Religion & Beliefs

Clinton and Obama’s Apperances At This Weekend’s “Compassion Forum” Show Why Politics Needs Religion

Sunday night, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed up at Messiah College’s Compassion Forum to talk about faith in political life. Good for them. Just wish it had been Hebrew College. As a persecuted, outnumbered, and very intelligent people of … Read More

By / April 14, 2008

Sunday night, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton showed up at Messiah College’s Compassion Forum to talk about faith in political life. Good for them. Just wish it had been Hebrew College.

As a persecuted, outnumbered, and very intelligent people of faith, we Jews have been staunch supporters of the separation of church and state. After all, when you make up just over 2% of the population of a country, you don’t want presidential politics to turn into a “most popular faith” contest. We’d be sitting on the sidelines with the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and wild Wicca folks, watching the Christian evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Catholics duke it out for religion numero uno.

As a result, Jews have lived split lives, following a kind of self-made kashrut in which politics and faith may never mix. Jews have become well-known for our left-wing political activism, from the labor movement of the 1920 and 30s to the hippie/peace movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the pro-peace and anti-globalization movements today. Yet, with just a few exceptions, the political Jews have been secular Jews, using tikkun olam as a substitute for religion instead of as an expression of it.

The result has been a damaging split within the Jewish community. On the one side, the progressive, pink, secular Jews; on the other side, the insular, black-hatted, religious Jews. Religion and politics grew so far apart that many of us felt we had to be closeted to cross the divide—Orthodox Jews had to pretend to being apolitical; progressive Jews had to pretend to be secular.

Both had to disregard a difficult little fact—namely, that Jewish law is all about mixing politics and faith. Torah teaches us to feed the poor and house the homeless, care for the sick and instruct our children, steward the earth and, in all cases and everywhere, protest wrongs. We even have cool terms for these obligations: tzedakah, give charity; bikkur cholim, care for the sick; pikuakh nefesh, save human life; ba’al tashchit, do not waste the earth’s resources; tikkun ha’olam, repair the world.

These obligations come to us as essential elements of our faith tradition. They are not simply examples of good ethical practices, nor are they limited to caring for our immediate family, community or faith group. As Ruth Messinger and Aaron Dorfman remind us in Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice, the Talmud tells us that we have a broader universe of obligation than just caring for our own:

Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace. [Gittin 61a; and see Rambam’s gloss, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 10:12] In the modern world, political action is the most effective way to fulfill these ethical obligations. Social Security and Medicare, a national health care plan (may it be so) and public schooling, global aid and a military that can intervene to right wrongs—these are all part of our political system. In short, Torah itself tells us that politics and religion cannot be separated.

How do we reconcile a faith tradition that tells us to mix politics and religion with a democratic and pragmatic belief that politics and religion must be kept separate? Barack Obama framed the problem, and offered a solution, when he suggested that asking whether we can have politics and religion together is a false question. The real question is to ask, how do they belong together. And for that, Obama had an intriguing answer:

All of us come to the public square with our values and ideals and our ethics—what we believe. And people of religious faith have the same right to come to that public square with the values and ideals that are rooted in their faith, and they have the right to describe them in religious terms….

There is a fundamental difference between talking about values, about the why behind our ideas and actions, and talking about programs and positions, the what of political life. For example, a Catholic should rightly be able to talk about why even the potentiality of life is sacred—but that is very different from saying that all Americans should be against abortion. As Jews, we should be able to talk about the holiness inherent in our choices about what we eat—but that is very different from saying that all Americans should take up kashrut.

Indeed, when we understand that faith gives us political values, we will find ourselves back in that comfort zone for Jews—flourishing debate. Torah tells us that we must intervene to right wrongs—but what does that mean, precisely? For example, does the value of pikuakh nefesh, protecting a life, mean we must protest the Iraq war and withdraw our forces (the good left answer) or (as John McCain insists) bring it to the best possible conclusion, however long that takes? Does caring for the sick mean a national health care plan or health care tax credits? Values don’t necessarily lead to particular positions.

It’s time for Jews to stop worrying so much about dividing faith from politics. We should be spending our energy getting into the debate, offering up our own ideas about how Jewish values would lead to a better politics.