American Jewish conversations about Israel are all too often repetitive, divisive, shrill, and superficial.
There’s a better, truer mode of conversation: one that engenders moral and emotional honesty and nuance, that connects us to one another and to our shared sources of guidance and meaning. This model is nowhere better embodied than in the Talmud’s sustained engagement with Israel, as it consistently – and to many, surprisingly – speaks to the present in refreshing, evocative, and enlightening imagery and ideas.
Consider the following passage (Sanhedrin 98b):
Rabbi Yohanan said, “The Messiah should come, but I don’t want to see him.”… Why did Rabbi Yohanan say this?…
Because [when the Messiah comes] God will say, “These people are the works of my hands, and these other people are also the works of my hands. How could I displace these for the sake of those?”
Rav Pappa said, “This is like the common expression, ‘When the ox falls while running, the horse replaces it in the pen.’”
The force of this text comes alive in the explanation offered by Rashi, the great Talmudic commentator:
When an ox is hurt, its owner must move a horse into its pen [to do its work]. The owner is very fond of the ox, and would never have wanted to do this had the ox not fallen. And when the ox is healed from its fall, which could be today or tomorrow, it is painful for the owner to remove the horse and replace it with the ox, for he himself had placed the horse there.
God, after Israel’s fall, transferred their sovereignty to Gentiles. But when Israel returns and is redeemed, it will be painful for God to displace the Gentiles for the sake of Israel.
This parable caps a passage that is a study in ambivalence. Rabbi Yohanan, a hero of the Talmudic academies, opens with an ambivalence about the Messiah’s arrival not to be expected from a paragon of religious virtue. The Talmud goes on to see Rabbi Yohanan’s conflicted stance as his response to God’s cosmic ambivalence, brought about by the competing, irreconcilable claims of two peoples. God, if we can say such a thing, is torn in the conflict over the land of Israel, a land that is perhaps even twice-promised.
It doesn’t take a Talmudic genius to begin to apply this passage to the political, ethnic, and religious conflicts in the land of Israel over the course of the past century. Perhaps most important, we have here a simultaneous endorsement of both God’s abiding affection for the people of Israel and the legitimacy of other nations’ property rights. God’s pathos, which a sympathetic reader will share, arises from a passionate clinging to both truths, a disavowal of simplicity purchased at the price of ignoring a real, historical, existential bond.
I present this passage not because it captures the essence of rabbinic thinking on Israel (it’s not clear that any single passage does or could), nor because I think we should implement it straightforwardly (it is not even clear that one could apply this text straightforwardly; that seems to be something of its point). This short passage is important because it takes up the voices of those who say that the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in Israel is messianic and those who want to avoid thinking about it.
It speaks with the passion of Jews who have returned home while never denying the pain that that return has caused to others who call it home. The Talmud sees all of these as the voices of the living God and of the sages of Israel. To hear the diversity of contemporary voices that emerge from the pages of the Jewish canon should inspire our curiosity and passion to engender similarly rich multivocality in our discourse.
Over the past few years at Hadar, we have begun to use the lenses of these and other traditional texts to shape our individual and collective thinking about Israel. Our sacred texts discuss the messiness of conflicting claims to a piece of land seized during war; they grapple with the sanctity of the land of Israel: is it contingent and constructed, or intrinsic and eternal? Many think religious sources cause division – we have found instead a framework for validating and harmonizing difference that is all too rare.
This coming January, we are going to take the first steps of broadening this conversation, inviting college students from across North America for two weeks of wide-ranging Torah study on these and dozens of other passages and questions – from the political to the spiritual – passages which reinforce, challenge, and shape one another, and our own thinking. Our aim is to both sharpen and soften contemporary thinking on Israel, bringing the whole of the combined wisdom of the past and present to the shared realities, opportunities, and challenges of being Jewish in, and in relation to, Israel.