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Should religious beliefs supersede civil service?

Israel's parliament is wrangling with the question of whether ultra-Orthodox seminary students should serve in the military. The topic opens the door on whether other forms of civil service could also conflict with one's religious beliefs. This week's clergy discuss the sticky concept of religious beliefs and one's obligations to society.

Rabbi Sholom Stern, Temple Beth El, Cedarhurst:

The question cannot be answered in the abstract. In the State of Israel, there are thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men who are exempt from military service so they can devote themselves to the full-time study of the Jewish tradition. Recently, a bill was passed in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that would require them to do military duty or some form of civil service.

As a traditional Jew, I value those who realize that the spiritual well-being of a country is dependent upon those engaged in the study of our heritage. Potentially, these young men will possess the tools to transmit the treasures of our tradition to future generations. However, there is another religious imperative that such an outlook collides with, and that is the well-being of the State of Israel. The country is dependent upon young men and women enlisting for military service and defending their homeland.

The irony in the refusal of many in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel to serve in the military is that historically those who were guardians of the faith were also those who led in preserving the well-being and security of the land of Israel. The Jewish tradition ascribes the authorship of many of the Psalms chanted in the daily religious service to King David. Yet King David was also a warrior whose military prowess is legendary. The heroes of the story of Hanukkah, who led a successful military revolt against the Syrian Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, were Mattathias and son Judah the Maccabee, both of whom were priests.

Not only should religious people share in the burden of ensuring the physical well-being of the country, they should be among the first who step forward and accept the responsibility of protecting their country as a privilege and honor and a sacred duty.

Ken Komoski, convener, Peconic Bay Quaker meeting, Wainscott:

Quakers are pacifists. At this point in the development of the human species, we should be able to solve our problems without threatening other people and ourselves with a solution that comes in the form of military threats and activities. We should be intelligent enough to find ways to resolve world issues other than continual fighting.

During World War I, there were Quakers who went to war as conscientious objectors who drove ambulances and did other tasks that were in service to others without fighting. We all should be willing to provide our communities with civil service if there is a need and we have the skills to do so. We all should help those who are suffering. So, even if one doesn't serve in the military, we each should serve the community in ways in which we have skills. What is important is that each of us understands that God is within each of us, and we should each approach others from the God within us and recognizing God within the other person.

The Rev. Ben Bortin, membership coordinator, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset:

The question about when religious conscience supersedes civil service is complicated, because life itself is complicated. Some of the greatest examples of moral courage have been acts of civil disobedience, prompted, often, by religious principles. Such was the case with the Underground Railroad, freeing American slaves; so it was when people hid Jews and other would-be victims of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Yet not always is resistance to civil authority morally justified. It certainly is not when, because of religious convictions, human life is placed in danger. If someone, including a child, is denied medical treatment on religious grounds, including assistance that could save his or her life, it is ethically justified that the government override one's religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs should not entitle one to deny other people rights and services provided by the government, (like family planning assistance, for example). And it is not right to refuse to pay taxes if one receives services financed by those taxes. So my answer differs according to the situation, because human situations can be so different.

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