What Does Judaism Say about Israel?[1]


What Does Judaism Say about [the Land of] Israel?


Land of Israel vs. State of Israel.

When I was first invited to give this talk, its topic was presented to me as "What does Judaism say about Israel" --understood to refer to the State of Israel. I prepared a brilliant lecture on that theme and then, a few weeks ago, was informed that the actual advertised title was "What does Judaism say about the Land of Israel?"

I sensed immediately that this would require an entirely different presentation. On further reflection, I found it of considerable interest that these are in reality such different questions. Why that is the case will therefore be one of the subjects that I will try to explore this evening.


Since I gather that the present talk comes at the tail-end of the "What does Judaism say..." series, I hope that I am not the first speaker who has expressed some discomfort with the use of the term "Judaism" that appears in the title. The "-ism" suffix is normally used to denote a consistent and systematic ideology. The assumption that a religion is defined by its articles of belief comes to us from other traditions, but it has not been the dominant view in Jewish thought over the ages. Although we may have striven for normative life-styles and ritual standards, and have been united by perceptions of a shared past and historical destiny, Jews have rarely set a high priority upon the formulation of definitive doctrine. Classical Hebrew does not even possess a proper word to denote the European term "Judaism"; the modern Hebrew "yahadut" is a recent innovation.

Notwithstanding all those reservations, for purposes of this talk I shall use the word "Judaism" in a general way, to indicate all religious expressions of Jewish tradition.

It is clear to any academic historian that Jews over the generations have tolerated extensive disagreements over central doctrinal issues. Even where a consensus might have existed with respect to fundamental ideas and values, such as the belief in one God or the sanctity of the Torah, the translation of these generalities into their specifics often involved controversies of radical dimensions.

The preceding characterization is undoubtedly applicable to the questions of the Land of Israel--that is, to the Jewish attachment to our homeland, and the practical halakhic or political implications of that premise.

The Land of Israel in Classical Jewish Sources

In the Bible

The basic perception that Jews constitute a nation, and that our proper territory coincides (roughly) with the land trodden by our Biblical progenitors, is one that has never [well...hardly ever] been challenged in the Jewish consciousness since the earliest strata of the Bible.

The covenant with Abraham, that forms the basis of our religious peoplehood, includes the promise that the patriarch's descendants, after their enslavement in a strange land, will return to the land:

On that day God entered a covenant with Abram saying: To your descendants I have given this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...
A substantially different set of borders is commanded to Moses in Numbers 34:1-15, and still other boundaries are mentioned in Deuteronomy (1:7, 11:24); in Joshua and in Ezekiel (47:15-20); and the Jewish commentators have worked diligently trying to identify the various place names, to determine whether the maps can be harmonized, or whether there is a way to explain the discrepancies between them.

Though the right of Israel to these territories is expressed in absolute terms--as a "possession" or an "inheritance"--there are some intriguing reservations placed on this principle.

In Halakhah

What strikes me in reading Talmudic discussions about the geographical boundaries of the Promised Land is how academic they all seem to be. Jews, as you may be aware, prefer to devote their intellectual passion to matters of law. There are expressions that appear in the Talmud when the discussion seems to become too theoretical or historical: such as Mai nafka minnah (What practical difference emerges from this?) or Mai dehava hava! (What happened happened! Why should we be interested in mere historical questions?). And in truth, the matter of historical borders appears to have been understood as such a question. The boundaries may have reflected the actual extent of Jewish sovereignty at some point in the past, or they might be an as-yet-unfulfilled vision that will be realized in the messianic future. Either way, they would have no obvious practical implications for us, and hence are outside the domain of useful talmudic discourse.

The preceding statement is best illustrated by examining the halakhic boundaries of the Land of Israel. According to Jewish law, the determining of borders does indeed have practical halakhic relevance for several areas of Jewish law, especially the agricultural regulations such as tithing, the sabbatical year, etc. that, according to the prevailing rabbinic view, only apply (at least, by Torah authority) within the Land of Israel. For in Judaism, it is the applicability of Torah laws that defines a place's sanctity, not historical memories or metaphysical auras.

