I read two articles the other day that seemed to speak to each other. The first was in the Dominion Post: “The use and misuse of religious freedom”. The second was in the book of Joshua, in the Old Testament of the Bible.
The DomPost writer was a professor of Bioethics, and his theme — crudely summarised — was that you can’t have it both ways. If a person chooses to follow a religious principle and a given code of conduct, there will be prices to pay that will not be paid by other people. You may choose to accept the religion and the price, or not; but not the religion without the price.
Fair enough. Most reasonable people would agree. There will always remain some debate about what constitutes a fair price and what counts as true religion, but the basic premise doesn’t look genuinely arguable.
But one of his examples caught my eye, and especially as I read from Joshua later in the morning. It was about ulta-orthodox Jewish religious students being exempted from Israeli military duty in order to study the Torah. The writer commented, “There is no reason Israel’s secular majority should share the belief that having tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox scholars studying the Torah provides any benefit at all to the nation, and it is certainly not as arduous as military service.”
Well, those views are his and he is entitled to them, but one has to recall why Israel laid claim in the first place to the area it inhabits, and to reflect that at least part of it was the strong view that the land was theirs by divine right. With the divine right went divine responsibilities. God promised Abraham’s descendants the land, and offered to protect them in it if they followed his precepts. To that end, when they moved into it, eleven of the twelve tribes received an area of entitlement. The twelfth became professional priests so that the people would not become preoccupied with hay-making or plumbing and forget the Lord their God. In return, the eleven tribes supported the twelfth: a symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit. As the people followed God, he guaranteed their well-being in the face of their enemies.
It’s all there in Joshua. “Decide if you want to do this,” Joshua says to them, “or if you’d rather follow various other gods. But as for me, I will serve the Lord.”
“So will we,” they all said. “He is our God.”
Then they reneged, and in the succeeding generations they reneged increasingly until the nation was invaded and the Jews were dispersed. Centuries of dispossession followed, culminating in Hitler’s holocaust. When a window of opportunity presented itself in 1948, they were quick to move back into their Promised Land, and have been more than tenacious in defending it since. And who can wonder?
Paradoxically, though, in some ways it was easier for the Jews to remain true to their identity when they had no country of their own than it has been since they went back there. Jews all over the world were held together for centuries by religious observance — “Next year in Jerusalem.” Not for nothing has it been said, “More than the Jews having kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” And they did this because a group among them kept them reminded of their faith, their God and their identity.
Not so obviously necessary (or, as the bioethicist put it, no obvious reason to see any benefit at all) once the goal has been achieved. So the majority of secular Jews might vote against the retention of a professional priestly class.
That’s their privilege. But if you can’t indeed have things both ways, may we expect a corresponding loosening of the claim to the land? Don’t hold your breath.
And if the land is to be held in the face of international competition and outright hostility among the nearest neighbours, not to mention the dispossessed descendants of the ancient Philistines, it might require the co-operation of God. The other option is the building of military might and fostering links with the USA. It’s close to a choice between military training and Torah study. But don’t the United States have a slogan that says “In God we trust”? You’d almost think it might be worthwhile for Israel to think again about this Torah group. They could keep their ethics clear, remove the middleman and perhaps rediscover their old identity, all at the same time.