When George W. Bush began his presidency by announcing his intention to channel federal funds to "faith-based" charitable projects, he raised a buzz of debate in many corners of America's religious landscape. For liberal-minded Jews, the lingering smell of Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich gave pause: If prominent Jewish leaders could be seduced by Rich's tzedakah to risk their reputations by speaking on behalf of a ganef, a thief, how simple for them to keep their mouths shut, and their consciences clear, in exchange for government funds for charitable work!

Rather than see our prophets bought off with government grants, we'd prefer to see them using their "bully pulpit" (or "bully bimah") to pressure the government to fulfill its own obligations. This week's Torah portion, Emor, provides plenty of material relevant to that issue of church-state separation--and to other key policy struggles emerging from Bush's inaugural months in the White House.

Emor first deals with the privileges and responsibilities of leadership--specifically, with how the "sacred donations" that provide sustenance to the priests are to be handled. The priestly family of Aaron is sanctified and "separated" to serve as intermediaries between God and the people. Yet the Torah also limits the priests' power by denying them property ownership. Called by Jewish law to a high state of ritual purity, they are true "public servants," for whom the sacred donations of the people represent a complete livelihood. No "soft money" here, no special-interest bribery, no promises of a sweet lobbying job: Emor would have been a natural for quoting by Senators Feingold and McCain!

Jeffrey Dekro and Lawrence Bush are co-authors of "Jews, Money and Social Responsibility: Developing a Torah of Money for Contemporary Life" and write a column in Tikkun magazine. They can be reached at info@shefafund.org.

The second half of the Torah portion fixes the "appointed times" for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon), Passover ("the Lord's Feast of Unleavened Bread"), the "first fruits" Omer ceremony, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkot ("the Feast of Booths"). This schedule is highly attuned to the cycles of nature and of agricultural livelihood. Each festival has its own ritual and meaning, yet all of them are united by a single commandment: "You shall not work at your occupations."

Pausing from economic development is, in the Torah's view, a fundamental expression of faith and a fundamental aspect of social justice. The earth belongs to God--and we acknowledge this, expressing our faith in God's bounty, by regularly desisting from our pursuit of livelihood. The earth belongs to the Cosmic Commonwealth--and we acknowledge this, expressing our partnership in God's justice, by "not reap[ing] all the way to the edges of [the] field, or gather[ing] the gleanings of [the] harvest." As Parshat Emor directs us, we "leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God" (Leviticus 23:22).

This sense of limit and restraint, powerfully associated with justice in the Torah, deserve reiteration in the face of the Bush administration's assault on the environment. In only four months of this presidency, clean air has been threatened by Bush's refusal to cap carbon dioxide emissions by utilities; clean water has been threatened by his rejection of new arsenic pollution standards; wilderness preservation has been threatened by his rumblings about oil exploration in Alaska's national preserve, and the entire planet's environmental future has been threatened by his disdain for the international Kyoto treaty on global warming.

All of these policy moves, Bush insists, are needed to stoke the economy. We are, by his logic, to pick our harvest clean to the very edges of the field--and may the needy hands of tomorrow's generations be damned!

One can reasonably argue that economic development and environmental protection must go hand-in-hand--that an environmental movement that bases itself on an anti-development, anti-materialist ideology will be doomed in the short run by the consumerism of the American public and in the long run by the hunger of the world's poor. George W. Bush's policies, however, can boast no such articulated viewpoint on sustainable development.

Case in point: The April Harper's magazine noted that an increase of only three miles per gallon in the fuel consumption of SUVs would save more oil than could be pumped out of the Alaskan wilderness preserve!

A president interested in sustainable development would certainly mandate that increase (taking only a small bite out of the huge profits earned by SUV sales) and leave the wilderness well enough alone. Instead, George W. Bush is developing an SUV presidency, a greed-on-wheels government. The utter lack of separation between our Republican "priests" and the corporate boardroom has never been so obvious, and there is hardly a speed-bump in the road to slow them down.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad