Hilltop youth - Daniel Bar-On - February 2012
“Hilltop youth” in the West Bank. God gave us the intelligence to weigh up the wisdom of our deeds – but that’s not happening. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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We might have expected the Jewish people would have learned from its history just how dangerous it is to base policy on a supposedly divine edict. But that is not what is happening among some parts of the religious-Zionist community.

In the 16th century, King Philip II ruled over Spain and Portugal and their large empire. In 1588, the king, who was extremely religious, sent the Spanish Armada to fight against "heretic" Britain. His advisers warned him the weather was expected to be stormy, but he responded that Jesus would not allow those fighting on his behalf to fail. The outcome is well known.

This is an obvious example of the confusion between religious faith and statesmanship, one in which faith is used inappropriately to justify a certain policy while relying on the assistance of the Almighty to bring about a miracle.

Treating divine order as the source of morals and good deeds is justified, but it is wrong to use an edict of that kind as the basis for policy. A policy that is not concomitant with what our sages called "the way the world continues as usual" will end in disaster, as was demonstrated by the Crusades and the religious wars in Europe, among others. That is why religions with experience of statesmanship learned to hope for God's help, to declare naively that "in God we trust," but to avoid the mistaken illusion that human beings can know what the Creator's intention is and that He will intervene in human history according to their way of thinking.

This was clear to the sages when they declared that "prophecy has disappeared from Israel," forbade people to rely on miracles and declared that there was no longer a "right of the fathers." On a deeper level, at the heart of this concept is the divine declaration that "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways" (Isaiah, 55:8 ). In this respect, the distinction between justifying a judgment and accepting a judgment is relevant, that is, coming to terms with the fact that human beings cannot comprehend the justice of God's actions.

The establishment of the State of Israel - in which, soon, almost half of the Jewish people will be living - and victories in the War of Independence and the Six-Day War were dramatic events that many believed were miracles of divine intervention. These feelings about the success of Zionism can be understood from sociological and psychological points of view. However, among some parts of the religious-Zionist community they evoked demands for a policy they believe comes from the Almighty - out of an assurance that He will help us if we merely keep his commandments, as they interpret them.

We might have expected that Jewish history - the destruction of the first and second Temples, the exile, the expulsion from Spain, and especially the Holocaust - would have taught all of us that the way in which God has acted is beyond human understanding. Instead, God has given human beings the intelligence to weigh up the wisdom of their deeds, while combining values and faith with an understanding of reality and its limitations, and accepting responsibility for decisions and their results.

This is not what is happening among some parts of the Israeli public.

Basing our right to this land on its being the "promised land" is justified from the believer's point of view, even if there is no clear historic and halakhic mapping of its borders. Religious faith can espouse the commandment of settlement in all of the promised land. But this is a commandment that has no timetable. It does not free the believer from a duty to balance it with other precepts, including ensuring the existence and well-being of the Jewish state and seeking peace.

Those who believe they are permitted to act based on what they believe to be the Lord's commandment would do well to remember the passage from Proverbs (28:14 ): "Happy is the man that feareth always, but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into evil," and compare it with the claim that one who believes will never fear - a kind of magical adage that is contrary to the principles of Judaism and smacks of hubris, which is most dangerous and causes people to delude themselves that they are able to understand God's ways.

The ability to adjust to specific circumstances the way in which the commandments are upheld accompanied the Jews during the years of the Diaspora and was essential for their survival. Those who died sanctifying God's name are worthy of esteem, but had they not been a small minority the Jewish people would have been annihilated. It is worth rereading the letters of Maimonides about the duty to live, even at the price of supposedly converting to Christianity or Islam, following which speedy efforts should be made to migrate to another country in which it is possible to return to living as Jews.

Judaism and Zionism are fundamentalist beliefs (just as are democracy, atheism and any firm belief). Fundamentalism tends to produce a fanatic minority of people who enter into sacred places even though they are not prepared for it. When their senses are harmed, they twist their belief and, instead of being a theory of how to live, it becomes a hallucination that leads to devastation. There is no point in complaining to them about this, but it is a duty and a "mitzvah" to confront those who follow them, from the moral and practical points of view.