In this context, rabbinic literature does attempt to define the legal borders of the Land of Israel. Specific landmarks are identified, and the topic's urgency is indicated by the fact that the relevant Talmudic passage was copied in full on the Mosaic floor of a 7th-century synagogue in Beit Shean that was excavated in 1974.

One fact that emerges clearly from all the talmudic references to the halakhic boundaries of Israel is that they bear very little relationship to any of the biblical descriptions. The rabbinic borders are quite modest, limited to the territories that were settled by Jews during the early Second-Temple era. The northern border runs through Acre, and the southern through Ashkelon, while the Shomron is excluded altogether. The Talmud states that the sanctity of the more extensive territory that had been settled after the Egyptian Exodus was canceled out with the first exile. A new situation was created at the time of the restoration of Judea under Ezra and Nehemiah, and it was the people themselves who determined what territories would carry sanctity. Of course, the religious leaders of the time were well aware of the previous promises of wider boundaries that had been guaranteed to Abraham, Moses and Ezekiel--but there is a perception that this was God's problem, not something that affected their practical affairs. The people of Israel must work with the geographical cards that history had dealt them.

Later, under Roman rule, when the Jewish majority in Israel had to struggle to retain their hold on ancestral lands in the face of political and economic challenges, the local rabbis motivated their flocks to remain by emphasizing the religious value of dwelling in the holy land, and the grave transgressions involved in leaving it, even under economic or political pressure.

Conversely, Diaspora leaders--responding perhaps to a "brain drain" of their best scholars and to the social breakdown left in their wake by young students impulsively deciding to move to Eretz Yisrael--preached that such behaviour violated the divine punishment for which they had been exiled in the first place.

The arguments of both sides would of course be adduced by later generations.

Medieval Views on the Obligation to Settle Israel

A fundamental ambivalence about the relative roles of God and man in the redemption of Eretz Yisrael can be discerned in the controversies of the medieval rabbis.

Of course, all traditional Jews include in their daily prayers requests for the restoration of the House of David, the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. However, serious differences arose when it came to the translating those aspirations into practical imperatives. Thus, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, codifiers of Jewish law had to cope with the question of whether the Jews of their time were under the obligation to settle the Holy Land.

Maimonides included no such commandment in his comprehensive enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Torah. As generally understood, he interpreted the various biblical exhortations to that effect as applying only to the time of Joshua's conquest, implying that since those times the obligation was, at most, of rabbinic authority.

Nahmanides challenged Maimonides on that point, insisting that the settlement of the Land of Israel is an absolute imperative valid in all times. Nahmanides himself went on aliyyah, and counted that commandment among the 613.

Other authorities were more equivocal. Some, like a certain Rabbi Hayyim Cohen cited in the Tosafot, were afraid of the difficult halakhic burden that would weigh upon Jews in the Holy Land. Others, while recognizing the obligation in principle, acknowledged that there might be mitigating circumstances that could legitimately keep people from packing their bags for Jerusalem.

Religious Responses to Zionism and the State of Israel

Having sketched out the historical background, let us proceed to examine how religious Judaism in our own times has responded to the challenge of defining the meaning of Eretz Yisrael in connection with the reborn State of Israel.

Basle 1897

As most of you are probably aware, 1997 marks the centenary anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, convened by Theodore Herzel in Basle. The famous programme proclaimed at that congress called for "the creation for the Jewish people of a home in Palestine secured by public law." Whether we see this programme as a response to ancient religious yearnings or to the recent persecutions of European Jewry, it is hard not to acknowledge its legitimacy--if not its feasibility.

Let us see therefore what actual responses were prompted by the Basle declarations.

Religious Opposition to Zionism:

In Germany

The following letter was issued by the German Rabbinerverband (Union of Rabbis) even as the ink was drying on the Basle platform. Its signatories, I should note, included leaders from both the Reform and Orthodox camps--a trick that was as rare in those polarized times as it is in our own. Among other things, the letter states:

The efforts of the so-called Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine are antagonistic to the messianic promises of Judaism, as contained in Holy Writ and in later religious sources.
In order to appreciate the vehemence of this response, we must bear in mind some distinctive features of central European Judaism during the nineteenth century. Jewish tradition at that time was being radically reinterpreted so as to permit Jews to respond positively to the new opportunities that were being offered by their countries of residence. The liberal ideology that underlay the modern nation-state granted political equality to all people as individuals, provided that those people were prepared to declare their unswerving loyalty to the state in which they lived. Most of the religious reforms that were being proposed by Jewish leaders at that time can be viewed as attempts to facilitate Jewish participation in European society.

