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Where Do Our Loyalties Lie?

John D. Rayner
Spring 1999

For those of us who are theists, it is obvious that our highest loyalty — and perhaps our only unconditional one — is to God. For then we must do our best to live as God would wish us to live. As Joseph Caro says in the very first paragraph of his Shulchan Aruch, ‘A man should make himself strong as a lion to rise in the morning for the service of his Creator’; and as Moses Isserles adds in his gloss, ‘The Psalm verse, "I have set the Eternal One always before me" (16:8) — that is the great principle of the Torah’ (O.Ch. 1:1).  

Similarly, Chasidism has the ideal of a constant ‘cleaving’ to God. And the supreme demonstration of such unconditional loyalty is of course martyrdom when the situation demands it, as in the case of Rabbi Akiva, who rejoiced that he was given the opportunity to fulfil the injunction, to love God with all his soul, that is to say, by surrendering life itself. (Ber. 61b).  

But of course the next question is: how can we know what God requires of us? And here we come up at once against one of the great divides in Judaism, between orthodoxy and the rest. From an orthodox point of view we know what God requires of us because the Torah tells us. Therefore loyalty to God and loyalty to Torah are in practice the same thing. And therefore, too, if ever a conflict should arise between the demands of the Torah and anything else, our duty would be clear.  

Law of the Kingdom  

Actually, it is not quite as simple as that. For one thing, there is the principle of dina d’malchuta dina, that ‘the law of the kingdom is law’, attributed to Mar Samuel, the third-century founder of the academy of Nehardea in Babylonia (Git. l0b), which means that in some situations civil law takes precedence over Jewish law. For instance, where English law is stricter than Jewish law, as in the case of a man wishing to marry his niece, which Jewish law permits and even commends but English law forbids, the law of the land is to be obeyed. But since the principle of dina d’malchuta dina is ‘built into’ Jewish law, the rule that a Jew owes unconditional loyalty to the Torah remains intact.  

Again, it is not altogether clear just how seriously a civil law must clash with the Torah before a Jew is required to accept martyrdom rather than submit to it. According to various views in the Talmud, it depends on whether the forbidden act involves one of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, incest and murder or a lesser transgression, whether it is to be performed in public or in private, and whether or not the time is one of general persecution (San. 74a-75a). But these are only borderline ambiguities which don’t affect the general point.  

But from a non-orthodox and especially a liberal point of view the situation is quite different. From such a point of view the loyalty we owe to God is no less categorical, but God’s Will is not knowable with the kind of certainty orthodoxy claims. The Torah, so understood, is a human record of our ancestors’ endeavours, aided by revelation and inspiration, to interpret the Divine Will: an interpretation which, though on the whole magnificent, is by no means always to be accepted as the last word. In some cases, for instance when it commands sacrifices and when it discriminates against women, it is, from a liberal point of view, manifestly wrong. Therefore to pray for the restoration of the sacrifices, and to discriminate against women, as the Halachah requires, is not to obey but to disobey God’s will; it is not a Mitzvah but an Averah — a transgression.  

In other words, the loyalty we owe to God is unconditional but the loyalty we owe to Judaism as traditionally formulated is conditional. It is conditional upon its being revised in the light of advancing knowledge and ethical perception; and since such revision is an ongoing process, and admits of differences of opinion, the loyalty we owe to Judaism, in any one of its existing forms, can never be categorical. All we can say, then, is that we have a general duty to perpetuate the historic enterprise of Judaism, understood as a dynamic and therefore evolving, not as static tradition.  

Ethical Principles  

Are there then general ethical principles — for instance, truth and justice — which have a claim on our loyalty? Of course there are, and I don’t think anybody would dispute it, The only difference here is this: that from an orthodox point of view Jewish tradition is, as a matter of fact always in accord with truth and justice, whereas from a liberal point of view discrepancies sometimes arise, and when they do it is the tradition that needs to be adjusted. In other words, the loyalty we owe to truth and justice takes precedence over the loyalty we owe to tradition, which needs to be modified so that they may remain in harmony with one another. But with this qualification I think most Jews would agree that principles such as truth and justice demand our unconditional loyalty.  

