Category Archives: Torah Commentary

You Are But Strangers: Jewish Theology and the Land of Israel

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.

Underground Genesis


OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.

Human Rights and the Road to Efratah


 this week’s portion, Parashat Vayishlach, we read:

Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efratah – now Beit
 Lechem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar  at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Genesis 35:19-20)

Jeremiah famously expanded upon these verses to introduce the tragic, iconic 
image of Rachel weeping over the exiled children of Israel:

Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her
 children, who are gone. Thus said the Lord: restrain your voice from 
weeping, your eyes from shedding tears. For there is a reward for your labor, declares the Lord.  They shall return from the enemy’s land.
 And there is hope for your future, declares the Lord.  Your children 
shall return to their country. (Jeremiah

While these words have been a comfort to the exiled Jewish people for centuries, we know all to well that we are not the only people to suffer the pain of exile. Given that Jews are now global citizens in the 21st century world, might we apply these sacred words to all who have been forcibly dislocated from their lands?  I am particularly mindful of this question this week, as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Note in particular Article 9: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”)

In honor of this important anniversary, Rabbis for Human Rights – North America has designated this Shabbat to be “Human Rights Shabbat.”  I encourage you to study and utilize their extensive new web resources to commorate this sacred milestone. This Shabbat Vayishlach, may we strengthen our resolve that we might make the vision of the Universal Declaration a reality for all who dwell on earth…

Kids Write the Darndest Midrash

Last Sunday I was talking to our kindergarders about this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and I explained that after the flood subsided Noah sent out a raven, but the raven never came back. A little later Noah sent out a dove – who knows what the dove brought back?  To which one little boy immediately replied, “the raven!”

(I’m liking that one even better than the olive branch…)

Beginning Again In God’s Image

Rabbi Akiva says: “‘Love your fellow as yourself'” (Leviticus 19:18), is the greatest principle of the Torah.

Ben Azzai says, “‘When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God’ (Genesis 5:1) is the greatest principle in the Torah. You should not say: Because I have been dishonored, let my fellow be dishonored along with me…”

Rabbi Tanhuma explained: “If you do so, know whom you are dishonoring – ‘He made him in the likeness of God.'” (Genesis Rabbah 24)

In this classic Midrash, Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai are doing what Talmudic rabbis do best: playing a lively game of spiritual oneupsmanship. In this case, they are debating the central value of Torah: according to Akiba it is the famous verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai counters with the insight from this week’s Torah portion: humanity was created in God’s image.

Rabbi Tanhuma’s final statement reinforces the weakness of Akiba’s claim: though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.

I am particularly struck that Akiba’s statement expresses an essentially humanist point of view, while Ben Azzai’s is an inherently theological assertion. In a sense, Ben Azzai raises the moral stakes of the equation. As the saying (often misattributed to Dostoevsky) goes: “where there is no God, all is permitted.” This drives home the radical imperative in Genesis: if all people are made in the divine image, all people are of infinite worth; all people are deserving of dignity, respect and fair treatment.

The Torah thus begins with this foundational principle, which has both interpersonal/ethical as well as global/moral implications. As we start Torah anew yet again, we return to its central question: how can we find the wherewithal to treat everyone we meet as a fellow child of God? How can we, as Americans, as Jews, as global citizens find dignity and respect for all who dwell on earth?

Postscript: One powerful way you can honor Torah’s central principle: consider attending the Second North American Conference on Judaism and Human Rights on December 7-9 in Washington DC.

“And You Will Incur Guilt…”

From this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei:

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it, else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.  (Deuteromony 24:14-15)

In what can only described as irony of Biblical proportions, we read these verses on the same week that the Iowa attorney general brought a myriad of criminal charges against the owners and managers of the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant (where almost 400 undocumented workers were arrested in an ICE raid last May):

The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.

…The complaint also charges that under-age workers were not paid for all the overtime they worked and were forced to work before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m., a violation of child labor laws. Agriprocessors managers “participated in efforts to conceal children when federal and state labor department officials inspected the plant,” the complaint says.

The silver lining? There is growing evidence that the Jewish world – across denominational lines – is ready to respond to the shandeh that is Agriprocessors. On Wednesday, the Orthodox Union threatened to withdraw kosher certification from the company unless Agriprocessors replaced its management and CEO. For their part, the good folks at Hekhsher Tzedek added their “Amen”:

The pressure from the Orthodox Union added to criticism of Agriprocessors from a movement led by Conservative Jews that is seeking to create an additional seal for kosher food to show it was produced according to ethical standards for wages and worker safety. The movement, Hekhsher Tzedek, praised the Orthodox Union’s “no-nonsense action,” saying it showed that the concept of ethical standards in kosher food “transcends denominational boundaries.”

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a congregant how traditional Jews could justify being so scrupulous about their production of kosher meat while being so unscrupulous in their flauting of the Torah’s clear laws against worker abuse. I’m not sure I had such a good answer, but it is gratifying that Jewish leaders are now publicly asking the same questions and demanding a response.

Bearing Witness

From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim:

A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.

