Shayna Abramson

Torah, Land & People: How Are We Connected?

Much of the contemporary Jewish religious discourse on the Land of Israel seems to go as follows: 1. God promised us the land of Israel in the Torah, so we have a right to the land 2. The fact that we have a Jewish State after 2,000 years of exile means it is the beginning of the redemption that will culminate in Mashiach 3. By implication: Since we have a right to the land and we are already in the beginning of the Mashiach process, now that we have a Jewish State on the land, we will be here forever.

I want to look a little bit at each claim.

  1. God promised us the land of Israel in the Torah, so we have a right to the land: It is true that God promises the Jewish people the Land of Israel in the Torah. He promises it first to Avraham, saying his descendents will inherit it, and then to Avraham’s descendents -Bney Yisrael – many times throughout the text. However, there are two sides to this promise: One side is a promise that Bney Yisrael will inherit the land. The other side of that promise is that God will kick them out for bad behavior.  And that promise came true, because we’ve already been kicked out by God for bad behavior on two occasions, the Destruction of the First Temple and the ensuing exile, and the Destruction of the Second Temple and the ensuing exile. In other words, the Jewish people do have a right to the land of Israel. But it is not an unconditional right, in force at all times. It is a conditional right, predicated on proper religious behavior. Who decides if that right is in force and if the conditions of proper religious behavior are being met? God decides. Not us. Not humans. Not military might. God is the one with exclusive, unconditional rights to the Land of Israel, just as He, as Creator and King, has exclusive, unconditional rights to the entire world. He decides, as the owner, when our rights, as Jews, to sovereignty over the land are in force or not. But as humans, we cannot make a claim one way or the other. We can say we have a theoretical conditional right, but we are not the ones in charge of deciding whether that theoretical right is currently in force or not.
  2. The fact that we have a Jewish State after 2,000 years of exile means it is the beginning of the redemption that will culminate in Mashiach: This may be true, or it may not be true. Certainly, we returned to the Land of Israel during the Second Temple and it culminated in re-exile, rather than final redemption. I have yet to see a convincing argument that grapples with explaining why this particular incarnation of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel will succeed where others failed, such that it will usher in the Messianic era. As a religious Jew, I 100% believe in the coming of the Mashiach. But I don’t know when or how they will come. Judaism as a religion has tended to focus on the here and now -halachic practice and ethical guidance for our daily lives – rather than on esoteric pronouncements about what the Messianic era will look like. In fact, it has been very suspicious of claims that the Mashiach has already come. (See for example, the controversy surrounding Shabtai Tzvi.) I am very suspicious of claims that go against the Jewish tradition, unless they can make a compelling argument to weigh against the force of the tradition they are trying to upend. The centralization of Mashiach to Jewish religious life, not merely as an abstract aspiration, but as a concrete reality that is already present, is such a claim, but its adherents have yet to acknowledge the ways that this goes against the tradition and to explain why this reading of current events is necessary even when it goes against the grain of Jewish history, which is replete with false messiahs and with cycles of sovereignty over Israel followed by exile.
  3. By implication: Since we have a right to the land and we are already in the beginning of the Mashiach process, now that we have a Jewish State on the land, we will be here forever: To me, the main reason I am suspicious of claims 1 and 2 is that they lead us to conclusion 3: That we will be on this land forever. This means that there are no consequences to our actions as a nation. We can engage in immoral behavior and not have to worry about it. After all, we have an absolute right to this land and the Messianic era has already started -nothing can uproot us. Our being here is God’s will. Of course, this claim is an act of theological arrogance. None of us know what God’s will is. None of us, as humans, know what the future holds. Even prophets* often had trouble interpreting God’s words. Our Sages tell us that the Jews who practiced idol worship in ancient times did not really believe in it, but they did so because it gave them a religious-ethical license for immoral sexual behavior and murder. I fear that belief in Zionism as our absolute right to Israel/the beginning of the Messianic era is now serving the same moral function: It gives us religious-ethical licenses to act in ways that may seem to us both religiously and ethically problematic if we choose to see the world filtered through a different theological lens.** Going back to point 1, I believe that there is a reason that the Torah offers us a double-promise around the land of Israel, of inheriting it for good behavior and being exiled for bad behavior. The Torah wants to let us know that even after we are in the land of Israel, there are consequences to our actions, both as individuals and as a nation. It wants us to continue to be motivated to do the right thing, understanding that reward and punishment are still operative at the national level. It understands human nature (after all, it was written by God, who created humans) and that even though people ideally would behave ethically at all times for its own sake, sometimes it is hard to feel motivated without a carrot and a stick. If you think that your actions have no consequences, it is very easy to wind up in a place of moral nihilism. The Torah tries to protect us from that with its double-promise, of redemption in the Land of Israel for good behavior and exile for bad behavior.

I hope I have shown that each claim listed above is not the undisputed religious truth that it is often presented as. Once we believe that our actions in Israel do have consequences for the longevity of the State of Israel, we can start asking important religious questions, like: What kind of society does God want us to build on this land? Which of the mitzvot in the Torah are associated with the land and which sins did our ancestors fail at so we can learn from their mistakes? (Spoiler alert: Mostly ethical commandments, focusing on interpersonal relationships and building a kind and just society.)

I want to end with a quote from Isaiah. Fighting against the perception, that proper religious practice (or in our case: proper worship of the Land of Israel as a religious good and prioritization of it as a religious value) would save them from destruction and exile, Isaiah reminds them that God wants proper ethical behavior as the prerequisite for His continuing to grant them the right to live on the land as a sovereign nation:

Isaiah, 1:11-19***: 11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. 12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me….I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly….15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.

I  confess that this is not a simple task. In a complex geopolitical situation, in an era without prophets, we are left wondering what it means to do justice today, and what it means to do kindness. But our work, as a “free nation in our land”**** is to try.

*other than Moshe, who is unique in his ability to understand God clearly

**In my thinking on this I am inspired by Yeshayahu Leibowitz

***Mechon Mamre translation

**** Hatikvah

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.