Law, Politics, and Morality in Judaism

By Michael Walzer | Go to book overview

12
Judaism and the Obligation to Die for the State

GEOFFREY B. LEVEY


I

Dying in the state's behalf, and at its request, is a matter that one might expect to be of obvious concern to the Jews throughout their history. Twice in bygone eras (roughly 1000–586 B.C.E. and 140–63 B.C.E.), they have been ensconced in their own sovereign land faced with preserving that sovereignty against hostile neighbors and ambitious empires. Elsewhere, in the diaspora, they have been forced to define their relations and responsibilities to the host powers under whose authority they have variously been classed as aliens, residents, and citizens. And now, again, they are reestablished in their own sovereign state of Israel, in whose short history the call to arms has been unfortunately all too frequent. Yet the obligation to die for the state is not a question that enjoys special treatment or ready resolution in Jewish sources. In part, this is because the Jewish tradition is not in nature a philosophical tradition, given to abstract systematic treatises in the manner of the ancient Greeks, to whom Western thought has ever since been indebted. It is, rather, a legal tradition, given over to the interpretation and application of legal minutiae in keeping with divine edict. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that Judaism and the Jewish tradition lack a coherent position on there being (or not being) an obligation to die for the state. Such, anyway, is what I wish to argue in this essay.

But I also want to argue that the Jewish approach to the question of dying for the state has wider importance for political theory. Classic Western treatments of the question of the obligation to die have typically been caught in an enduring dilemma. On the one hand, as has been said, any theory that, like Hobbes's, Locke's, and Kant's, begins with the absolute independence of freely willing individuals and goes on to treat politics and the state as instrumental to the achievement of individual purposes would seem incapable of justifying an obligation upon individuals to lay down their lives for the state.1 So, too, would it seem incapable of providing a sense of active community. On the other

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