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Abraham, Part 1: Are 'Secular Israelis' Really Secular?

Abraham, though, is not only a nationalist or “Zionist” pursuing his tasks with a pure, direct religious fervor. There is also a strong strain of universal morality (prefigured, of course, in God’s own words about “all families of the earth”) in his dealings with the leaders and peoples he encounters in Canaan.

One such case occurs when, in the battle at the Vale of Siddim (thought to be the southern end of the Dead Sea), the four-king alliance defeats the five-king alliance and makes off with the spoils — including Lot, Abraham’s nephew. When Abraham hears of this, he puts together a war party, chases the marauders and trounces them, and brings back Lot and all the other stolen people and goods.

When the king of Sodom — leader of the five-king alliance — goes out to meet the returning, triumphant Abraham, he makes him an offer:

Give me the persons, and take the goods to thyself.

To which Abraham replies:

I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth,

That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich….

There are other examples of this intense universalism that balances and complements Abraham’s nationalism — such as his strong concern for his “non-Jewish” son Ishmael, or the fair deal he eventually reaches with King Abimelech after their dispute. Creating a Jewish polity in the land goes hand in hand with striving to deal justly with the other peoples living in and near it.

Here too, Abraham with his divinely driven morality is a prototype for today’s “secular” Israel — which has distinguished itself under rough conditions by maintaining a vibrant democracy, according full rights to its Muslim, Christian, and other religious minorities, and seeking peace whenever possible (and sometimes when it was not possible) with its neighbors. “Secular Israelis” would be well justified in seeing this universalist dimension of the national mission as essentially “religious” as well.