Before even beginning to talk about Israel, it’s worth checking some basic assumptions.
Here is an easy one.
If someone put a gun to your head and told you to hand over your iPhone or they’d shoot, we’re guessing you would rush to say goodbye to instagram.
We reckon you might not even put up a fight to save your car, if the fight meant risking your life.
How about your house?
Is there anything, or anyone, for whom you would risk your life?
Or in Tom Petty’s words:
Well I know what’s right,
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down
Is there anything you “won’t back down” from?
It’s a question worth asking before condemning warfare out of hand:
Is there anything worth fighting for?
What is worth dying for?
Jewish tradition offers contrasting answers to this fundamental question. It is of course a deep and complex issue, which is by no means exhausted by only two sources; but in order to begin a conversation, here is where we recommend starting.
In 1286, the Hapsburg King Rudolf I declared Jews servi camerae (“serfs of the treasury”), which had the effect of negating their political freedoms. Along with many others, Rabbi Meir of Rottenburg fled Germany with his family and followers, but was captured in Lombardy and imprisoned in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace.
Tradition has it that the community raised a huge ransom of 23,000 marks silver for him, but Rabbi Meir refused it, for fear of encouraging the imprisonment of other rabbis.
He cited the following rabbinic ruling:
“You shall not redeem the captures more than their worth, for the sake of Tikkun Olam
(proper order in the world)”
אין פודין את השבויים יתר על כדי דמיהן, מפני תיקון עולם
Mishna Gittin, chapter 4:6.
He died in prison seven years later.
R. Meir of Rottenburg offers us an example of a leader arguing that it is better to risk imprisonment and death than to give in to the evils of another.
- Do you respect R. Meir’s choice? Do you agree with it?
- How do you understand the ruling that suggests ransoming someone above their value might negatively impact on “tikkun olam”?
On the other hand…
Before the advances in modern medicine, child-birth was a dangerous, often lethal adventure. Not only was the baby’s survival in question, so too was that of the mother. When a woman went into labor, it was not necessarily cause for celebration and excitement, rather concern and even terror.
But what should one do when a woman is in labor over Shabbat?
One of the highest values of Judaism is the observance of Shabbat.
What happens if in order to save a woman in labor, one would need to break Shabbat?
יולדת בשלשה ימים הראשונים בין אמרה צריכה אני בין לא אמרה צריכה אני מחללים עליה את השבת;
A woman in labor: In the first three days of her labor, irrespective of whether she says “I need!”, Shabbat rules should be desecrated in order to care for her.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach CHayim, sign 330.
Thus, even if a woman does not ask for you to break Shabbat in order to care for her, you should still put her well-being above the requirements of your Shabbat observance.
- What does this ruling suggest about the prioritization of Jewish values?
- How do we reconcile this ruling with the story of R. Meir of Rottenberg? Can they be reconciled?
We have learned that there may be certain values and relationships for which we may choose to risk, and even sacrifice, our lives.
We have also learned that Jewish tradition deals with this issue directly and does not shy away from recognizing the costs of making such tough decisions.
In 1976 the Israeli government decided to send Israeli soldiers to Uganda, to fight to rescue 80 Jewish hostages – Israeli and non-Israeli – a fascinating new answer to the question of R. Meir of Rottenberg.
What values lie behind the existence of Israel?
How is it that generations of Jews have decided that the defence of the State of Israel is something worth risking one’s life for?
These are huge questions that cannot be adequately addressed in one short conversation. We would only point you towards two directions of exploration: Historical context, and Key Values.
A taster of what we mean by Historical Context:
“[Prior to 1948]The noun that went along with the adjective “Jewish”, more than any other, was the word “Refugee”. Today in the world there is no such thing as a Jewish Refugee for one reason only: There is a State of Israel.” (Avram Infeld)
Look around at the refugee problem throughout the world, and try to imagine a time when most refugees in the news fleeing persecution and war were Jewish…
A taster of what we mean by Key Values – Hatikvah Vision
The penultimate line of Israel’s national anthem aspires to be “a Free (Jewish) People In Our Land”. This encapsulation of three key values, Freedom, Peoplehood, and connection to particular territory, is at the heart of the State of Israel and its value to the Jewish People.