"When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues"

( JM Keynes, "Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren" 1930 )

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hillel´s Forgotten Lesson

That post should have written in Hebrew.

” What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellowman;
this is the whole Law. The rest is but commentary”.
( Hillel The Elder , 1st century )

Last week the Israeli cabinet voted through a "declaration of loyalty" a bill which would require non-Jews taking Israeli citizenship to swear loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and Democratic State" . Although the bill that must still receive the approval of the parliament before it becomes law it is an important step toward legislation as the Government controls the majority in the Knesset.

For an outsider, such a Law might sound a fair decision but, once again, the devil is in the details : First of all , the Oath is required only from non Jews . Second it requires Loyalty to vague terms as “Democratic” “ Jewish” . Needless to say, the Law is controversial and many of its critics appeal to modern values. However, I will try to shed light on that decision from a "Jewish" perspective and show that the Law as proposed also clashes with less modern traditions.

If loyalty can be simplified by a “!” mark, Judaism can be represented by a ”?”. To illustrate that point, I will bring as an example the opening of the Babylonian Talmud ,the central pillar of Jewish tradition. That book commences (in a non typical fashion for a religious text) with a ... question ...in which a scholar raises his own doubts about a former .... question ! Lets have a look on the quote:

“MISHNAH. FROM WHAT TIME MAY ONE RECITE THE SHEMA' IN THE EVENING?....GEMARA. On what does the Tanna ( “Scholar”) base himself that he commences: FROM WHAT TIME?"
( Babylonian Talmud Soncino translation , Tractate Berakhot Page 2).

A few explanations:
Mishnah : Oral Law
Gemara: The book that gathers the debates concerning Oral and Written Law.
Shema: Literally “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God! Adonai is One!” The most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, recited twice a day.

I will not get into details about that fascinating discussion, but it serves as an example to the spirit of the Jewish culture. That emphasis on “debate” does not mean that Judaism is alien to loyalty. On the contrary, the above discussion deals with a sort of “Loyalty declaration” an observant Jew must recite twice a day. But even that small piece of evidence reveals many interesting aspects about the nature of loyalty.

First of all, the Shema call is a personal manifestation which does not imply necessarily a public realm ,let alone the existence of the State or clergy intermediation . The call is external , verbal but reflexive, and in public service it is recited by each and everyone of the prayers, as a sort of special and personal commitment. The main point is that loyalty is in essence a personal choice, not an issue to be imposed from the establishment and which stems from the individual.

Second: The debate above is practical by its nature ( “From what time?” “On What”How? Etc.) as are most of the debates in the Talmud. The Jewish tradition considers big declarations or profound debates as meaningless unless they are accompanied by concrete acts ( the “Mitzvot”). In our modern case, the new law does not specify what does it mean to be loyal to the “Jewish and Democratic” and what are the concrete terms for such loyalty . If the idea is to emphasize the supremacy of Law, than the “loyalty” is useless, since it would be sufficient to declare a personal commitment to obey , protect and defend the Law. If the idea is to emphasize the Jewishness of the State, we may fall into a deep trap : Israel is NOT ruled by the Jewish legal Code, so in that sense it is not a “Jewish” State . If “Jewishness” means a Jewish cultural character or symbols it is a too vague and ambiguous term to demand “loyalty” to. And how do you measure loyalty? Is it a binary term or there are various degrees of “Loyalty” ? And what is exactly Democracy? The rule of majority or also the rights of minorities ? And so on , and so on...

Third : The modern version of “Loyalty” is not only discriminatory ( only non Jews are required to declare ) but alien to the Spirit of the Shema . The obligation to recite the Shema twice a day is imposed on each and every observant, even on direct descendants of King David. From that perspective kinship is just one condition, (...not necessary, let alone sufficient), to guarantee the commitment to the Jewish World. The daily recite is a reaffirmation of the idea that loyalty must be reinforced even among the (apparently) most most loyal.

Back to the first quote to close the circle, Hillel´s comment was a response to a Gentile who asked to understand the whole Torah on one leg ( his rival, Shamai sent away the gentile...) . BTW, Hillel´s line is dominant in almost every dispute between these two scholars . Hillel would ask in our case :What would American Jews say if the US Congress approves a Law which requires non Christians to swear loyalty to a "Christian State" ??? I do not even dare to imagine.... As Hillel stated, the basic principle of the Jewish tradition is the respect for the other and the recognition that you might be some day in other´s people place.

My conclusion is that the proposed legislation is not only contrary to the spirit of a modern Democratic State but reveals a deep misunderstanding or ignorance about Judaism among Israeli rulers.

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