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shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9             Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Shabbat, September 2, 2000 – 2 Elul 5760

By Rabbi Joshua Heller
Jewish Theological Seminary

It is no secret that, despite the barriers between church and state, religion plays an important role in the American political system. Candidates for high office must declare their allegiance to God, just as they affirm their commitment to motherhood and apple pie. Americans expect candidates to declare their faith publicly, but are not selective about the private details of that commitment—whether it be Methodism, secret agnosticism, or even, now, observant Judaism.

The Torah portion that we read this week, Shoftim, makes far more serious demands of the kings, the ancient political leaders of Israel. Aside from ensuring that he does not accrue wealth and wives, or lead the Jewish people back to slavery in Egypt, the Torah commands that the King “shall write this Mishneh Torah (this repetition of the Torah) on a scroll…and it shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). What a wonderful message, that the king, though he be neither scholar nor priest, must engage in regular study, “so that he does not exalt himself over his brethren, and does not turn away from the commandments” (Deuteronomy 17:20).

Our sages, however, had an expanded understanding of this commandment, and understood the word “mishneh,” which implies duplication, to mean that the king must in fact have two Torah scrolls: “One which comes and goes with him, and one which remains in his treasure house” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b). He must carry the Torah with him, literally on his sleeve, as a visible symbol in the public sphere, but also keep it safe in his most private place as a true guide to his private practice.

I will leave it to others to discuss public political figures of various religious persuasions and where they do or don’t carry their bibles. I would rather apply a long-standing rabbinic principle,”All Jews are to be considered the sons of kings” (Mishnah Shabbat 14:4). Even though we are not literally royalty, we hold ourselves to the highest standards, and consider for ourselves how the Torah’s commandment to the king applies to us as individuals living our own private lives.

As Jews have entered the modern world over the last few centuries, maintaining the Torah both in public and in private has become more of a challenge. Religious observance in the home was one thing, but being a Jew in public, going out and coming in, was quite another. Why mark one’s self as different by abstaining from foods that others eat, by wearing different clothes, going to different schools? Why sacrifice one’s economic well being by resting on Shabbat when all others worked?

In his poem “Hakiza Ami,” the 19th-century Russian-Jewish Poet Y. L. Gordon summed up the split personality that the world seemed to demand: “Be a Jew at home and a human being in the street.”

Ironically, we may be witness to the first generation experiencing the opposite problem. Antisemitism is by no means dead, but there are so many ways in which Jews affiliate themselves publicly and openly with pride, without fear of reprisals. They are members of synagogues and other Jewish communal organizations, and send their children to Hebrew school. They eat at the local kosher-style deli. It is almost never dangerous, and normally not even uncomfortable, to be a Jew in the street.

The challenge now is to be a Jew in the home, to commit ourselves to Jewish ideals, to Jewish observance, even when its function is private, rather than public. We may belong to and attend synagogues, but do we make time for private prayer, whether expressed in its traditional form or spoken freely from the heart? We may give our children a Jewish education, but do we reinforce it by practicing at home what they learn in school? Do we keep Jewish books in our homes and read them? If we are fortunate enough to have a day off on Saturday, do we create a spirit of Shabbat in our homes that differs from the ambience of the rest of the weekend?

Judaism is a precious gift, and if we are to truly appreciate it, we cannot only display it in the public sphere, in the street. For that which is carried with us everywhere may with time become misplaced or adulterated. We can only truly preserve it by keeping it in private as well, in our treasure house, the Jewish home.

Rabbi Joshua Heller is director of distance learning and educational technology at JTS, a Jewish university committed to promoting Jewish learning for all, and the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. The Jewish Theological Seminary grants undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees and offers enriching programs for the Jewish community in the US and around the world. Study more with JTS at http://www.learn.jtsa.edu.

Copyright © 2000 Jewish Theological Seminary. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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