Jerusalem, Frisch, and Jewish law

In mid-November 1967, I was features editor of a weekly newspaper, the Jewish Press. The United Nations Security Council was debating Resolution 242 (the post-Six-Day War resolution designed to achieve “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East”), and I was asked to write an analysis of the prospects for peace presented by the resolution. My analysis concluded that peace never would be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians because one key issue would remain insolvable: the status of Jerusalem.

That conclusion was true then, and it remains true today.

Usually, however, the Jerusalem issue is shoved off to the side when the media and politicians focus on the Middle East. The likely reason is that they adhere to the belief that if all other issues are resolved, a solution to Jerusalem will present itself.

The issue is front and center at the moment, however, because of a cynical political decision in early December on the part of President Trump. That decision has sparked a myriad of reactions, everything from a controversial request of students at Frisch High School, to a disruptive Knesset meeting earlier this week during a speech by Vice President Mike Pence.

There are halachic issues embedded here, but before discussing them, I need to clarify three points.

First, Jerusalem is, was, and always will be the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and thus the capital of the Jewish state. That was true even when the United States did not formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. If anything, President Trump’s December pronouncement brought the world’s powers to their feet in protest of that truth. His decision also completely derailed any prospect for a peace process going forward. Almost certainly, his decision will cause the various terrorist entities in the region to rev up their efforts to take Jewish lives (especially of young Jews, the Palestinian terrorist’s favorite target).

Second, what happened at Frisch — teachers instructing students to write letters to the White House supporting Trump’s action, without their parents’ knowledge or consent — is indefensible on a number of grounds. No school has a right to impose political views on its students, which is why a number of parents who oppose Trump on moral and ethical grounds loudly objected to what had been done.

The parents had every right to object. Consider the terrible subliminal message that was sent to the Frisch teenagers in that request. They were told (albeit obliquely) to ignore as irrelevant Trump’s behavior toward women, his repeated lapses into blatant racism, his often disgraceful tweets denigrating those who disagree with him (including his chief of staff and several cabinet secretaries), and his role as dispenser-in-chief of fake news and false facts. The students also were told that the only issue that ever matters is Israel. No matter how wrong a politician is on everything else, if he or she supports Israel, he or she must be supported.

Third, halacha is not monolithic, and it is not closed to interpretation. Different people may see a particular law in contrasting ways. What follows is my view of the laws relating to the peace process. Not everyone will agree with me. I accept that, but I would hope they would stop and consider the points I make before dismissing them.

I begin by discussing one law that is not open to interpretation: We are commanded to settle the Land of Israel — all of it, not just a piece of it, meaning every inch of it, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

There is biblical evidence, however, to suggest that giving up land is not so great a sin, or may not be a sin at all, if the price is right. Solomon gave 20 cities in the Galilee to Hiram, king of Tyre, yet neither the biblical text nor the Sages of Blessed Memory offered any comment, much less condemnation. This probably is because of what Solomon received in return: the building materials for God’s House and his own. (See 1 Kings 9:11.)

Trading land for peace (including ceding portions of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians for their capital) would be worth the price, too, if the peace offered is a true peace. Any agreement would have to battle terrorism with vigor, it would have to include all the states now opposed to Israel, and it must provide ways to put peace into practice through such means as trade and tourism.

Much of this seems unlikely for now. Nevertheless, Jewish law looks warily at actions taken that could endanger even so tenuous a peace process — including actions regarding the status of Jerusalem.

Entering into this consideration are two sins often discussed in this space: pikuach nefesh (threat to life) and sh’fichut damim (causing the needless spilling of blood). Pikuach nefesh is considered to be pre-eminent in religious Judaism. Almost nothing — not even Shabbat or the laws of kashrut — takes precedence when life is threatened. Sh’fichut damim runs a close second.

Putting people’s lives in danger violates pikuach nefesh. Almost certainly, violence will erupt and blood almost certainly will be spilled on both sides because of the Jerusalem pronouncement. This is sh’fichut damim. Thus, both sins are halachic factors that must be taken into account.

Even if halacha would seem not to support trading land for peace, however, sometimes the law needs to be set aside in order to protect the national interest. The consequences of an action always must be considered. (See Rabbi Yochanan’s statement about the destruction of the Temple in BT Gittin 55b-56a.)

As Samson Raphael Hirsch explained in his commentary to several verses in Leviticus 18, if the people of Israel act in ways that are neither moral nor ethical, “the land will vomit out that society.”

“The land is meant to be the bearer of a national life that is exemplary in moral purity…,” Hirsch explained. “Hence, a population that is socially and morally corrupt has no future on this land.”

We, as a people, are supposed to adhere to Jewish law. As we will read on Shabbat next week, our task is to be God’s “kingdom of priests and holy nation,” the advocates through how we live our lives of God’s moral and ethical code, God’s blueprint for how all people should live their lives.

Ignoring the ramifications of pikuach nefesh and sh’fichut damim is immoral and unethical. We should teach that to our children.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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