(Deuteronomy 16:6)

Taking its cue from Torah verses such as this, Jewish law places a powerfully high value on the importance of witnesses. For instance, not only is a minimum of two witnesses is necessary to convict, but both must have directly witnessed the crime. Heresay is inadmissible as is coerced witness testimony. Indeed, bearing witness is a profoundly sacred act in Jewish tradition, as the ninth commandment (not to meantion pages and pages of Talmudic debate) make clear.

As a Jew, I am particularly mindful of these values in the case of Georgia death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis (above), who was sentenced to death for the murder of a Savannah policeman in 1991. Davis’ conviction was made solely on the basis of witness testimony – almost all of which has proven to be inconsistent and dubious.  All but two of the witnesses in Davis’ case have since recanted, many alleging they were pressured or coerced by police. (There was no physical eveidence implicating Davis and the murder weapon was never found).

Many of these witnesses in Davis’ case have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against him. (One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense. There is new evidence implicating this individual as the gunman and nine individuals have since signed affidavits implicating him).

At the very least, questions about the veracity of witness testimony would seem to warrant a new trial for Davis, but the Georgia Supreme Court denied this to Davis last March. This stunning decision means that the state of Georgia might soon execute a man who may well be innocent. (His execution date now stand at September 23).

In the spirit of Torah’s exhoration this week, tzedek, tzedek tirdof (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”), I encourage you to learn more about the Troy Davis case. This Amnesty International update contains more information, as well as resources for advocacy on Davis’ behalf.  You can also learn more from  Troy Davis’ website.

Nation Building and Dispossession

But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harrass you in the land in which you live; so that I will do to you what I planned to do to them. (Numbers 33:55-56)

These verses from this week’s Torah portion recalls a famous (some would say infamous) 2004 Ha’aretz interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris. Among other things, Morris adressed the disturbing nature of nation-building, which in the case of Israel “necessitated” the uprooting of the Palestinian population in 1948:

There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.

And that was the situation in 1948?

That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.

The term “to cleanse” is terrible.

I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.

What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hard-hearted.

I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.

Though the Torah has religious cultic concerns that are centuries removed from the phenomenon of modern nationalism, I believe the intrinsic issue here is essentially the same. Is it truly possible for a people to create a state without dispossessing another? Though we may recoil from the kinds of attitudes expressed in the Bible – or by Morris – this central question remains, and it challenges us to the core.

I’ll add another while we’re at it: are ethnic cleansing or eternal state of war the only options available to nation builders? Might there be a “third way?” I’d love to hear some thoughts…

Collateral Damage

As this week’s Torah portion opens, a prominent Israelite named Korach ben Yizhar, together with two hundred and fifty chieftains, publicly revolts against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach’s grievance is is expressed thus:

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself about the LORD’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

The rebellion does not go well for Korach, to put it mildly – at the climax of this episode, the earth opens up to swallow him, his followers, their families and all of their possessions.

One of the most common issues folks have with this troubling story has to do with the “collateral damage.” Even if we assume (as many commentators do) that Korach and his followers were self- serving charlatans who deserved what they got in the end, why on earth did their “wives, their children, and their little ones” have to be swallowed up as well?

It is ironic that Korach, who purports to have the good of the people at heart, ends up destroying them. Indeed, though he speaks the rhetoric of the masses, his actions ultimately lead to a tragedy of massive proportions. In this regard we might claim that Korach’s primary failing was not hubris per se, but his willingness to let his zealous attachment to a single principle endanger the safety and well-being of his community.

This lesson has particular relevance this Shabbat, coming as it does one day after the US Supreme Court struck down a gun-control law in Washington DC, ruling that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a firearm unconnected with militia service and to use it for “traditional lawful purposes.” It is clear that this landmark ruling – the first time in 70 years that the High Court has ruled on the Second Amendment – will lead to widespread challenges to gun control laws across the country.

It is equally clear that this ruling will have a real effect on public safety in our nation. An editorial in today’s NY Times put it aptly:

Thirty-thousand Americans are killed by guns every year — on the job, walking to school, at the shopping mall. The Supreme Court on Thursday all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling striking down key parts of the District of Columbia’s gun-control law.

This is a decision that will cost innocent lives, cause immeasurable pain and suffering and turn America into a more dangerous country. It will also diminish our standing in the world, sending yet another message that the United States values gun rights over human life.

There already is a national glut of firearms: estimates run between 193 million and 250 million guns. The harm they do is constantly on heartbreaking display. Thirty-three dead last year in the shootings at Virginia Tech. Six killed this year at Northern Illinois University. On Wednesday, as the court was getting ready to release its decision, a worker in a Kentucky plastics plant shot his supervisor, four co-workers and himself to death.

I have written before on the importance of gun control from a Jewish perspective. According to halacha, pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – is the most sacrosanct commandment, taking precedence over all other commandments, obligations, or even “rights” (as we would say here in America). As such, I would argue that gun control is a critical spiritual imperative for our national community.

If you agree, check out the Brady Campaign for more info and actions you can take in the wake of this latest ominous ruling.

Face 2 Face

From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso:

May God’s face rise up to greet you and bestow peace upon you. (Numbers 6:26)

When does God’s face rise to greet us? When we find the wherewithal to turn our faces to one another.

Click on the clip above to see a demonstration of this principle in action. Visit the Face 2 Face website to learn more.