In light of these needs, it should not be all that surprising that the traditional Jewish ideals of peoplehood and messianic redemption were felt to be problematic. How could they claim to be loyal and patriotic citizens of Germany, France or Austria when they continually prayed for the restoration of their national sovereignty on their ancestral soil? Moreover, in a culture that viewed religion in terms of universal theological and moral truths, what justification could be found for the Jewish equation of religion with narrow nationalism?

The response of many European Jews to these challenges involved some radical new understandings of the concepts of messianism. The traditional images of a king from the house of David and of the ingathering to Jerusalem could now be seen as mere metaphors for the ideals of enlightenment and equality that were making themselves felt in modern Western society. Judaism, they argued, is a system of beliefs that transcends parochial restrictions, and German Jews have more in common with their Christian neighbours than with their "coreligionists" in Poland or Morocco. For supposedly modern Jews to proclaim their hope for a literal return to Zion must therefore be viewed as nothing less than a reversion to superstitious medievalism!

While we are used to identifying these attitudes with the Reform movement, this episode serves to remind us that, notwithstanding all the differences that separated them, German Orthodoxy, especially that associated with the school of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, shared many of the fundamental assumptions of their Reform brethren, especially in their enthusiasm for German culture and the problems that posed for the national dimensions of their Judaism.

In Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe was of course a different story. Neither Jew nor Gentile in Russia, Poland or the Ukraine had any doubts that the Jews constituted an ethnic community with its own languages and culture. Here dwelt a solid core of traditionalists who were untroubled by the literal meaning of the daily prayers for the speedy advent of the Messiah, the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here we have reason to expect that the sympathies of the religious leadership would be with the Zionists, and that the Basle platform would be endorsed universally.

And thus wrote the great Hasidic leader, Rabbi Zadok Hacohen of Lublin: A voice was heard from on high, a voice of lamentation... It concerns the sect that has arisen recently under the name of Zionists. They drag iniquity by cords of vanity and lift up their souls to folly... For this my heart grieves exceedingly... The Zionists sow wheat and reap thorns and even though the work of Satan should prosper, the end will be, Heaven forbid, what it will be...
As Rabbi Zadok goes on to explain, he has a number of grave objections to the Zionist cause. Unlike his central European counterparts, he asserts his commitment to the sanctity of the Land of Israel and its eternal bond with the people of Israel. However, it is precisely the sanctity of the land that invalidates Zionism in his eyes.

Exile, from the perspective of Jewish religious tradition, is a punishment for the sins of the Jews, who were deemed by the Almighty to be unworthy of the holy soil. Seen from this perspective, messianic redemption can only be the result of a widespread turning to the life and ideals of Torah, an opportunity for living a full and devout life of sanctity in an environment untainted by profanity. Such a redemption will be accomplished miraculously, by the hand of God.

The reality of Zionism demonstrated clearly that it was the antithesis of those traditional ideas. At no other period in its history was the Jewish community so corrupted by the influences of secularism and modernity. The Zionist leadership consisted primarily of freethinkers who had abandoned the Torah and its precepts in favour of foreign ideologies.

Of course, Rabbi Zadok's arguments have remained virtually unchanged until today, and they can still be heard even from individuals who currently sit in the Israeli parliament. Ultimately, his principal objections are not to Zionism per se, as much as they are to the Zionists. Whatever the reasons, it is an undeniable historical fact that, from its beginnings, the Jewish nationalist cause came to be dominated by figures who were actively hostile to traditional Judaism and its rabbinic leadership.

Although Rabbi Zadok and his many successors are able to support their position with learned talmudic proof texts and theological arguments about the impropriety of human interference in the divine historical plan, there is no doubt in my historian's mind that all those arguments must be viewed as secondary to the fundamental power struggle between two rival claimants to communal leadership. Of course, that century-old struggle is still playing itself out in Israel and abroad.

