Nowadays religion is a countercultural balance in society, but that was not always the case. For most of human history, religion and society were one and the same; anything countercultural was labeled heretical and subject to punishment. Over the course of centuries, however, the secular arm of the state and the spiritual arm of religion have slogged through and reached a compromise, so that, by now, modern and premodern societies differ precisely as to whether a healthy division of power has come to pass. Iran and Saudi Arabia, for example, still feature regimes in which religion and state collude in stifling opposition. The United States, Canada, and most of Europe, by contrast, relegate religion to the position of loyal opposition with no actual power but a lot of moral influence. We ought to like it that way.
The ideal of balancing church and state can be drawn from this week’s parsha, which begins with Pinchas, the religious “true believer,” and ends with Joshua, the successor to Moses in directing affairs of state.
Pinchas is a loyal priest and zealot; upon seeing a man having illicit sexual relations, he takes the law into his own hands and murders him. The rabbis struggle with Pinchas, whom they rightly see as a terrible model for society. They must explain away God’s act of rewarding him with the priesthood in an eternal brit shalom (“covenant of peace”). God meant to teach him that “the way of peace [shalom] is always preferable to the way of zealotry and war,” says Itturei Torah (as an example).
But perhaps this eternal priesthood was not really a reward. Perhaps — having seen how Pinchas abused religious scruple — God decided to rein religion in. By establishing a priesthood in perpetuity, God marginalized religion by fencing it off within its own distinctive institution, and then set about establishing its mirror opposite, a strong secular power, in the person of Joshua. The counterpoint to Pinchas, Joshua, although a military general, is no vigilante. He is described instead as a statesman (Sforno) and a man in touch with the spirit of his age (Or Hachaim).
Religion, then, must make room for an independent state. But the state needs religion just as religion needs the state, so Joshua, too, finds his authority limited. He is expressly given only “some of Moses’ glory” — not all of it, says the Gemara, since only Moses was prophet enough to have all available power vested in him. From now on, Israelite society is to have a division of power: a religious authority known as the priesthood and a civil authority able to conduct foreign wars while governing wisely and benevolently within.
It will take centuries for this dual model to come to fruition — and human beings are still working on it — but eventually it becomes the norm in most modern democracies, a function of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Interestingly enough, it was argued most forcefully by a Jew, Moses Mendelssohn, in 1793. The secular power, he held, is charged with making and enforcing laws to benefit commerce and the body politic but must remain unconcerned with what we believe. Religion, by contrast, cares deeply about what we believe but has power only to convince, not coerce. Religious conviction can “neither be purchased by reward nor compelled by punishment…. The state has physical power and uses it when necessary. The power of religion is love and beneficence.” Religion’s business is “teaching and consoling.”
This is not to say that religion must entirely and always stay out of the realm of government. But its role there is limited to extraordinary situations where it is convinced that governmental power is being used in the service of evil. We wish, for example, that Germany’s churches had intervened more strenuously in opposition to Hitler. But even then, religion cannot coerce; it can only practice moral suasion, rallying the masses to civil disobedience, if need be, through such things as sit-ins, demonstrations, and the like.
Society needs both: a secular authority with legal muscle and a religious opposition with moral influence. The bookends of our parsha — Pinchas and Joshua — demonstrate Torah at its prophetic best, setting us on notice as to how the human race eventually learns to balance conflicting claims of church and state. We need them both — but each in its own appropriate sphere of influence.