by rabbi Zvi Solomons
‘LOVE WORK, despise lordship and do not become overly familiar with the government.” (Pirkei Avot 1:10)’
Which government could the rabbis mean? In the early years of rabbinic (our modern) Judaism, this was the Roman empire, a great sprawling power which encompassed the Mediterranean sea and the surrounding countries as far as Britain and up to the Persian borders. Today we are part of a new European empire: the EU.
It is by and large benign and is certainly not oppressive to the individual. How should a Jew respond to the EU vote?
What I am going to write is, of course, coloured by my own opinions. The first great project in the Torah was to bring all humanity together in the Tower of Babel.
It was a project that attempted to destroy boundaries of nationality in the pursuit of one great project, placing it above human life. It ended with God confounding the puny human beings.
There are, of course, other forms of bonding countries together. For example, there is the story of the five kings fighting the four, where the King of Sodom comes a cropper. But, of course, the northern alliance wins. Several times in the Bible, there are opportunities for alliances.
King Josiah died fighting against the Pharaoh Necho at Megiddo supporting Nebuchadnezer II; Necho was destroyed at Charchemish. After this victory, in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II then besieged Jerusalem. Jehoiakim (then King of Judah) switched allegiances to save Jerusalem. He paid a heavy tribute taking riches from the Temple and giving family hostages.
But the Babylonians failed to invade Egypt, resulting in Jehoiakim turning back to the Egyptians and stopping tribute. In 599 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II invaded Judah and again laid siege to Jerusalem. In 598 BCE, Jehoiakim died during the siege and was succeeded by his son Jeconiah (or ‘Jehoiachin’).
Jerusalem fell within three months. Jeconiah was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar II, who in his place installed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim’s brother. There are strong arguments for and against the EU. It is an attempt to create a peaceful area but it does take powers away from the state.
As British, Jews we need to consider where our priorities lie. By voting in, are we cozying up to the supra-national European and mainstream British government, or by voting leave are we risking the stability of the world around us?
Will we truly be more prosperous in the EU? What will the EU mean for our Jewish way of life? For brit milah, shechita, security?
I’d be sad to see Britain lose more powers to Brussels. The legislation in this country is liberal and Britain has, by and large, led the way in making life better for everyone in our country. Looking at France and Belgium, Germany and Hungary, Spain and Denmark, I thank my stars that my grandparents settled in England, where Jewish life remains free and as secure as anywhere in the West.
I believe this is what our country, not Europe, guarantees. Is it wise to move ever closer to the French model? The militant secularism, marginalisation of religious life and increasing limitations of practices such as brit milah should worry all who care about our way of life. But that is not a Torah view. It is my own.
• Zvi Solomons is rabbi of the Jewish Community of Berkshire (JCoB) in Reading. See www.JCoB.org