This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9) lays out the judicial system that will govern the Israelites as they go forward into the land. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice”. (Deut. 16:18). In the Jewish Study Bible on Deuteronomy, Bernard Levinson writes that this is “the first blueprint for a constitutional government in which no single branch of government and no single religious institution should have sole power”.
This portion also draws a line between religious and civil matters. The Torah, and this book of Deuteronomy in particular, insists on the people having one central place of worship. The courts of law, though, are to be set up in each community so that justice is easily at hand for all. The lawgivers who are to be appointed are not priests or Levites, they are laypeople, and they are not being chosen by God but by the people in their local communities.
This wall between “church and state” that the Torah describes began with Aaron and Moses. From the beginning, Moses was the lawgiver and Aaron the religious leader. This separation is one that served the Israelite people well in the wilderness and beyond, and has served these United States very well from it’s very beginnings. It is a shame to watch these laws now eroding. As we see more and more crèches and Chanukiahs on city hall lawns, and more court cases allowing the religious beliefs of the few to affect the lives of the many, we should hearken back to the wisdom of the Torah and strengthen the wall between religion and civil law.