Two sides of the coin

The debate over universal national service that has consumed Israel these past weeks, and will continue even after a replacement for the Tal Law is passed, is a fundamental feature of Israel. Since the enlightenment, that was started principally by non-Jews, there has been a strain within Judaism, as within Christendom, between those who seek to perpetuate traditional thinking and those who are “free thinkers,” who are unbound by the chains of tradition.

Yes, there is a lot to be said for tradition, and its place in Judaism is appropriately celebrated in song as well as in the intense debate that occurs in yeshivot over the meaning of the Torah and its rabbinical interpretations. But, there is also a tendency among emancipated Jews for questioning tradition, for reaching for the new and the original. That the latter tradition arises from the former does not diminish its significance. The highest form of free thinking has become the pursuit of science, of new knowledge within a framework of rigorous experimentation and analysis.

Originally science was the foundling of Christians who rejected the rigid teachings of the Church, that the world was 3,500 years old and was flat and that species were immutable. They rather preferred to subject their opinions to testing and discovery and found that the world was in fact millions of years old and round and that species evolved. People like Roger Bacon, Galileo, Newton and Darwin began the secular tradition that has its own scriptures, including “Principia Mathematica” and “The Origin of Species.” But, whereas the earliest foundations of science came out of the Christian experience, in the later stages, secular Jews predominated, such as Marx, Engels, Freud, and Einstein. They have irretrievably left their mark on modern society. It was not for nothing that Hitler dubbed it “Jewish science.” Whereas Jews are at the forefront of scientific discovery in the US and in the hothouse that is now Israel, they are also of course deeply embedded in Talmudic learning. These two traditions are two sides of the same coin that is the modern embodiment of what it means to be Jewish. These are two traditions that cannot be sundered.

The conclusion for a new draft law is that while we must have universal national service, the needs of the yeshivot must be protected. Politics is the art of the possible, the art of compromise. It may be impossible to satisfy all of the people all of the time, but as far as drafting all Israeli citizens, we must try.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.