J.J. Goldberg

Religion Wars: Bishops vs. Congress, Rabbis vs. Israel Defense Force

By J.J. Goldberg

Confrontations between religious authority and electoral democracy continued to simmer on a number of sensitive fronts today (Sunday, November 22). Wherever you looked, no one was showing any sign of backing down.

Item: In Rhode Island, the Providence Journal reported a claim by Representative Patrick Kennedy that he had been barred from receiving communion by the Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, because of his position on abortion. Later in the day the bishop told the Associated Press that he had only “asked” Kennedy not to receive communion, way back in 2007, because his views were out of step with church teaching. Patrick Kennedy is the last of his famous family, the best-known family in American Catholicism, to hold public office. The new flare-up came on the 46th anniversary of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

According to the Web site Catholic Online (catholic.org),

This letter was in response to Kennedy’s public defiance against the truth revealed in the Natural Law, confirmed by science, affirmed in Scripture and the Tradition and taught infallibly by the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Catholic Church concerning the fundamental Human Right to Life. This matter recently surfaced when Kennedy publicly contended with the Church over the US Bishops’ heroic insistence that the proposed “Health Care Reform” which recently cleared the House not provide funding for abortion.

Item: Outside Tel Aviv, Israeli military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi welcomed new inductees to the Golani infantry brigade on Sunday with a tough speech warning against refusal to obey orders. He was alluding to a spate of recent incidents in another infantry brigade, Kfir, in which soldiers held up banners vowing to refuse orders to dismantle settlements. “This is my message to the religious leadership: soldiers answer to one authority only, and that is their commanding officers,” Ashkenazi told the soldiers, according to the Jerusalem Post. Golani is one of several infantry brigades with a high proportion of religious-nationalist soldiers.

Item: Thirty-five prominent rabbis gathered in Jerusalem on Sunday for a public display of support for military yeshivas accused of encouraging insubordination, according to a Hebrew-language report in Maariv. Several participating rabbis directly endorsed disobeying orders to dismantle, citing rulings by the late Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira that rabbinic law forbids “expelling Jews” from the land of Israel.

Item: A coalition of leading Christian conservatives from a variety of denominations released a manifesto on Friday, November 20, The Manhattan Declaration, reaffirming “fundamental truths about justice and the common good” and calling for a stepped-up public campaign to defend those truths. The truths include:

  1. the sanctity of life
  2. the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  3. the rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Item 3 might seem contradictory, since items 1 and 2 call for denying access to abortion and same-sex marriage even for those whose religions permit them (or, in Judaism’s view of some pregnancies, require them). The way the document explains it, however, what’s at issue is actually the right to refuse to perform abortions and to deny recognition of same-sex marriage, not the other way around.

The 4,700-word Manhattan Declaration is signed by 125 Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical leaders. They include such familiar names as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer of American Families and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Also included are the Catholic archbishops of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Washington, D.C.; a gaggle of bishops from the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church, plus Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Watergate felon-turned-evangelist Chuck Colson.

One of the document’s critical arguments concerns the rule of law and and the right – or duty – of civil disobedience:

As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. The biblical purpose of law is to preserve order and serve justice and the common good; yet laws that are unjust – and especially laws that purport to compel citizens to do what is unjust - undermine the common good, rather than serve it.

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.

Replace words like “abortions,” “embryo-destructive research” and “marriage and the family” with “expelling Jews” and “evacuating portions of the Land of Israel” and further replace “preserve order and serve justice” with “seek peace and avoid bloodshed” – and you’ve got precisely the doctrine that the Land of Israel rabbis have in mind.

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