What is the birthright of the Jewish Nation? Is it land or is it Torah? Or is it both? This question of birthright is the key historical-theological dilemma facing all religious Zionists. How the followers of Rav Kook go about answering this central theme of modern Jewish history may decide the future of Israel and its place among the nations (which is geographically centered in the very middle of a vast Islamic expanse).
For the Orthodox Jewish world in general, the question of land and Torah is not even an issue. To live in Israel without Messiah is to live anywhere.
The Israeli authorities might as well be Poles or Russians or even a Muslim Sultan for that matter. For traditional religious Jews, the Land of Israel is strictly a spiritual construct. For them the Redemption of the Land will happen magically, outside of politics and history, outside of the international nation-state system of war and diplomacy. In other words, for the non-Zionist Orthodox, the Israel of the Torah and the Israel of Ben-Gurion are two completely distinct places. They have nothing to do with each other because miracles happen outside of the natural order.
Of course, this highly irrational position has been entirely rejected by the vast majority of Israeli Jews, most of whom are secular in their orientation. But the rejection also encompasses many hundreds of thousands of religious Zionists who interpret the political rebirth of the Jewish state as the dawn of a physical Messianic era (whose final outcome is unknowable).
Hence, religious Zionism traces it roots directly back to Maimonides and his linkage of Torah with rationality. Writing in Cairo, Egypt, nearly nine hundred years ago, Moses Maimonides fused Jewish morality with reason and logic in such a way that to this very day his works appear modern. They resonate in our perplexing times. For Maimonides it is not events which are historically impossible that can be characterized as religious. On the contrary, it is events working within the context of real political history that have weight and inspiration, which produce awe and inspire spirit through their inability to have been imagined. The Six Day War was just such an event. In its aftermath, even the most Marxist and agnostic of kibbutz Jews could not but marvel at the Divine Hand at the core of real events, in real time, at a real place, where real Jewish soldiers had died. And behold, instead of annihilation, all the landmarks of Jewish history stood at our own sovereign feet for the first time in over two thousand years. For Maimonides and for religious Zionists, rational (real) miracles are much more powerful than illusory spiritual ones.
But what would Maimonides have said about the consequences of the conquest? Would he choose land over Torah? Would he keep some of the land for security, but in the name of peace (the highest of Torah ideals) offer large parts to the Arabs? Would he withdraw unilaterally (like Sharon did)? Or would he engage in a secular pragmatic negotiation like the security hawks do (Rabin, Olmert and Netanyahu)? Perhaps he might have used biblical geography to redefine the contours of the land and its division and/or shared rule. Of course, we’ll never know what either Kook or Maimonides would have done because they had never been in position historically to advise us. So it’s up to us, two or three very living generations of Jews, to decide the future course of Judea, Samaria, Jerusalem and all the rest of the Promised Land. The religious right must offer a clear vision, or its crucial role in the final decision will be eroded or even bypassed. Let’s examine the issue from a religious viewpoint.
First, our deed to the land is an embedded deed. It doesn’t exist separate from the Law, but within the Torah and the Laws of Sinai. It is not a real estate document. It is in fact a part of a covenant, the Covenant of Abraham. In Genesis 12:7 G-d appears to Abram (not Abraham yet) and says: “I will assign this land to your heirs.” Which heirs was the Lord referring to? And is the inheritance of land the same as a birthright? The birthright of Jacob and his heirs are the events at Sinai, aren’t they? It is the Torah which is unique to Jewish history, not the possession of land.
Land is held and lost and held and lost, by all peoples. No one other than the heirs of Abram hold title to a specific land through a Divine Covenant. But even a Divine Covenant has its moral restrictions. The Jews lost the Promised Land due to unholy behavior and the ill treatment of the stranger and the poor. It is clear: the Laws of Moses take precedence over the land deed within the Covenant of Abraham.
Second, The Covenant of Abraham is perplexing. G-d said to Abram in Genesis 17:4 “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be G-d to you and your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their G-d.” — So who holds the land deed? Is it the offspring of the multitude of nations or is it a specific group of offspring? The new name, Abraham (G-d heeds) suggests the Lord is attentive to many nations, and that the land deed belongs to all the heirs of Abraham who are all the offspring of Abraham.
For the Lord is G-d to a multitude of nations and offspring.
But unlike the conventional rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 17:15-22, I find the so-called answer to the question of who holds the land deed even more perplexing and misunderstood. For instance, G-d changes the name of Abraham’s wife from Sarai to Sarah and blesses her by promising that she will be a mother and she will give rise to nations (emphasis plural). But Abraham only knows and loves his only son Ishmael whose mother is Hagar. And Abraham declares “O that Ishmael might live in your favor!” G-d said, “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.
As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”
So throughout Jewish history, the answer to the ownership of the land deed has always been interpreted to belong strictly to the heirs of Isaac.
Problem solved, or so it would seem. But who is the rightful heir to Isaac? Is it Esau, his first born, or Jacob, who does rightfully possess the birthright which Esau exchanged with him for food? And are the birthright and a property inheritance the same thing? In other words, is the birthright of Jacob a land deed, or is it something of more grandeur and magnitudes more consequential, like the Torah itself? Furthermore, if the birthright of Jacob is indeed the Torah, the ownership of the inheritance (the land deed) remains up in the air. For Jacob obtained his father’s blessing through a fraud. Esau was, in fact, tricked out of his father’s death-bed blessing. Hence the inheritance ownership issue is without biblical judicial decision or judgement. This is vitally important since the heirs of Esau run through the line of Ishmael because Esau married Ishmael’s daughter (fulfilling G-d’s promise that Sarah would be a mother to many nations, not just the Jews). In fact the Covenant of Abraham as a land deed could belong to both the offspring of Isaac and Ishmael, and probably do.
If you closely examine Genesis 17, the land deed as covenant is only mentioned at the beginning within the context of a multitude of nations and the general offspring of Abraham. At the end of Genesis 17, after the seal of the covenant is ascribed to the circumcision of all of Abraham’s male offspring, only then does G-d specifically mention Ishmael. Within this end context to Genesis 17, there is no mention of a land deed at all, only a covenant. Yes, it is a covenant excluding Ishmael, but is it a land deed? No land deed is mentioned. This is a fascinating juxtaposition of concepts. Is the Covenant of Abraham divided at this point between land and Torah? I respectfully ask the question.
So who does the land of Canaan belong to? And what makes the Israeli religious right-wing so certain that conquest and G-d’s design are even compatible? Of course, the same can easily said of the Muslims who go against their own revelation by denying the Jews their rightful ownership through Koran (Sura 5:20). Perhaps an entirely new religious narrative is needed for the times that we live in. On these pages, I have advocated for a theological peace between Islam and Judaism. After one hundred years of war and twenty years of failed secular peacemaking, the time might be ripe.