The land of Israel is ours because God gave it to us.
This particular Jewish claim is bandied about so much that I imagine it would some as a surprise to many that it is, in fact, a misrepresentation of the Torah and its teachings.
I would go farther and say this: this view is actually a betrayal of Jewish tradition – and has only become widely popular since the rise of political Zionism.
Let’s take a closer look at the texts in question:
Jewish fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists are fond of pointing out that God promised the land of Israel to Abraham in the book of Genesis:
On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Genesis 15:18)
Biblical scholars and commentators note that the covenant God makes with Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) appears as a promisory covenant. In this early point in the narrative, the land indeed seems to be assigned to the people Israel with “no strings attached.”
Later in Exodus, however, once Israel has left Egypt and has become a nation at Sinai, God clarifies the terms of this covenant. It is spelled out in decidedly conditional language: if Israel follows God’s commandments, then they will indeed be able to live on the land that has been assigned to them by God. In other words, Israel now learns that their future on the land will be radically dependent on how they behave on the land.
As I see it, this is the fatal mistake made by those who claim that the land must ipso facto “belong” to the Jewish people. They focus exclusively on the Abrahamic promise, but neglect the critical next step: God’s conditional covenant with the Israelite nation.
In so doing, they pervert the Torah’s meaning – and do great damage to the central Jewish understanding of our relationship to the land. The land is not given to us unconditionally – we will only be able to live on the land if we prove ourselves worthy of it.
Interestingly, the Torah actually points out that previous inhabitants of the land had failed in this regard. Following a long litany of laws in Leviticus, we read:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)
In similarly colorful language, Israel is told that they might well meet the same fate if they do not keep God’s laws when they live on the land:
So let not the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (18:28)
In another important verse from Leviticus, God makes it clear to whom the land ultimately belongs. In the discussion of the Jubilee year (in which landholdings revert back to their original owners) we read:
…the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
Notably, the Hebrew word for “stranger,” (“ger”) literally means “resident alien.” This word appears over and over throughout the Torah – particularly in admonitions to Israel not to mistreat the stranger, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is sobering indeed to learn that even after the Israelites enter Israel, they will still be, in effect, resident aliens on the land.
In the end, although many Jewish fundamentalists often treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease” with very explicit conditions. In Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant:
If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching…the Lord will scatter you among all the people from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, whom neither you nor your ancestors have experienced. Yet even among those nations you shall find no peace, nor shall your foot find a place to rest… (Deuteronomy 28:58-65)
For the prophets and later the rabbis, the conditional covenant was central in understanding Israel’s collective tragedy: “mipnei chataeinu” – “because of our sins” we were exiled from the land. This in fact remained the normative Jewish understanding of our centuries-long sojourn in the diaspora until the advent of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel.
Though today we live in a radically different context than Ancient Israel, this question remains powerfully relevant: now that we have returned again to this land, how will we prove ourselves worthy of it?
Whatever our answer, this much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. The Torah teaches us still: if we insist that the land “belongs” to us and us alone, we will only endanger our collective future upon it.
Thank you for this reflection. This claim has always bothered me and I’m glad to know more about the evolution of the text on this subject.
Very interesting post. I would not have imagined that a Reconstructionist Rabbi would be using the same arguments that the non-Zionist Haredim (e.g. Agudat Israel and Degel HaTorah) use to oppose Zionism….that a Jewish state in Eretz Israel is valid only if the Jews observe the Torah in full. Are you advocating turning Israel into a Halachic state as they demand? Examples of implementing such a policy would mean closing all businesses on Shabbat, banning the sale Hametz on Pesach, abolishing the civil court system and using only Rabbinic courts for litigation.
That’s a good and important point. I would say that I do indeed agree with the groups you cite inasmuch as I reject the view that puts redemptive faith in modern nationalism. As a Reconstructionist rabbi, however, I reject halacha as strictly binding, so I would never advocate the creation of a theocracy.
As I wrote at the end of my post, we live in a radically different context as the ancient Israelites. Today I believe the specifics of the laws are less compelling than the Torah’s essential teaching: that our existence on the land is conditional upon our behavior there.
I do not understand this in your post:
“Today I believe the specifics of the laws are less compelling than the Torah’s essential teaching: that our existence on the land is conditional upon our behavior there.”
Isn’t it specifically the Jewish Law that has informed our moral behavior? Aren’t behavior and law intricately tied? Isn’t the purpose of law to inform our behaviors and if so how can it be less compelling? Doesn’t the letter of Jewish Law attempt to proscribe and define behavior (Halacha) and the spirit of the law attempt to define Torah’s “essential teaching” (Kavanah)?
