Judaism and Religious Freedom The Biblical Period (until 70 CE)

Religious liberty, in its modern sense, was not conceptually available or politically feasible in the ancient world. And this situation was as true in Israel as elsewhere. The parameters of religious liberty—and religious life in general—in biblical Israel are measured through covenant, the special relationship between God and Israel, forged first with Abraham and his family and later in Egyptian slavery and exiled wandering. Because of her commitment to covenant, the range of religious liberty, of choice and alternative, is circumscribed for Israel and—when it has authority over non-Israelites—gentiles.
The covenant establishes a kind of bright-line test for Israel, both in its cult and its moral action. It binds the two parties together forever, unlike a contract, which has a terminal point. Violations of the covenant do not sunder the relationship; it can be wounded (God will be pained by Israel’s wavering), but never fatally. Its terms—again, unlike a contract—are not the result of a negotiation between God and Israel. While God initiates the covenant and sets its conditions, Israel accepts it on trust (emunah), a trust earned by God’s liberation of the people from Pharaoh.

The earlier covenant with Abraham, sealed by his irreversible circumcision, created an intimate relationship between God and Abraham’s family. Abraham is given a three-part blessing: land, descendants, and the promise that the nations shall be “blessed” (Gen. 12:3) through him. This covenantal arrangement lacks the detailed orientation of the Mosaic covenant to come, but does supply Israel with covenantal experience. The covenant at Sinai is more salient, as the Torah’s commandments, which are part of the covenant, define what constitutes religious liberty. The Mosaic covenant gave form and meaning to a nation, which had previously been a mixed multitude, creating a people out of tribes.

As much the covenant fastened Israel to God, it bound Israelites together as well. The covenant contains the social, economic, political, and moral expectations of Israelites, outlining the permitted and the prohibited, rights and obligations. Such a society made no distinction between the sacred and the secular. There was, by extension, no “naked public square,” a meeting space that bracketed prior commitments. Religious liberty, therefore, could only be extended as far as the covenant would permit.

The other side of covenant is its transgression, usually falling under category of “idolatry.” Idolatry, the worship of something other than God or the worship of the right God the wrong way, is absolutely forbidden to Israel. An example of the first form of idolatry is Ahab’s worship of Baal (I Kgs. 16:31-33). An example of the latter: When Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer “strange fire” unbidden by God (Lev. 10:1-2) they are consumed by their offering. The punishment for idolatry is often death, meted out either by a human court or by God. In this sense, then, religious freedom is constrained for Israelites: they may not wander after their own hearts. Their worship is regulated. For gentiles, however, the situation is quite different. Biblical texts openly mock gentile idolatry—though there are many biblical examples of righteous gentiles—considering it useless and morally corrupt. Despite the moral condemnation of idolatry, both Israelite and gentile, for the latter idolatry does not appear to be prohibited. The covenant at Sinai obligates Israel alone, both the native-born and those who attach themselves to Israel (converts) such as Ruth.

The covenant governs and gives meaning to Israel’s internal and external relationships. From it, four separate categories emerge: Israel, the people of the covenant; gerim (resident aliens), the foreigner living among Israel; gentiles; and the Canaanite nations. The first and third groups have been described above. The second group, the resident-aliens, acquire certain rights in the Torah, and the Bible regularly calls upon Israel not to oppress these strangers. Their personal liberty is to be maintained, but they are not permitted to worship as they wish in the land of Israel. The fourth group, the seven Canaanite nations, are not to be secure even in their personal liberty (Deut. 31:3), and Canaanite religious practice is considered particularly odious. (It is worth noting, however, that the biblical Ruth comes from Moab, one of the Canaanite nations Israel is commanded to destroy.)

The only extra-biblical selection in this section comes from Philo. An Alexandrian Jew, Philo was very much part of the Greco-Jewish intelligentsia, moving easily between the Jewish and gentile world. In this passage, Philo sets himself at a far remove from contemporaneous rabbinic thought (see the following section), with a degree of tolerance of “pagan” theology unimaginable in Talmudic literature.
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