G-d and State: Judaism’s View on Secular Life

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov - Jax, FL

When Minister Joe Wright was asked to open the new session of the Kansas State Senate, everyone was expecting the usual generalities, but this is what they heard:

“Heavenly Father, we come before You today to ask Your forgiveness and to seek Your direction and guidance. We know Your word says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good,’ but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.

We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.

We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.

We have killed our unborn and called it choice.

We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.

We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem.

We have abused power and called it politics.

We have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition.

We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.

We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.

Search us, oh G-d, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Amen!”

The response was immediate. A number of legislators walked out during the prayer in protest.

However, during the 6 short weeks that followed, the Church where Rev. Wright is pastor logged more than 5,000 phone calls with only 47 of those calls responding negatively.

The church has received international requests for copies of this prayer from India, Africa and Korea. Commentator Paul Harvey aired this prayer on his radio program “The Rest of the Story” and received a larger response to this program than any other he has ever aired.

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“Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under G-d is acknowledged.” ― Ronald Reagan

“The separation of church and state is a source of strength, but the conscience of our nation does not call for separation between men of state and faith in the Supreme Being.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

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The highlight of last week’s Torah portion was the world-changing revelation at Sinai and the transmission of the Ten Commandments with much drama and fanfare. It was the most lofty and spiritual experience in the history of mankind. Our portion – Mishpatim – which opens with the statement: “And these are the ordinances,” talks about far more subdued day-to-day social laws.

Rashi comments that the juxtaposition of this portion – which deals primarily with civil and tort law – and the Ten Commandments discussed last week, teaches us that just as the Ten Commandments originated at Sinai and are thus, obviously, imbued with Sublime sanctity and holiness, so too are the seemingly mundane civil laws – discussed in this week’s portion. They too are from Sinai and their every detail is permeated with the selfsame Divine spirit and eminence.

This classic Rashi, note the commentaries, contains profound insight into Judaism’s perspective of the role of religion in secular life. Some people are inclined to banish religion to the most spiritual and holy spheres of existence – in both time and place – they perceive no use for it in the every-day mundane realm.

In other words, they observe everyday life – including civil activities and the basic principles of morality – as belonging to the secular and mundane realm of existence, not necessarily, or necessarily not, of spiritual or G-dly order. Religion in their mind is meant to be confined to scarcely designated moments and places in life. Outside of its confined domain religion is obstructive, intrusive and even embarrassing.

Not true, says Rashi: “Just as those [the Ten Commandments] were from Sinai, so are these.” We don’t live a dual existence. Our life is not 90% secular and 10% spiritual, or 30/70, or even 90% spiritual. Even the seemingly mundane elements of life are imbued with G-dly origins and purpose. G-d is certainly not confined to the four walls of the Synagogue.

Our courtrooms are as much a sanctuary as are our temples. We serve G-d when we interact in the marketplace no less than when we rest on the Shabbos. In Judaism there is nothing mundane about the ordinary and nothing ordinary about the mundane.

Indeed, our basic laws of morality and civility are contingent on higher spiritual existence. From whence then do the rules of morality stem? Has there ever been a society that has lost its spirituality and maintained its morality? The Torah as interpreted by Rashi is prophetically correct when it suggests that one cannot and must not separate the spiritual from the mundane.

There are those who espouse the opposite erroneous notion: “Sure,” they say, “There are times in life when we must put our fate in the hands of G-d – situations that are completely beyond our control – but there is no need to inject G-d into areas of life where we seem to have a good grip on the situation ourselves.

We must, of course, pray to the Almighty and give him credit for the things that are beyond our control – the ‘Big stuff,’ but not necessarily for that which appears to be the product of our own doing – the ‘Small stuff.’ After all, we are surely entitled to our own ‘Four cubits of space’ in this world. We are surely deserving of credit for the matters of our own doing. We ought to recognize the separation of G-d and self.” The fact is however that this ideology is not compatible with Judaism nor is it compatible with truth; its embrace can hence only lead to unfavorable consequences.

One has to wonder whether there is any connection between the removal of G-d from our secular lives and the ever growing crisis into which our country tends to be slipping. Cheating appears to have become the way of the land. The only thing that seems to change is the method.