Very interesting and sad comment by YBD, sad because it illustrates the ‘gotcha’ game that we Jews play so well, me included, but that hurts us so much. Someone blogs that Torah is not an unconditional ‘deed’ to the Land of Israel, as even many secular Israelis and diasporan Jews believe (or act as if they believe), and he is immediately traduced for someone else’s interpretation. To say we don’t have that ‘deed’ in our Jewish safe deposit box is not the same thing as saying that Israel may only exist as a state if all Jews follow Orthodox halakhah. It is to say that the existence of modern Israel as a nation-state is dependent on historical events in the hands of human beings. Politically, Israel came into existence like so many other nation-states (including our own USA) by violence and displacement. Politically, Israel will last as long as it is able to fend off other claimants, again, the norm of nationhood. But Israel is not, as a matter of my Jewish religion, entitled to do anything, however violative of contemporary Jewish norms, to achieve a final victory over the displaced. Israel, a nation-state here on earth, was not established by God. What sort of state it is depends entirely on how the group in power — Jews right now — behave, not in terms of halakhah but in terms of being mentschen.
Very well explained and expressed. Now I want to know, what are the specific conditions that the people Israel are to meet in order to be acceptable occupants of the Land? And, is it possible for us, 21st Century Jews, to meet those conditions and to prove that we have done so?
Great questions. See my reply to Richard, below:
“The Torah teaches us still: if we insist that the land ‘belongs’ to us and us alone, we will only endanger our collective future upon it.”
How does that follow? The Torah teaches us that if we don’t behave appropriately, God will kick us out. The reasons presented for kicking us out are worshiping the Canaanite gods and generally becoming too close with them. I’d be interested to see a text that says that clinging to “misguided, exclusivist claims” leads to God kicking us out. If anything, the Torah teaches us that we should mistreat the other in order to stay in the land. (Clearly the Torah doesn’t teach this, but it’s a lot closer to the text than your claim.)
P.S. Your Leviticus 25:23 quote would seem to say directly that selling land to non-Jews is illegal.
We don’t live in Biblical Israel any more. The Canaanites are long gone from the land. Today, this land is considered holy by three monotheistic religions. To me that means the Torah’s specific concerns about Canaanite idolatry are simply no longer relevant.
What does remain relevant from these texts? I would claim it is the central question: how will we live on the land in a way that would make us worthy of it? How will we live on the land in such a way that it will not “vomit us out” yet again?
To me, a Jew who is also a citizen of a 21st century global community, the answer is clear: if we dislodge, mistreat or commit injustice against its non-Jewish inhabitants, we will be unworthy of the land. If we insist that the land belongs to us and only to us, we will only succeed in endangering the future of everyone who lives upon it.
I do agree with you that we should not “dislodge, mistreat or commit injustice against its non-Jewish inhabitants.” Additionally, I agree that the biblical injunctions regarding Canaanites are no longer applicable. But the Torah doesn’t say that if we commit injustices we are not worthy of living in the land. That’s your opinion that is not at all based on the texts you’re citing.
Basically, you’re taking the question that the Torah poses, rejecting its answer, and then proposing your own answer. By the same argument, I could say that the Torah supports murder. It asks the question, “Should we murder?” I reject the answer as no longer relevant and posit my own answer, namely “Yes.”
Your concern for the Other is apt, righteous, and rooted in Jewish texts, but not in the ones you cite. The texts you cite are at best irrelevant in practical terms and at worst offensive to our modern sensibilities.
I’m sorry that I’m being nitpicky, but I just find it hypocritical of you to attack Zionists for misrepresenting the texts and then present your own misrepresentation.
we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims.
Amen v’amen. Thank you for saying this.
Rabbi Rosen, I feel for you. You seem to be tying yourself in knots trying to reconcile ancient texts to complex 21st century problems. Anyone not chaining their analysis to a set of religious dogmas can see the here-and-now truth of your position; that the measures Israel is taking to maintain its current position will perpetuate Palestinian hostility, alienate crucial non-Jewish support, and so corrupt Israeli society that the fullness of the dream of Israel will never be achieved.
Don’t feel badly for me. Don’t you know that tying oneself in knots trying to reconcile ancient texts to contemporary issues is a time-honored Jewish spiritual enterprise? 🙂
So I again ask the question: Is the Zionist enterprise which was and is based on the premise of encouraging mass aliyah in order to make the Jews the majority in Eretz Israel (or at least some territorially significant and definable part of it), and thus, ipso facto, make the Arab population the minority, “legitimate” according to the “spirit of Judaism”, however it is that you define it?
