Monday, August 21, 2006

What If Judaism Ruled The World?

I was recently invited to submit a short essay responding to the question: What If My Religion Ruled The World? Here is my essay:

The very question, What If My Religion Ruled The World, is a frightening one. Indeed, the fact that we could even entertain such a thought is scary to me. Theocracy is quite simply an authoritarian government leaning toward if not firmly in the grip of fascism. When God and government mix, it is always at the expense of human dignity, integrity, justice and compassion.

In the Torah God warns the people against having a king. He sees them as a “nation of priests,” and a “holy people.” (Exodus 19:6) who are to be ruled by judges not kings. Judges are concerned with justice, kings with power. In Samuel 10:19 God tells the people that by choosing to be lead by a king they have “rejected your God.” To be aligned with God is to be committed to justice, not power: “justice, and only justice you shall pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

The Torah is clear that when the people succumb to the quest for power they are capable of great evil— genocide and ethnic cleansing— and they do this evil in the name of God. What we see today is nothing new.

The heart of Judaism is found not in the doings of her kings or the pomp of her priests, but in the principles taught by her prophets. The prophets spoke out against the tyranny of the powerful and the exploitation of the powerless. The prophets offered a view of God very different from that of the ruling elite; a God who cared about the widow and the orphan, a God who is moved by acts of justice and compassion not ritual sacrifice and military might.

Even the rabbis do not live up to the prophetic ideal, focusing instead on adherence to their laws and customs, and insisting that these come not from themselves, but from God. The rabbis no less than their priestly rivals equate God with power and seek to claim both for themselves.

Yet, the question is asked, so let me speak to it more concretely. What if Judaism ruled the world? It is very Jewish to answer a question with a question, so would ask, Which Judaism? The Judaism of the prophets or the Judaism of the rabbis? And if the latter, is it the Judaism of the Orthodox or the Judaism of the liberals? Judaism has never been monolithic.

To keep things simple, let me focus on Orthodoxy. If we want to know what the world would look like if Orthodox Judaism ruled the world, we can look to see how they rule in modern day Israel. While still a democracy, and 90% secular, the private lives of Israeli Jews are ruled by the theocracy of the Orthodox establishment.

It is the Orthodox rabbinate who decides who is a Jew, who is a rabbi, and who can marry whom. It is the Orthodox establishment that denies women the right to initiate divorce, and ties widows who cannot prove their husbands are dead (perhaps they were lost in war, but no body was found, for example) to the dead by refusing to free them from their marriages. It is the Orthodox establishment that refuses to ordain women as rabbis, and disenfranchises any Judaism but their own.

It is easy to see what would happen if Judaism ruled the world: we would all step closer to living in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is my belief that if they could get away with it, Orthodoxies of every religious type would shape the world into a Taliban-like state.

What the world today so desperately needs is not the power-focused teaching of religious elites, but the justice-focused radicalism of the prophets of all faiths. It is the prophets who speak for God and creation, and who can cross the boundaries established by clerics and kings, seeing all people as God’s people, and all beings as God’s Being.

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