Since the turn of the century the U.S. has seen some of the largest and most devastating corporate bankruptcies and pension deficits ever, many of which were spurred by fraud, greed and scandal. Presently the means has shifted to government rip-offs.

The taking mentality, which used to be considered dishonorable and embarrassing, has now become fashionable and commendable. We are hence subjected to radio and TV advertisements that openly encourage us to screw our lenders and sue our doctors.

Neither is the problem limited to the financial sector. The cheating bug seems to have infiltrated all areas of our culture, from government and media to sports and education. A survey conducted by Northwestern University revealed that half of 527 randomly selected journalists surveyed, admitted to have seen unethical behavior in their newsroom. 60%-75% of high school students admit to some cheating academically.

Statistics show that cheating among high school students has risen dramatically during the past 50 years. Academic cheating is defined as representing someone else’s work as your own. It can take many forms, including sharing another’s work, purchasing a term paper or test questions in advance and paying another to do the work for you. In the past it was the struggling student who was more likely to cheat just to get by. Today it is also the above-average college bound students who are cheating.

73% of all test takers, including prospective graduate students and teachers agree that most students do cheat at some point. 86% of high school students agreed. While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940′s, today between 75 and 98 percent of college students surveyed each year report having cheated in high school.

It is likewise no secret that competitive sports, from professional to amateur, are saturated with the illegal use of steroids in order to gain an unfair advantage. In fact drug cheating has become commonplace in sports. A CDC survey indicated that 5% of all high school students reported lifetime use of steroids without a doctor’s prescription.

And what about fidelity in marriage? It is estimated that roughly 30 to 60% of all married individuals in the United States will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage and these numbers are probably on the conservative side (see, Buss and Shackelford for review of this research).

There is of course no need to discuss the scandals inherent within our government, as they are so prevalent and notorious.

It is hard to deny the glaring connection between the prevailing cultural attitude of separation between G-d and “State” and the moral and ethical standards of a society. The issue of G-d and “State” has everything to do with the way we live our lives. One has to be clueless not to recognize the steady moral deterioration and decline that has gripped our culture as a result of the removal of a Higher authority from its midst. “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under G-d, then we will be one nation gone under,” said Ronald Reagan.

There is a clear and powerful correlation between the banishment of G-d from “State” and the ever increasing moral deterioration and ethical decline. For if there is no Higher Authority within what appears to be entirely secular – “State,” then everything is acceptable, because ultimately nothing matters.

On the other hand, if one believes that there is a Divine code of morality and ethics and a G-d that sees and cares about one’s every action, be it in the Synagogue or in the activities that we call “State,” i.e. school, sports, business relationships, recreation etc., then we would behave like every act counts, as the Rambam/Maimonides states: A person must see himself and the world as equally balanced on two ends of the scale; by doing one good deed, he tips the scale and brings for himself and the entire world redemption and salvation, Maimonides Laws of Repentance, 3:4.

Our Parsha reminds us that “Just as the Ten Commandments originated at Sinai and are rooted within Divine holiness, so too are man’s seemingly mundane laws and activities from Sinai and permeated with Divine spirit and eminence. The notion that there is any space, object, entity, phenomenon or existence, big or small, which is outside of G-d and his purview, is heretical.

In fact according to Kabbalah/Chasidus the entire purpose for the creation of the world was so that the Holy One may have a dwelling place for Himself in this lowly world. The lowliness of this world in which G-d seeks a dwelling place is not just the Synagogue on Yom Kippur or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but rather a an everyday classroom in some mid-American secular grade school, or the hallways of a Senate building in some southern State, the Whitehouse, Kremlin, Zhongnanhai, Palacio Nacional, markets and court-houses, etc. throughout the world. We must seek to bring the Divine Glory into all experiences, activities and places, especially as Jews who are “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Through our efforts in bringing the holiness of “Sinai” into our secular lives and the lowly realms of the world, we will succeed in turning it into a dwelling place for Him and hasten thereby the coming of Moshiach BBA.

2 Comments

  • 1. declasse' intelectual wrote:

    An interesting comment was made by the father of the girl that was shot in the school attack in Roswell, New Mexico “To be right and correct we have taken G-d out of our school and out of our lives, maybe it is time to put G-d back into our schools and into our lives!!!”

    Reply

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