Rabbi, You write that you reject halacha as strictly binding. Can you explain how you reached such a position? When did the epiphany occur to state with such certainty that G-d changed his mind about having to follow the letter of the law? Also, if Halacha is non binding, then one can argue that the whole Torah is non binding, and G-d is not bound by his words to “vomit us out” if we don’t follow the law. Ans, finally, why is your conclusion that “if we dislodge, mistreat or commit injustice against its non-Jewish inhabitants, we will be unworthy of the land” any more the correct conclusion than the one stated in the Torah, that you will be unworthy of the land, “If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching”?
Dan, I see another mosque burned in the West Bank. OK with you?
another “gotcha” comment. Dan’s comment, I think, is a very pertinent one and am also curious to hear the rabbi’s position and conception of Halacha (see my question above). Dan was comparing both the notion of committing injustice against non-Jewish inhabitants and following the letter of the law in relation to being “vomited out” of the land.
Some selections from Rabbi Aaron Tamaret’s essay ““Three Unsuitable Unions,” written in response to the Hebron riots of 1929.
“Small and humble is Jacob, and his ability to influence humanity for good is indeed limited. On the other hand, his ability to corrupt and pollute the moral atmosphere of the earth, should he pervert his way, is greater than anyone else’s. For it unfortunately follows logically: if this frail and tender people, whose existence has always been secured by Moral Force, at last acknowledges the sword, how shall one answer those nations who have always lived by the Sword? …”
“How terrible is that corruption which would result from any evil example set by ‘Jacob, selected by God, Israel, His special treasure’ were he, also, at last to adopt the faith of Esau. … One may be sure that when Jacob behaves deviously or dishonorably, the example will be duly noted along with his distinction, and suddenly he will become a valued authority who serves to sanction their own misdeeds. …
“For whoever builds a ‘national refuge’ acts mistakenly, conceding thereby the Sodomite measure by which the dwellers of this planet are declared to be either ‘owners’ or ‘intruders,’ with the former having the privilege of disposing of the latter as they see fit. Furthermore, such a one narrows the universal image of Judaism, demeans the image of Diaspora Jews, and casts upon them shadows of despair.”
Rabbi Everett Gendler comments on his translation of Tamaret’s essay: Tamaret took seriously the idea that Jews have a Divinely directed moral mission in the world, and while a fully observant, halakhic Jew, he understood our purpose in universal ethical terms. Hence the pain and the passion of his recognition that if Jews were to adopt the time-dishonored, ethically tainted tactics of violent statecraft, a grievous moral injury would be inflicted on all of humankind.
Brant, thank you for posting this. I think it was especially restrained to save the meat of your conclusion for the comments:
“To me, a Jew who is also a citizen of a 21st century global community, the answer is clear: if we dislodge, mistreat or commit injustice against its non-Jewish inhabitants, we will be unworthy of the land. If we insist that the land belongs to us and only to us, we will only succeed in endangering the future of everyone who lives upon it.”
Of course law and behavior are connected. But there are specific laws in the Torah that are connected to a certain ancient time and place (ie Canaanite idolatry) that simply don’t apply to our day any more. Those laws are less compelling than the essential assumptions undergirding the law itself (ie, that if we do not behave in a Godly way on the land, we will not have a future upon it.)
As to the more general question on the authoritative nature of halacha: as I stated above, I am a Reconstructionist and thus do not view Jewish law as binding as it has traditionally been understood. There are many reasons for this:
– The halachic process, which used to be creative and dynamic, has become for all intents and purposes, petrified. While in the past, halacha functioned as a body of tradition that could adapt to the needs of the Jewish people throughout the ages, today it functions as a rigid body of law, changeable only under rarified circumstances by the proper authorities.
– Halacha is simply not equipped to deal with the complexity of contemporary concerns. The halachic method presumes that all questions can be handled with reference to legal precedent, but this in a rapidly changing post-modern world, this is no longer so. New issues certainly can be guided by old values, but they must ultimately be discussed in the context of the world in which we now live – a world that could have scarcely been fathomed by the ancient sages.
– For religious law to function as truly authoritative, it must have an organized structure to develop and adjudicate it – a structure that presumably must be able to sanction anyone who disobeys. Jewish law simply doesn’t function this way anywhere in the world. Even in closed Orthodox communities, members voluntarily choose to place themselves under the “yoke of the law,” but they can choose to leave it any time they like. It is naive to assume halacha can truly serve as binding law in this day and age.