Problems do arise in practice, however, when one ethical principle conflicts with another. For instance, we have a duty to tell the truth, but to tell a dying patient that he or she is dying may cause unnecessary distress; to tell a bride on her wedding day how beautiful she looks, even if we don’t think so, may add to her happiness; when two people quarrel, to give each of them an exaggerated account of the contrition of the other may help to make peace between them. In these and similar cases Rabbinic Judaism (rightly, in my view) permits the telling of a ‘white lie’. What happens in such situations is not that the loyalty we owe to truth has suddenly lost its claim, but that it has to take its chance with another ethical principle, which likewise claims our loyalty, since it is impossible to satisfy both principles completely.  

Two Obligations  

Another example is the medical doctor, who has two obligations, to prolong life and to relieve suffering, which sometimes conflict; and then, in clearly defined circumstances, the right thing to do may be to relieve the pain even though a side effect of the treatment may be the hastening of death. Or again, a doctor may feel morally obliged to breach medical confidentiality in order to prevent a public health risk due to the fact that the patient in question suffers from a condition which makes it unsafe for him or her to hold a driving licence or to have sexual relations with others.  

In all such cases there is a conflict between competing ethical principles each of which, considered in isolation, does have a claim on our loyalty. Such conflicts we have to resolve as best we can, which in practice is sometimes very difficult. In theory, to use the terminology of my philosophy teacher, the late C.D. Broad, we have to choose either the ‘optimific’ course of action, i.e., the one which, so far as we can judge, is likely to do most good and least harm, or ‘the most claim-fulfilling’ course of action, i.e., the one that satisfies the most urgent of the obligations that rest upon us.  

Families and Communities  

From these rather abstract considerations let us now turn to the obligations we owe to people with whom we have a relationship. The obvious point to be made here is that we each belong to a whole variety of communities, each of which, by virtue of our membership, has a claim on us, so that we cannot escape the problem of priorities.  

Of these communities, surely the most demanding is the family, first in its nuclear and then in its extended sense, on which all other communities depend. Surely we would all put that at the apex of our priorities where human relations are concerned.  

Of course there can be conflicts. If our family were faced with starvation, would it be right to steal to keep them alive? Yes, I think, if we did not thereby bring death to the person stolen from. Would it be right to kill in such circumstances? Not according to the principle of Jewish ethics, to which I have already alluded, that we are duty-bound to accept martyrdom rather than commit idolatry, incest or murder. Such conflicts were real in the concentration camps. (See H.J. Zimmels, The Echo of the Nazi Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature.) Let us hope that we shall never again have to make such gruesome choices, and more generally, that we shall always be able to discharge our obligations to our families without violating any ethical principle.  

Even then, there remains a problem of distribution. Since we have only a finite amount of time and money, how much of it shall we devote to our families and how much to our friends, our professions, our lodges, our clubs, our religious communities, our political parties, and the countless charitable organisations, Jewish and general, which constantly clamour for our support? There is no easy answer to these questions. All one can say for sure is that two extremes are to be avoided: those who devote themselves only to their families and neglect their wider duties, and those who spend themselves in humanitarian activities at the cost of neglecting their families. Between these extremes we each have to establish the most sensible scale of priorities we can, in the spirit of Hillel’s famous teaching, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ (Avot 1:14)  

Britain and Israel  

I have left to the end an area in which serious conflict is commonly perceived as most likely to arise, and in which in fact the charge of ‘dual loyalty’ has sometimes been levelled against us. I am of course referring to the fact that as British Jews we belong to two collectivities which are on a similar level, in the sense that neither is subordinate to the other in a clear hierarchy of obligations: on the one hand we belong to the nation of the British Isles, on the other to the world-wide Jewish people which, since 1948, has had its own nation-state in Israel. How much do we owe to each?  

As British citizens we obviously feel a special loyalty to Britain, and though as refugees we have not inherited that feeling from many generations of residence in this country, the gratitude we feel to Britain for having given us shelter in time of great peril, and so in effect saved our lives, compensates for that. Many of us, I would think, feel even more patriotically British than those of our fellow Jews who have lived here since Cromwell.  

