It is ironic how so many dynasties of the past that attempted to destroy Israel and the Jewish people are no more, while Judaism and the state of Israel continue on the stage of life. Examples include ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, and, in our own times, the Nazi regime.
One of the differences between Israel, as in our infrastructure in Biblical times, and the other nations of the world, is that Israel was founded on and grounded in a process of checks and balances reflected in the teachings of Torah. Even in the 2000 years of Diaspora that only ended with the reemergence of Israel in 1948, because of our holding fast to Torah teachings through the ages, we never lost sight of or appreciation for the complex process by which Israel was created as a unique nation and people in the world. It is not just the uniqueness of being a people “under God”, truly a visceral reality in our system vs. an assertion added in the American Pledge of Allegiance in the nineteen fifties. It is more a logistical process generated in the Torah.
Judaism as a societal system, as initially established in Torah times, is built on checks and balances. In fact it anticipated three-thousand years ago the principle of the importance of separation of church (i.e. Temple/synagogue) and state. While the Kohanim/Priests ruled life in the Mishkan (Tabernacle in the Wilderness) and the Temples (in Jerusalem), an entirely different power structure was in place in governing the society outside of the religious connectivity with God. To keep the Kohanim in check, where necessary, we also had the Prophets, beginning with Moses, as counter balance to any inappropriate power the Priests derived from their station. Thus, in the portion Tetzaveh, in the book of Exodus, enumerating the detail of the proper dress of the priests and their empowerment to serve God on behalf of the people through the sacrificial system, that portion is the one in particular where Moses’ name does not appear. That “religious” power does not belong to him just as the governance of the broader society does not belong to the Kohanim.
The prophet becomes the connector in call to accountability between the behavior of the Kohen (which could be spotty given that it was a hereditary position, with no other qualifications, vs the prophet which could be anyone, as designated by God) and the behavior of the King (also not necessarily a hereditary position). The prophetic tradition, which eventually would evolve to and be replaced by the world of the rabbis, assured that Priests and Kings did not abuse or overly violate their authority and power. Such checks and balances were critical in allowing Israel to continue to survive even in periods of misbehavior by priest or king.
Ironically, even that infrastructure could not guarantee unbroken life in the land as the prophets found themselves scolding the entire people for misbehavior as the cause of the loss of both the First Temple with the downfall to Babylonia in 586 BCE and the Second Temple to Rome in 70 CE.
It is this unique infrastructure of religious and secular rule and its checks and balances that gives Judaism its character as more society and peoplehood than religion, and it is that very infrastructure that made it natural and right for the reemergence of Israel as a nation that could be home to the Jewish people, spiritually and tangibly, in our own times.
The lesson of Judaic governance is significant in that it is a key to Jewish continuity in the face of the failure and demise of all the great and more powerful nations that lived as if they would never perish, only to end up in history books having fallen as power after power asserted itself as the new and improved empire of the day. Lacking such systems of checks and balances their futures were limited.
American Jews know that there is something special about living in this country because, similar to the structure provided in Torah and reflected in the lessons of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the United States is inspired, founded and built on principles of the rights of human beings as taught in the Torah. Perhaps of even more significance is the fact that this country is also based in a system of checks and balances unlike any other nation in history. While Israel had its three centers of power, the priesthood, the prophets and the monarchy, America has its three centers of power, the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court. If we are to apply lessons from the past as lights for the future, from our Jewish perspective, we can particularly appreciate how important it is for America to maintain its effectiveness as a country built on those three different and separate power bases to assure American continuity where all the other nations have fallen. Hopefully this understanding and appreciation for the unique character of American life with separation of church and state and the vouchsafing of each of the branches of government, will underscore the importance of the appointment sooner than later of a ninth Supreme Court Justice to replace the late Justice Scalia.
And, speaking of the modern state of Israel, with its own system of checks and balances, including a very active and effective Supreme Court, only a few weeks ago a landmark decision was reached by the Israeli cabinet, spearheaded by Prime Minister Netanyahu to finally allow non-orthodox Jewish groups (i.e. Reform and Conservative and Women of the Wall) to have their own ample space to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This decision not only rectifies a terrible wrong, but it highlights the dangers that Israel has had to face when politics, i.e. governance of secular life, was/is comingled with religion, i.e. orthodox parties in government, that enabled rules to be set that were not inclusive of or respectful to the entire Jewish people, with still much work to be done to reach a day when non-orthodox rabbis can officiate at marriages and conversions in Israel.
Torah teachings from so many years ago continue to be vibrant lights and beacons showing the way to a better and healthier future for a world in need of such light and vision.