I was shocked and deeply pained upon hearing the Hamas leadership proudly claim that they won the recent war in Gaza. I wondered where or when will reality enter into their consciousness. How much more suffering is needed in order to bring home the important fact that there is no future for either community if we ignore the legitimate needs of the other?
The confrontation with Palestinian nationalism has become the most urgent issue facing the Jewish state and world Jewry today. The future identity of both national communities hangs on finding the wisdom and good will to resolve this tragic condition.
The conflict has deep roots within our respective religious traditions. In contrast to America, whose founders consciously rejected much of their European past, in this land the power of tradition and historical memory is embedded in all that we do. The problem is how to live by the memories and aspirations of our past without creating a nightmare which destroys all innovative thinking in the present.
For centuries, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism each believed in its eventual triumph in history. Each sought to prove that it had the exclusive keys to God’s kingdom, either through its political subjugation of other religious communities or through proving the falsity of the others’ scriptures and religious traditions. Victory, whether military or intellectual, confirmed who was God’s elect in history.
What we must now learn from history is that in the battle to demonstrate exclusive favor in the eyes of God, no single community was victorious. The crusades to liberate Jerusalem from the “infidels” failed, leaving bitter memories of suffering in all communities.
Jews were the most frequent victims of the belief that one community, and only one, is God’s elect in history. Israel’s suffering and exile were interpreted to confirm that God had rejected them and their way of life. The roots of the twentieth-century slaughter of European Jewry can be traced to that deep deligitimization of the Jews implied by an exclusivist, triumphalist view of God in history.
In the State of Israel, we find ourselves today locked in a great struggle with religious communities who share the biblical perception of history. We must all find a way to free ourselves from habits of thought which have brought so much suffering to all. The catastrophes of the past must teach us that no sacred text, historical memory, or tradition should be given great weight than the sacredness of human life. What Jews, Christians, and Muslims need to learn afresh is that God’s creation of all human beings in His image must have central importance in the interpretation of out religious traditions.
Within Judaism, giving primacy to the prevention of human suffering is implicit in the halakhic ruling that saving human life takes precedence over Shabbat observance. The Shabbat law is central to Judaism. Desecrating Shabbat is considered equivalent to embracing idolatry. Our covenantal identity and entire belief system are irrevocably tied to observance of Shabbat.
Nonetheless, rabbinic teaching rules that when danger to human life comes into conflict with the observance of Shabbat, Shabbat must be set aside. Orthodox halakhic jurists have rules that this principle applies to all human life, irrespective of race or creed. Maimonides treats the sacredness of human life as a guiding principle for understanding the whole Torah.
If, as Maimonides insists, the whole aim of the Torah is to bring about “mercy, loving-kindness, and peace,” (Hilkhot Shabbat 2:3) then holiness, be it of Shabbat, land, or temple must submit in situations of conflict to the sacredness of human life. The holiness of the Land of Israel does not hinge on whether we speak of “the occupied territories,” “Judea and Samaria,” or “the West bank.” If we are seriously concerned with the holiness of Israel and with God’s indwelling in the land, then it is imperative that we ask what will happen to the moral character of the nation, what will become of our Judaic heritage if we dispossess or subjugate a vast population? How can we observe Shabbat, whereby Jews bear witness to God as Creator of the universe, yet at the same time forget that Palestinians are human beings created in the image of God? How can we educate our children to imitate God’s love for all His creatures and yet deny political freedom and national dignity to an entire people?
The Bible does not begin with the history of Abraham or with Israel’s liberation struggle from Egypt, but with the story of God as the creator of all life. What Creation signifies for the understanding of our particular identity can be seen in the three benedictions recited at the Grace after Meals.
The first benediction addresses God as the creator and sustainer of all life. In the second, the Jew thanks God for the covenant, the Torah and the land. The third expresses the yearning of the Jewish people for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the kingdom of David. In arranging the benedictions in this order, the Halakha teaches us that only after we acknowledge our solidarity with all of humanity is it appropriate to give thanks for our particular spiritual identity. The renewal of Jerusalem, the strengthening of our commitment to Torah, must flow from our deep awareness that all human beings are sustained by god’s gracious love.
If we build our national life while ignoring the moral demands that come from belief in Creation, we significantly undermine our belief in the unity of the God of Creation and the covenantal Lord of history. This belief will best be manifested if both national communities can so flourish in this land that the celebration by each of its particularity does not require the delegitimization of the presence of the other.
If we allow the God of Creation to channel our particular religious traditions, the future need not be buried by the past. We must never be discouraged by the obstacles encountered in our search for peace. The anger and bitterness of the past must not inhibit new thinking and bold initiatives. Our total commitment to resolve the tragic conflict with the Palestinians will be the finest expression of our loyalty to a tradition which seeks to unify solidarity with all of humanity and gratitude for the gift of Judaic particularity.
(Adapted from Conflicting Visions: Spiritual Possibilities of Modern Israel, by David Hartman, Schocken Books, NY, 1990)