As Britons, too, we owe to this country all the duties of citizenship, which means to obey its laws and pay its taxes, to play our part in its democratic processes, and to make our contribution to its economic, cultural and moral well-being. Furthermore, these duties are emphasised by Jewish tradition itself. Jeremiah, for example, wrote to his fellow Jews exiled in Babylonia: ‘Seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace you will have peace’ (29:7). And Pirkey Avot includes the maxim: ‘Pray for the peace of the government, for but for fear of the government people would swallow each other alive’ (3:2).  

Prayer for the Government  

Both of these teachings contributed to the Prayer for the Government which Jews have recited in their synagogues for centuries. The particular version used in the United Synagogue, as revised by Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz in 1935, asks that the Queen and her counsellors ‘may uphold the peace of the realm, advance the welfare of the nation, and deal kindly and truly with all Israel’; and the version used in the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues ends on this note: ‘May we all help to fashion in this country a society that excels in freedom and justice, tolerance and compassion, so that it may be a force for righteousness and peace in the life of humanity’. The weekly recitation of such prayers has no doubt played a part in keeping alive the patriotic sentiments of those who have heard them.  

There are only two areas of potential conflict. One is the prioritising of our charitable giving. Fortunately a recent survey of the Jewish Policy Research Institute has shown that most British Jews give generously to general as well as Jewish causes (Patterns of Charitable Giving among British Jews by Jacqueline Goldberg and Barry A. Kosmin, July 1998).  

The other is the area of British foreign policy, especially in relation to the State of Israel. Not that the loyalty we owe to Israel is on a par with the loyalty we owe to Britain. For we are not Israeli citizens and do not have citizenship obligations towards it. Nevertheless, the State of Israel was created by and for the Jewish people, and we all feel a special bond with it which our non-Jewish fellow citizens understand perfectly well, and which we feel particularly strongly on this day marking the 51st anniversary of Israel’s Independence.  

What then if Britain pursues a foreign policy at variance with Israel’s? Then, if we believe that it is morally wrong, we have every right as democratic citizens to argue against it. However, we should judge Israel’s policy by the same criterion. For the attitude of ‘my country right or wrong is just as inadmissible in the one case as in the other. Both Britain and Israel, like every other country, stand under God’s judgment, and therefore as Jews we must do the best we can, difficult though it is because of our emotional involvement, to judge their policies by universal-ethical principles.  

A Duty to be Critical  

Therefore we have a right and a duty to criticise British policy, whether towards Israel or towards any country, if we have good reason to believe that it is morally wrong, and in the extreme case of military call-up for a an unjust war we have a right as a last resort, to claim conscientious objection.  

But by the same token we have a right and a duty to criticise Israeli policy when criticism is called for. For instance, Israel is the only country in the world which does not grant full religious freedom to Progressive and Conservative Jews. This is a flagrant violation of its own splendid Proclamation of Independence, and of every law of natural justice, which fair-minded people should never cease to denounce until it is rectified.  

Even more serious, of course, is the matter of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. The ‘Greater Israel’ philosophy, which denies their right to exercise self-determination even in those areas of Palestine in which they are still the great majority, is morally indefensible. It was that philosophy which inspired Israel’s unprovoked invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and the chorus of support which that operation received from the Anglo-Jewish establishment at the time is the best — or, rather, the worst — illustration I can recall of the iniquitousness of the attitude of ‘my country right or wrong’ as applied by British Jews to Israel, and therefore of the way in which our loyalties can indeed ‘lie’ in the sense of deceiving us.  

To say these things is not anti-Israel: it is pro-Israel because the future well-being, and even the long-term survival, of Israel depends on bringing the stalled peace process to a satisfactory conclusion as soon as possible.  


And so we come back full circle to where we began. As British Jews, we owe loyalties of various kinds to many people, many traditions, many principles, many institutions, many communities, in a complex network of concentric and overlapping relationships, and to prioritise them rightly is no easy task. But at the apex of the network stands God, who demands truth and justice, compassion and peace. If we recognise that, then, though there will still be difficult decisions to make, the chaos of our conflicting loyalties will become an orderly whole, much as a random heap of iron filings, when a magnet is applied to it, assumes a well-defined pattern. ‘I have set the Eternal One always before me’ (Ps. 16:8). If we make that verse our guiding principle, all our other loyalties will fall into place.

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