– According the values of Western democracy (values I assume we cherish) we believe that individuals ought to make religious choices autonomously. Individual religous freedom is at direct odds with authoritarian religious law. A Reconstructionist appoach assumes most Jews today would never choose to return to a community in which traditional laws were enforced coercively.
According to the founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, Jewish law and tradition has a “vote but not a veto.” We take halacha seriously as our inherited spiritual heritage – we are guided by its spirit but not strictly bound by its specifics.
To answer to Richard, above:
Yes, I am rejecting the Torah’s answer to the question it poses because that answer is, as I have just said, not applicable to our day. It is up to us to find an answer that is indeed compelling and relevant. I am proposing one such answer: our humane treatment of those who also dwell on the land (which as you point out, is actually commanded elsewhere in Torah.).
I appreciate this conversation immensely and hope at least that my thoughts have raised some challenges to what I believe is a very real misinterpretation of the Torah’s concept of covenant. The essence of the promise of the land is its conditional – not unconditional – nature.
You write: “But there are specific laws in the Torah that are connected to a certain ancient time and place (ie Canaanite idolatry) that simply don’t apply to our day any more. Those laws are less compelling than the essential assumptions undergirding the law itself (ie, that if we do not behave in a Godly way on the land, we will not have a future upon it.)”
I would have to disagree with you on this point. Specifically regarding idolatry, the first of all negative commandments, one must ask what idolatry really is. When the Torah prohibits one from serving “other gods”, exactly which other gods are being referred to? The common conception of idolatrous gods is that they are imaginary, but Idolatry, in essence, should be understood as the idea of relating not to the supernal Source of all existence, but to the channels that flow from the Source and serve to bring down energy into the world (ie. Sun and other elements). The Rambam says that originally, close to the beginning of the world’s history people acknowledged God. Then came a stage when people reasoned that since God uses agencies such as the forces of nature to accomplish His will, surely it would be fitting to give honor to these forces as His emissaries. They began to accord honor to the intermediaries as well as to God. And eventually, they forgot about God.
The difference between worshipping Source and Idols is one who worships the Source directly is concerned about what his/her obligations are; what does God demand of me? How do I sacrifice myself, give myself to a cause of God. One who serves the intermediaries is concerned about what they can do for him/her- the intermediaries are, after all, the immediate source of all human needs, all natural functions of the world. The idolater looks to the immediate source of power, love, wealth and asks: How can they serve me? That I am everything and my gods are to serve me.
This also explains why images of idolatrous worship are often in human form- idolatry is really worship of the self and the graven images are projections of the self. This is the modern form of idolatry and thus the example does apply to our time. And this gets back to another of your points that continues to bother me and I preface this as one who does not have an axe to grind, but is merely a seeker of truth. It seems curious to me how one can extract a teaching from Torah (ie. living in the land), call it an essential teaching, and then use it as a moral source to back up a preconceived worldview, but then disregard other teachings of Torah as insignificant or not pertinent to the complexity of the world we live in. This to me seems idolatrous and self serving.
For me, I understand that much has changed since biblical times as we live in a very complex world. However, one thing that hasn’t changed and one that all of Torah attempts to remedy is that of human nature. And this is why, to me at this point of understanding in my life, picking and choosing whatever is good for me and supports my preconceived worldview, is very narrow minded and a modern form of idolatry.
I appreciate the need to root out idolatry in our world, and I honor and respect the place that your comment comes from. If I may, however, offer a possible alternative in thinking:
When we study a work of art, we come to understand the artist on a deep level. If you believe, as I do, that the Torah is the creation of several generation of writers surrounding the Babylonian exile, then by studying the Torah we come to know their struggles to understand God and their place in the world around them.
If you also believe, as I do, modern advances in astro-physics that postulate all matter in this universe was contained in the singularity that gave rise to the Big Bang, then every sub-atomic particle in your body–including the electrons which leap across synapses in your brain when you have thoughts–were present at the moment of creation. And if we acknowledge a Creator that set the whole thing into motion, then the whole of your being is part of the great Artwork by the greatest of all Artists. And as I said before, getting to know that work of art brings you into an understanding of the Artist.
Therefore, I believe that revelations and truths we discover by turning inward–through prayer or meditation–are no less valid than those that were arrived at externally.
My apologies for taking this thread so far from its original topic. Got a little carried away…
Your understanding of idolatry is compelling and it resonates powerfully for me.
However you are misunderstanding my original point about Canaanite idolatry. When I said these laws are not relevant any more, I was only saying that since the Canaanites are long gone from the land, the laws that guard against engaging in their specific practices simply do not apply.
