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What Would Moses Say? Belief Is Beyond Words : Scripture: An Israeli rabbi's command that soldiers disobey orders raises anew the question of literal vs. spiritual truth.

January 03, 1994|JACK MILES | Jack Miles, a member of The Times editorial board, is completing a book on God as the literary protagonist of the Bible.

On Dec. 19, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi of Israel and of the Israeli armed forces, urged the country's soldiers to disobey any orders to remove Jewish settlers from the West Bank, Gaza Strip or Golan Heights. "The soldiers must refuse this order," Goren asserted. "Any order that contradicts the law of Moses is a rebellion against Moses, against Torah, against Judaism and against the Almighty, and it must, absolutely must, be rejected and refused." On a television program he added: "The command to settle the land of Israel is greater than all the commandments put together."

Criticism of Goren has been widespread in Israel, ranging from calls for his condemnation to Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer's demand that he be tried for treason: "A man like this should face a military court-martial."

At issue, obviously, are the questions of whether the statutory law of the state of Israel takes precedence over Torah and whether civil leaders outrank religious leaders. Israel was founded in the 20th Century as a secular state, but for centuries before that new founding, its identity and collective life were transmitted under religious auspices. No one should be surprised that the nation's religious past intrudes into its relatively secular present.

Outsiders may legitimately ask, how-ever, how thoroughly Rabbi Goren intends Moses' prescriptions regarding the land to be observed. In the book of Deuteronomy, one of the five books of Moses that make up Torah, Moses instructs the Israelites, just before they cross the Jordan River, to divide the native peoples of the Promised Land into those who are to be enslaved and those who are to be exterminated. A city that surrenders peacefully will be allowed the mercy of mere enslavement. One that resists will suffer the extermination of all its males and the seizure of its women and children, animals and all other goods as booty. In the core area, however, the area that contains "the cities of those peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance," God orders genocide: "You shall save nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them . . . that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods. . . . " (20:10-18). In the book of Joshua, this order is carried out.

Let us presume that in the second founding of Israel, some of the rules that governed the first founding no longer apply. The question may still be asked: Why do they no longer apply?

One reason might be historical revisionism. Old Testament historians do not believe that Moses ever spoke the book-long speech that contains the order to kill all that breathes. Moreover, though "ethnic cleansing" of this sort may have been widespread among all ancient peoples in time of war, historians do not believe that the invading Israelites achieved anything close to the immediate and total subjugation of the native peoples of Canaan. By the Bible's own witness, the last of the natives were enslaved only centuries later by King Solomon, who conscripted them to build his temple (1 Kings 9:20-21).

It is possible then, for those who wish to observe Torah in general but not to observe this particular part of it, to use history as an escape clause. But consider now another biblical scandal:

In the famous scene in the Gospel according to Matthew, Pontius Pilate "washes his hands" of the death of Jesus as he surrenders to the blood-lust of the mob. "So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' Then he released for them Barabbas, and, having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified" (27: 24-25).

The "people" here are the Jews of ancient Jerusalem. The line, "His blood be on us and on our children," has provided a scriptural warrant for 2,000 years of Christian persecution of the "Christ-killers." If official Christianity refuses to hear this verse as an invitation to persecute the Jews, on what basis does it do so?

Once again, history provides one possible basis. Revisionist New Testament historians doubt that the dramatic hand-washing ever took place, much less that the Jews allegedly in attendance ever called down blood guilt on their offspring. The scene is understood to have been written after the fact for polemic purposes. There were several kinds of tension in the early Christian church, including theological disagreement between the Jewish founders of the church and their Gentile converts. One form of attack--indirect but extremely bitter--was to allege that one's opponents, or their forebears, had been murderous enemies of Jesus during his lifetime.

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