The Gentle Heart in Israel Today

Extending a biblical exemption from military service to Israeli refuseniks.

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In assessing the situation we face today, there is a second dimension to apply:

There are many aspects of our lives, and this is one, that are profoundly different from the context in which the Talmud evolved.

Learning from the Maccabees

Indeed, the Maccabees, far more nearly than most later rabbinic communities, lived in the situation of a state or state-in-the-making in the Land of Israel that would have to decide whether and how to make war.

One would think that if ever there was a war the rabbis might have defined as "obligatory," in which the Deuteronomic exemptions would have been suspended, it would have been the kind of war the Maccabees were fighting against Antiochus. Yet the Maccabees understood the Deuteronomy text to apply even in their extreme situation. They applied the Torah, and evidently because many of the people did support that war, they fought and won.

Of course the Book of Maccabees does not control the halakhah [Jewish law], and was not even canonized by the Rabbis as a sacred text. But it does make clear what Jews who lived in this situation thought and did. So today we might take their responses into account.

Considerations for Our Time

Another of the most important differences between our lives and those of the Rabbis is, that today we are intertwined with an effort by the human race to develop an international law of war, which includes the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, etc., and includes not only an Israeli state but a law of that state, itself requiring a soldier to disobey an unlawful order, including one unlawful under international law.

This does not end our questioning, but does enrich and complicate it a great deal. We might even, borrowing from but not necessarily standing inside the rabbinic mindset, think of this whole weave of international law as the effort of the Children of Noah to develop the shevah mitzvot--the seven commandments--by which, according to the rabbinic mind, the whole human race is bound. So the Talmudic law of milhemet chovah and reshut may not for us exhaust the question.

Finally, what weight and value do we give the life-experience of our own generation/s? Some of us would say that our lives continue to distill Torah, if we open our experience to God.

In that case for sure, and probably even if we would not go so far, it behooves us to listen to the direct reports of those involved.

The reservist refuseniks who have signed the recent statement do not think that the State of Israel is under occupation or in any danger of being occupied. Just the reverse. They do not believe that the occupation army is acting in a way that protects Israel.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.