Should Religion Be a Source of Comfort, or a Source of Truth?

Oct. 11 2016

In the book of Jonah, traditionally read during the Yom Kippur afternoon service, the famously reluctant prophet does not state the reason for his flight from God until near the book’s conclusion, after the people of Nineveh, moved by his warnings of doom, repent and earn divine forgiveness. Only then does Jonah petulantly tell God that he fled because “I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and Who relents of evil.” Dovid Bashevkin comments:

While Jonah clearly intends to offer an explanation as to why he ran, his justification at first glance still remains unclear. A close reader, however, will notice that Jonah invokes the opening of the familiar refrain of Moses, known [in rabbinic literature] as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, that are repeated throughout the High Holy Day liturgy—albeit with one exception. The standard sequence . . . ends not with the phrase “niḥam al ha-ra’ah” [here, “relents of evil’] but rather with the term emet, truth. The word niḥam derives from the word [for] comfort. Jonah in his irritated description of God substitutes comfort for truth.

Jonah [whose father’s name also seems to derive from the word for truth] finally discloses his frustration with [his task of bringing God’s message to people]. “You want to know why I ran away? Because for most people God, religion, and spirituality are not about truth, but about comfort.” . . .

As a prophet, Jonah has proclaimed God’s impending wrath to wayward communities, and time and again he sees them repent out of fear. Man, when confronted with his own mortality, finds comfort in the community and eternal promises offered by religion. Jonah, however, grew tired of [supplying a] temporal haven for man’s fear of crisis and transience. If religion is only a blanket to provide warmth from the cold, harsh realities of life, do concerns of theological truth and creed even matter?

What was God’s response to Jonah’s religious torment? The story of Jonah ends abruptly. God provides a tree for the ailing Jonah to find shade. After momentarily providing Jonah with comfort, God summarily destroys the tree. Jonah is crestfallen. With the sun beating down on him, Jonah pleads for death. God, in the closing statement of the story, rebukes Jonah for becoming so attached to the comfort of the tree, while still failing to develop any empathy for the religious struggle of the people of Nineveh.

Comfort, God reminds Jonah, is a need inherent in the human condition. The comfort provided by a tree no more obscures the role of God than does the comfort that religion provides. The means through which we find solace need not obscure the ultimate source from which all comfort derives.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Jonah, Religion & Holidays, Yom Kippur

The Military Perils of Ceding Israeli Control of the West Bank

April 24 2019

In the years since the second intifada ended, no small number of retired high-ranking IDF officers and intelligence officials have argued that complete separation from the Palestinians is a strategic necessity for Israel. Gershon Hacohen, analyzing the geography, the changes in warfare—and Middle Eastern warfare in particular—since the 1990s, and recent history, argues that they are wrong:

The withdrawal of IDF forces from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state in these territories will constitute an existential threat to Israel. The absence of an Israeli military presence in the West Bank, especially along the Jordan River, will enable the creation of a terrorist entity, à la the Gaza Strip, a stone’s throw from the Israeli hinterland. This withdrawal will box Israel into indefensible borders, especially in light of the major changes in the nature of war in recent decades that have made the astounding achievements of 1967 impossible to replicate, not to mention the stark international response [that would follow Israel’s] takeover of a sovereign state.

The deployment of international forces in the West Bank will not, [contrary to what some have argued], ensure the demilitarization of the prospective Palestinian state, let alone prevent the entry of Arab forces into its territory (with or without its consent) and/or its transformation into a springboard for terrorist attacks against Israel. . . .

Israel [now] maintains control of some 60 percent of the West Bank’s territory, . . . which is mostly empty of Palestinian population but includes all of the West Bank’s Jewish communities and IDF bases, as well as main highways, vital topographic areas, and open spaces descending eastward to the Jordan Valley. The retention of this territory constitutes the absolute minimum required for the preservation of defensible borders and meets two conditions necessary for Israel’s security: the Jordan Valley buffer zone, without which it will be impossible to prevent the rapid arming of Palestinian terrorist groups throughout the West Bank; and control of intersecting transportation arteries, which, together with control of strategic topographical sites, enables rapid deployment of IDF forces deep inside Palestinian areas.

It is the surrender of such conditions in Gaza that has transformed the Strip into an ineradicable terrorist entity. Uprooting the West Bank’s Jewish communities will also make it difficult for the IDF to operate in the depth of the Palestinian state, especially if it is forced to fight simultaneously on a number of fronts, [since] simultaneous fighting in Gaza, which will be an integral part of the future Palestinian state, is a foregone conclusion.

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More about: Israeli grand strategy, Israeli Security, Palestinian statehood, West Bank