I’m coming out of the closet to admit I’m a political junkie.
From the time I received my first degree at UC Berkeley in political science over 30 years ago until now, I have taken an active interest in elections the way some people do for football games and have been involved in both national and local campaigns.
Some people think this is antithetical to being a “man of faith,” and yet it is the exact opposite. As a rabbi and man committed to my religion, I have no choice but to be politically active.My tradition demands, as many do, that I not only believe, but act in a way that helps the world through learning to “do good and devoting yourself to justice,” Isaiah 1:17. That requires me to be involved in the politics of the world I live in. Whether it is the deep friendship between Rabbi Judah HaNasi and the Roman Emperor Antonius almost 2,000 years ago or the great Rabbi Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, Judaism teaches that “spirituality” needs to be aware, involved and integrated with the secular world of politics.
As we approach July Fourth, I think it is important to remember how integral religion was in the creation of this country. This is not to suggest that religion and government should be so tied together that there is no freedom, but to remember how deeply spiritual beliefs are embedded into the fabric of this country’s history.
The Torah and Talmud both teach us “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” or “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20 and Sanhedrin 32b. We must not just “complain” when we see injustice, but do all we can to rectify it.
A Biblical concept, this became the spiritual foundation of the United States. The Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of this country realized the importance of this teaching, and for the first time in modern history, chose to fight against injustice by declaring their own nation based on ethical values.
What many people do not realize is how important Biblical history actually was to the members of the Continental Congress. Of the five men who wrote the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, three were additionally selected to create a seal for the U.S.
On July 4, 1776, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design a seal for the nation. On it, we see the religious influence on our country. Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted the seal to include imagery of Moses leading the exodus from Egypt, crossing the sea, and God being present with them in their journey through the wilderness. They felt that like the ancient Hebrews, they were casting off slavery to an oppressor with the guidance of a divine hand. Preserved in a note from August of 1776 in his own handwriting, Ben Franklin wrote:
“Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.”
Jefferson’s ideal seal included not only this image, but an image of “the children of Israel being led in the wilderness by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.”
Although these images were not incorporated into the seal that was ultimately chosen by Congress in 1782; it is clear how the teachings of religious text directly influenced these architects of our nation. On July 4, we celebrate the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — three great “biblical” values. We need to remember these religious teachings that are echoed in the words of the founders of this nation: that we must not only “speak” against injustices but act against them.
Heschel said that when he marched with King he felt that he was praying with his legs. I am a political junkie, and I need to pray with both my heart and actions. I have a spiritual need to be involved. I believe that every person of faith needs to be involved politically as well — that we need to integrate our beliefs and our actions and that when we do these things, like the founders of this nation did almost 240 years ago we will truly be repairing the world.
Now that’s something to have fireworks about.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village. He is a member of the Conejo Valley Interfaith Association. Barclay can be reached directly at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.
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