My good friend Allen forwarded me an article, “Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Soldiers Under Fire,” from the Wall Street Journal (August 9, 2013).
I confess that I am not an expert on Israeli culture or on the practices and convictions of contemporary Israeli Judaism, but I find that I am quite interested in the ultra-Orthodox community (the Haredim) in Israel. My interest is primarily because of the conflict going on in that country and in that community right now about the role and privileges of the Haredim. When the nation of Israel was reconstituted, the Haredim, very small in number at that time, were given a very special place in society. They were exempted from military service (which was quite a sacrifice on the part of a nation under constant attack), and they were supported wholly by the state because it was thought that the ultra-Orthodox could maintain the religious studies and the religious culture that would provide a small measure of balance in what was in fact the very secular nation of Israel. That special treatment worked well in the beginning when it involved fewer than a thousand people. Today, however, there are closer to a million Haredim, and they are increasingly viewed as a burden on Israeli society rather than a blessing. Thus a movement is underway to revoke many of their special protections and to change their societal status to something much closer to that of the rest of Israelis in the country.
An interesting development over the last few years has been the tremendous leadership that a small group of ultra-Orthodox Israelis have shown in the military in that oft-besieged country. I would imagine that has been an encouragement to most Israelis, but in their own community, amongst the Haredim, those soldiers are despised and attacked—even physically, according to the article my friend sent me—because their involvement in the secular society is seen as a betrayal of their commitment to the study of the religious writings.
It struck me that there are unfortunate parallels between their experience and that which is seen so often in our conservative Christian communities. Too often a culture, with all of its extra-Biblical beliefs and traditions and practices, takes on a life of its own that supersedes and even supplants the original plans and purposes of God.
After reading the article my friend Allen sent me, I responded with a few comments. Here is the gist of what I told him:
I am very interested in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel and especially the changes over the last several years. Obviously I am speaking largely in ignorance of contemporary Israeli Judaism but with at least a little bit of awareness of historical Judaism as expressed in the Tanakh.
My most basic theology is this: God’s work in the world is all of one piece from creation until now. I believe that His consideration has always been for those who recognize that God is, acknowledge their own failings, and cry out to God for mercy. He will respond with grace to those who cry out for mercy. And He will judge those who shake their fist at Him in rebellion. Originally that relationship was expressed primarily to the Jews, but it was not limited to the Jews. Gentiles who cried out for mercy received mercy, and Jews who shook their fist at God were judged accordingly. That this was true for Gentiles as well as for Jews was clarified with Jesus, but the basic “rules” remained the same: mercy for those who cry out to God and judgment for those who turn away from God. That is my context.
From that context, it seems to me that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in attacking ultra-Orthodox soldiers are puzzling. I would guess that the attackers consider the commands of God to be clear on the issue of being separate from the affairs of the state, but my take on it would be different. Since my authority is with the written Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) and not with commentaries on the Scriptures (either rabbinic or Christian), I would be hard pressed to make the case that the Haredim would use to justify violence against these ultra-Orthodox soldiers. The Haredim don’t seem to be arguing that the soldiers are behaving unrighteously in fulfilling their soldierly responsibilities but rather that they have involved themselves in the secular culture as opposed to standing apart from it. That is where the religious cultural issues come into play. For the Haredim, complete separation from the secular Israeli society is so important that they will beat those soldiers who have engaged with that secular society.
It is just so very easy for us to lose sight of the essentials of what true righteousness and pursuit of God is all about and to focus time and emotional energy on those things which not only are not constructive but which are often contrary to the plans and purposes of God—all in the name of maintaining our own particular system of orthodoxy.