Now that there is a modern state of Israel, the reality is fundamentally different than in Biblical times. Today the land is considered holy by two other monotheistic faiths. As such, there is great danger in attaching relevance to the laws that commanded the Israelites to dislodge the idolatrous Canaanites after entering the land.
Using your definition of idolatry (‘the idolater looks to the immediate source of power, love, wealth and asks: How can they serve me?”) I would further claim that it is profoundly idolatrous to consider the land to ipso facto “belong” to Jews alone (again, see Leviticus 25:23). This is tantamount to the claim, “how can our immediate power over this land (and its inhabitants) serve us (namely Jews alone)? Indeed, this fundamentalist/ultra nationalist viewpoint might well be viewed as the “new Jewish idolatry.”
David, it was a straightforward question attempting to understand Dan’s views on the present-day implications of the laws he refers to. It was shorthand for;
Dan, is your God is only interested in whether Jews obey the laws God gave them? Do those laws permit or encourage or simply have nothing to say about, for example, the burning of mosques to drive non-Jews from the land? Is the land for Jews only? Are Jews required to actively purge the land of non-Jews?
I really appreciate your post and the important and compelling discussion that has developed. I think you are right that the Torah and especially the Prophets make our tenure on the land conditional on our behavior. This is the normative understanding in Rabbinic Judaism for the exile from the land – “mipnay chataeynu”/it is because of our sins that we were exiled. These words are repeated constantly in our liturgy, especially in the festival (Shalosh Regalim) liturgy.
In our context today, the conditional nature of our tenure on the land is particularly important given that the State of Israel evicted the native inhabitants to create the State and is continuing to do so till today through continued settlement on the West Bank, land confiscation, discriminatory residency laws, home demolition and much else. The list is long and ugly.
(My passion on this issue is particularly strong today, having just returned from a visit to Bethlehem where I met several Palestinians who reported how they or members of their families who had lived in Jerusalem for years had lost their residency rights, while you and I could go there tomorrow, become citizens and we would retain our citizenship forever.)
You don’t address those passages of Torah especially in Deuternonomy that command us to wipe out the seven Canaanite nations in explicitly violent language. I raise this as I think we need to acknowledge that there are teachings in Torah that privilege the Jewish people’s ownership of the land that we simply reject. We reject them, just like the Rabbis rejected the laws regarding the rebellious child, because they violate our understanding of the core ethical principles of Judaism. We can go about this like the rabbis by interpreting these passages in such a way that they no longer mean what they say or we can just say we reject them. My preference is the latter although I am happy to follow the Rabbinic method as long as it leads to the same ethical result.
I am comfortable saying that just as Christianity and Islam have teachings that legitimate violence and prejudice so does Judaism and all three religions shouldn’t pretend that our tradition is pure and righteous. I am quite tired of hearing Muslims describe how all of Islam is peace loving without one word that legitimates violence. I am sure that the core of Islam is peace loving but I am also sure that it has passages that are less than fully peaceful, just like Judaism and Christiantiy and all other traditions.
The core principles of our tradition (the dignity of all people, the pursuit of justice, the acts of compassion/gemilut hasadim and tikkun) are sacred, and of ultimate importance. We must unambiguously and clearly reject the teachings that privilege the Jewish people over others including the teachings that privilege our connection to the land over the connection of other peoples. When I hear these passages read in shul without the rabbi or someone in authority saying that we reject these teachings or at least that we reinterpret them, it makes me cringe.
Once again, thanks for launching this important discussion.
Here is Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, on the topic as quoted in:
Of course they were well received. Who doesnt like to hear that their state is Divinely ordained? Americans had and some still have notions like this about our country as do many countries.
I can only imagine how Oren resolves the contradiction between the Jewish discovery of “extraordinary notion of universal morality” and God’s (?) decision to give the land to the Jewish people “in which to realize it’s national destiny.” The idea that the creation of the State of Israel is divinely ordained is the core problem we face. The founders of the State of Israel left God out of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, yet recently a poll reported that the majority of secular Israelis base Israel’s right to the land of Israel on God’s promise of the landto the Jewish people. Here the ambassador of Israel, the official representative of the State, confirms that this is the way he sees it too. Very hard to argue with a Divine right.
Israel is a nation state like any other nation state. It is no more Divinely inspired than any other state and it’s policies are also dependent on the Government of Israel and not on God.
The covenant with Abram could be interpreted to mean that Abram will be the spiritual or moral father of many people throughout the land, with biology having nothing to do with it. I do not think this is a modern interpretation. It must have been understood in this way by at least some Jews a couple thousand years ago since John the Baptist in Christian scripture, who is portrayed as being quite popular, is quoted as saying “Do not presume to say of yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor.” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”