Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11: Taking Religion Into the Public Sphere

07/31/2012 07:51 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2012

It is truly remarkable how often religion appears in American political discourse. You might think that the separation of church and state would limit such talk, but it may be that the constitutional protection makes us all feel safe enough to share what matters to us, including our religious convictions.

But recently, religious conviction has been presented as though it were beyond all criticism. Once a religious conviction appears, it seems that all thoughtful judgment is deemed unfair. How has our formal respect for diversity of belief led to a hesitation in many quarters to employ judgment of any sort when it comes to religion? Are religions subject to any test of goodness or wisdom, or is faith by its very nature beyond such evaluations?

It is important to add that the "truth" of the faith is not something that outsiders can or need to know. As a Jew, I have little to say regarding the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, Joseph Smith's discovery of a sacred book or Muhammad's midnight ride on a flying steed to Jerusalem. In a diverse society such as ours, it is important that actions justified by faith can also be judged on its merits, its wisdom and fairness by outsiders.

In this week's Torah portion, Va'etchanan, Moses seems to deliver an answer to that uncertainty. Urging the people to keep the law of God, he gives them a reason for compliance, rooted in a universal value, rather than one justified from within the Jewish faith alone:

See, I am teaching you statues and laws which the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to enact in the land that you are entering to possess. Guard them and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these laws and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, that has God so close to it as is the Lord our God whenever we call to him. And what nation is there so great, that has statutes and laws so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

The nations of the world will admire you. They will think you a wise and understanding people if you keep the law because they are righteous laws.

Such a pronouncement presumes a self-evident goodness to the Torah's laws that any person would readily affirm. The laws are deemed to be goodness in action, and if you keep them, the world will admire you.

Read in conjunction with other biblical texts, this might be seen as a central mission of the Jewish people: to practice a set of good laws and so become a light unto the nations. There is little interest in making those nations Jewish. They will simply be impressed by our law code and in its light, improve upon their own.

Fair weights and measures, judicial rules requiring two reliable witnesses, debt forgiveness and resting the land once in seven years, honoring parents and respecting elders -- these laws and many others were deemed wise and good by ancients and moderns alike.

But making such a claim broadly about biblical law strains the argument. There are many laws that would seem challenged by such a demand for universal rationality and goodness. Indeed, the ancient rabbis recount both non-Jewish admiration and skepticism. For this reason the rabbis distinguished between mishpatim, the self-evident laws like, "thou shalt not steal," and hukkim, like the dietary laws which were not.

Nonetheless, Moses Maimonides, a medieval physician, legal scholar and philosopher demanded rationality for every rule of the Torah. In his philosophic work, "Guide to the Perplexed," this is how he explains the above Deuteronomic passage:

...all the statues will show to all the nations that they have been given with wisdom and understanding. Now if there is a thing for which no reason is known and that does not either procure something useful or ward off something harmful, why should one say of one who believes in it or practices it that he is wise and understanding and of great worth? ... Rather things are indubitably as we have mentioned: every commandment from among these 613 commandments exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to warding off an injustice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality, or to warning them against an evil moral quality ("Guide to the Perplexed," III-31, translation by Shlomo Pines, University of Chicago Press, 1963).

According to Maimonides there are good reasons for every law because, beyond being a reliable reflection of God's will, they are all intended to establish good relations, diminish evil and inculcate good character.

Claiming good reasons for one's religious practice does not ensure that all will agree to it. However, it suggests that religious life is not just a private language of redemption between God and a particular people. It must also be an accessible conversation that anyone who seeks to tilt society toward truth, wisdom and fairness can join.

While this form of rationalizing of the commandments was only partly successful internally, it did help to authorize a way of speaking to our neighbors, a method of translation for the public square. It is how the ancient rabbis spoke to ancient Romans and perhaps how contemporary religious leaders ought to speak on Capitol Hill.

A religious person can ask the government to limit the rights of transgender people, but he'd better have a reason that is arguable outside the church. Rabbis and pastors can argue against same-sex marriage, but they had better be able demonstrate the fairness and goodness of such a policy of inequality. A religious person can deny health care benefits to some because she thinks it a better policy, but cannot simply hide behind the shield of her faith; for the shield of her faith must inherently provide rationales that extend into the realm of universal logic and, ideally, the pursuit of justice.

A people to whom God is close and at hand must have a wise and righteous law that any outsider would find admirable. Religion can be a powerful engine for social action and political engagement, but only if we can find ways to express religious values as elements in a larger, shared search for the wise and the good.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.