the Maccabees ousted the Syrian-Greeks (Chanukah), they assumed both the civil leadership and the religious leadership, which led to highly corrupt governments and, finally, to the heavy-handed rule of Rome. While the dual leadership of king and High Priest was never meant as a means of “checks and balances,” in practice it worked.

Far worse than an abused system, however, is when the civil leader bans traditional religious worship completely. For instance, Jereboam ben Nevat, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, banned his subjects from traveling to Jerusalem on pilgrimages for fear of losing his sovereignty. He even blocked the roads and put up idols to try and convince the people that he could create a new home for the Divine Presence. For this the Talmud says: “of Jeroboam and his companions… ‘the name of the wicked shall rot’” (Taanit 28a).

This does not answer today’s conundrum of how to best separate church and state (too little vs. too much), but it does provide an interesting insight into the Torah’s perspective on government.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved

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