First of all, I hope you vote on Election Day. The only excuse possible is that you already voted early by absentee ballot or in early voting. It is a mitzvah to vote for the candidate of your choice.
Whenever election time comes around there is always talk of the separation of Church and State. It is one of the fundamentals of our Bill of Rights, is incorporated in the very first amendment to the Constitution and is the subject of much heat by those who are passionate about it one way or the other. Some feel that religious sensibilities would be good to inject into government and others want there to be a complete wall separating the two, a wall that can never be broken.
Those who know me understand that whenever there is a choice between one way or the other, I go for a different path. The impasse between the pro and con sides in this debate over Church and State is due to the intransience on both sides. Each only sees what they want to see and perhaps they don’t understand why the amendment is written as it was.
First of all, I believe that, the founders of this nation were religious men. They may have had issues with the denominations and the formal church as it existed in their day, but they believed in God and they prayed to that God. They had no doubt that their experiment in democracy was blessed by the Divine. They were not trying to eliminate religion from the state, only to temper the role of religion in the political system.
Rabbis are often asked to recite invocations before city council and state legislative sessions. Even Congress opens their sessions with invocations. Many of my colleagues do not like to perform these invocations citing their belief that it violates the Church/State barrier. The invocation needs to be nondenominational since the people present represent many different faiths. Some clergy get this right; others seem not to be able to pray without invoking the name of Jesus, no matter how offensive such a prayer might be to those present.
I never turn down an opportunity to offer an invocation at a government event.
While I feel that it is important that government does not pass laws establishing one religion or making life difficult for another, I also feel that religion has something to say to government. It is not about whether this or that law should be passed, but that there is a need to note that while Congress can say if an action is legal or not legal, only religion is in a place to say if an action is right or wrong. This is why I oppose religions lobbying for passage of laws that promote their world view, but insist that religions speak out about laws that go against their understanding of right and wrong.
Let me take one controversial law: Roe vs. Wade and the right for a woman to have an abortion. In this country, it is legal for a woman to have an abortion. It is her legal right. But it does not make it the right thing to do. The implications for the mother and the fetus are very disturbing. I personally don’t like abortions but Judaism understands that sometimes they are needed. What I teach, therefore, is that abortion may be legal, but is not to be considered a form of birth control. It is my duty to teach that women should not get into a situation where an abortion may be needed. It is my duty to teach men and women the responsibilities that come with sexual activities. Abortion may be legal, but it is not good. It is only a last resort solution to the most dire of circumstances.
In business, there is a similar situation. It is not possible to pass legislation to cover every possibility that a person can think up to defraud a neighbor or a client. Therefore we religious leaders have a responsibility to teach ethical behavior and insist that, while the law may allow certain types of business dealings, these still may not be the right thing to do. Keeping the law is never enough. One has to go beyond the letter of the law to do what is right. The story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach teaches this lesson. He bought a donkey and when his students brought it home, they discovered, hidden in the bridle, an expensive pearl. They had bought the bridle and the donkey so, by law, the pearl belonged to the Rabbi, but he returned it to the seller since clearly the price of the donkey did not include the price of the pearl. He was not required to do it, but he did it anyway and received a blessing from the seller for his honesty and ethical behavior. No matter what business laws are passed, we have a religious obligation to go beyond the law.
We think of government with three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judicial. But there is fourth “branch” of government, religion, which must speak to what the other three are doing. Our founding fathers could not imagine a world where faith and religion did not speak to issues of right and wrong. That is the holy work that religious people and clergy perform. Not making laws, but living by a standard that goes beyond what a law can do. Laws are needed to protect us from ourselves. As the Talmud, in Mishnah Avot, 3:2 noted, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people would eat each other alive.” But government without religious sensibilities can never fully govern the lives of its citizens. Segregation was legal until religious leaders taught that it was not right. Quotas were legal until religious people demanded that they end. All the laws of Congress could not stop discrimination until religious leaders instilled in their congregations the idea that all of us are created in the image of God.
Religion needs government to equally represent the needs of the people. Government needs religion to teach what the law can’t teach: that we all must live to a higher standard.