Congress Weekly Jan 17, 1949
Theocracy For Israel?
Israel already has several political parties whose platforms include a demand for a commonwealth founded on Biblical and Talmudic law. The opposition, in turn, frowns upon any attempt to create a polity which is commonly regarded as a “theocracy.” And particularly is this true of American Zionists who justly cherish the principle of separation of Church and State. Mere mention of the word “theocracy” conjures up the dread of punishment for heresy and religious non-conformity, strict censorship, clericalism in legislative, judicial and administrative office, and a host of other phenomena that are obnoxious to the liberal democratic temper.
Unfortunately, however, both proponents and opponents of a commonwealth founded on Jewish law have been guilty of muddled thinking. The proponents use a slogan without carefully analyzing its implications. They cannot even generally describe the nature of the constitution required by traditional Judaism. Certainly with regard to specific political institutions they have neither dogmas nor binding precedents on which to rely. But their opponents are similarly rash. They believe that Jewish law requires a theocratic form of government. Sometimes even Josephus is cited as the authority for their view. Yet Josephus’ words are seldom examined, nor is the correctness of his designation subjected to careful scrutiny. The fact is that Jews were rarely responsible for any of the ugly associations of the term. And only because the term virtually haunts Jews in the modern era, capital is made of an emotional reaction.
If one would carefully consider the literature regarded by pious Jews as authentic, as well as the facts of Jewish history, one might readily conclude that the separation of Church and State is a Jewish point of view. Judaism did not want persons vested with priestly power to possess political power at the same time. For this reason so much of the discussion about the theocratic nature of the state according to Judaism is without foundation in fact.
Moses distinguished between two types of authority — the spiritual and the political — and he assigned each to different persons or groups of persons. The priestly power was vested in the tribe of Levi while Moses’ successor, as lawgiver and general, was from the tribe of Benjamin. Thus a king was never a priest and a priest was never a king. Only once in Jewish history were both authorities in the same person. The Hasmonean dynasty that thus offended, was never forgiven by the Pharisees. The Talmud states that for this sin the family had no survivors.
Augustine regarded the combination of a spiritual and political authority in the same hands as a typically pagan institution. But it was not Jesus, as Augustine claims, who established the separation of the two powers. It was Moses. That Jesus may have concurred was only natural, for he did concur in many a Pharisaic point of view.
However, in the second millenium it was the Catholic Church to whose theory of organization Augustine contributed so much, that tried to restore the incidence of the two authorities in the same person. Their separation was one of the achievements of the late middle ages and modern period. But what does this separation involve?
It does not mean that a cleric cannot hold public office. In the United States and in England there is no such disqualification.
It does not mean that the state shall not enforce laws which have their origin in canon law. Many a rule of civil and criminal law came originally from canon law. Fraud was originally only a “sin.” It later became actionable at law.
It does not mean that the state shall not appropriate funds for chaplaincies in the army, navy, and air force, as well as in hospitals and other welfare institutions. In this manner support is given, albeit indirectly, even to established churches.
It does not mean that the state cannot exempt religious corporations from taxation and relieve conscientious objectors of military service, though this is tantamount to an unequal distribution of the burdens of citizenship.
In the final analysis, the state should be very much influenced by the moral ideals of the community which religious organizations can enrich. But history has demonstrated that by allowing the moral or spiritual authorities in any community to become possessed of political power is detrimental to human freedom and ultimately even corrupts the moral or spiritual authorities themselves. When a church’s leaders can win their point by coercion instead of persuasion, the church suffers. Its leaders are no longer saintly and obedience to their precepts is based on fear rather than love and conviction.
For these reasons, there must be separation of Church and State—for God’s sake as well as man’s. But what the separation involves is not that the state shall become amoral—or refrain from giving any encouragement to the development and implementation of religious ideals. It means only that the ultimate moral and spiritual authority or authorities in any state shall not at the same time be the ultimate political authority. The ultimate political authority—for freedom’s sake—shall be vested in the many. And even if a cleric should hold a political office, he shall do so as the agent of the people he represents and subject to their control. On the other hand, when he speaks in his church as an authority on moral or spiritual matters, his authority is aristocratic in nature. But by the same token, people may or may not obey him. His appeal can be only a moral appeal—and his method, not legal sanctions, but moral persuasion.
It is basically the separation of the two types of authority that is involved in the separation of Church and State. The spiritual authority may be a Pope, a Synod, a Council or a Chief Rabbi. But their power must be spiritual power alone and their sanctions only moral sanctions. The violation of their will may be sin. The political authority, however, which is vested in the many, shall decide when a violation of moral law constitutes a punishable crime. These two authorities should be separated. It is bad for the Church to have more than spiritual power, and it is good that the State shall always be subject to the independent moral judgments of experts in matters of conscience.
Now a State becomes a theocracy when the spiritual authority and political authority are vested in one and the same person, or group of persons. It is then that all sanctions available to the state can be used to extirpate heresy and punish religious non-conformity. So long as the people, however, retain the ultimate political authority to adopt and amend constitutions, to make laws by duly elected representatives, to implement human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the spiritual authority, which by its very nature, must be aristocratic in character, has only moral power, then we have no theocracy.
Any other use of the term theocracy is objectionable. For if by theocracy we mean that the rulers are priests, then clerics in the United States are eligible for all offices and conceivably within the pattern of its present constitutional system, the United States might lawfully become a theocracy. And if by theocracy we mean that some of the law is divine in origin, then the United States is already a theocracy. When one regards certain rights as inalienable, is not one virtually assuming a divine source? However, if the term is understood as referring to the identity of the spiritual authority with the political authority, then it may be said that Judaism is even anti-theocratic, for Judaism has always insisted on a separation of Malchus (political power) from Kehunah (priestly power).