Religious Support for Zionism:


From everything that has been said so far you might get the impression that all the major movements of religious Judaism were inimical to the Jewish national movement for one reason or the other. While this was generally the case until the actual establishment of the Jewish state, there were some significant exceptions to the pattern.

Indeed there were a number of rabbis who were calling for the establishment of Jewish settlements in Eretz Israel well before Herzel. These includes such figures as Zvi Hirsch Kallischer, Joseph Mohilever and Judah Alkalai. Although all these figures invoked the religious vocabulary of messianism and sacred soil, maintaining that there is nothing in Jewish belief that rules out the possibility a human initiative, it is important to note that their chief motivations were identical to those of Herzel and the secular Zionists, based on a realistic assessment of the bleak situation of European Jewry, especially under the viciously antisemitic policies of the Russian Czars, and a pragmatic understanding of the political options available. This basic approach found expression in the founding manifesto of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement in the wake of the fifth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1902:

In the lands of the Diaspora the soul of our people--our holy Torah--can no longer be preserved in its full strength, nor can the commandments, which comprise the entire spiritual life of the people, because the times are besieging us with difficult demands...
The Mizrachi perceived Zionism primarily as an antidote to assimilation and persecution, hoping that the national revival would also generate a spiritual renaissance when Jews were given the opportunity to live whole and undiluted religious lives on their ancestral land. They barely mention the eschatological dimensions (though there were of course formidable exceptions to this pattern, such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook), and the Mizrachi continued to make common cause with the mainstream secular and socialist streams of the Zionist movement.


American Reform Judaism also included a small but influential pro-Zionist faction whose importance increased as the movement's original German constituency became outnumbered by Jews of Eastern European extraction. As early as 1937, the Columbus Platform affirmed their commitment to Jewish peoplehood. While confirming that Jews must be patriotic citizens of the lands where they reside, the Platform also stated:

In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish cultural and spiritual life.
And those of you who are familiar with present-day Jerusalem--Have you ever wondered how it happened that the Israeli government ever consented to turn over one of the capital's juiciest pieces of real estate, next to the King David Hotel, to the Hebrew Union College, the seminary of a movement that is all but outlawed in Israel? The rumour in wide circulation--which I personally find completely plausible--has it that this privilege was granted in return for vital assistance that had been given to the Zionists prior to the War of Independence by the institute's president, the distinguished biblical archeologist Nelson Glueck whose extensive excavations in Transjordan had been accompanied by valuable intelligence gathering.


If Zionism proved problematic to the Reform movement as well as to the Orthodox traditionalists in both Eastern and Western Europe, it should be noted that there was one branch of religious Judaism for whom the commitment to Jewish peoplehood led to an unswerving support for Zionism. I am referring to the "Positive Historical" school founded by Zacharias Frankel which evolved into the Conservative Movement in America. This movement had its origins in 1846 at the Breslau Conference of the Reform movement, from which Frankel walked out in anger because he felt that the Reformers were turning Judaism into a theological abstraction without due appreciation of the centrality of Jewish peoplehood and historical continuity (as demonstrated in their belittling the place of the Hebrew language in the liturgy). Support (often unrequited) for the Zionist enterprise and for Israel have remained a feature of Conservative Judaism throughout its history.

The Question of Borders before and after 1967

The issue of defining Israel's proper borders was of limited importance as a religious question during the earlier period of Zionist activity. While there was a general recognition that Jews had rights over both sides of the Jordan, and some real expectation that they might obtain it all as long as it was all included in the British mandate, the force of historical circumstances forced most Zionists to lower their sights and be glad to get any part of Palestine--or, according to some factions, even a substitute like Uganda or Madagascar. The Revisionist opposition to the acceptance of the UN. partition plan was a matter of political ideology, and not primarily a religious issue.

After Statehood

As for the other movements, many of the early controversies were rendered moot by history. The tragic plight of the displaced remnants of the Holocaust made the establishment of the Jewish national home into a matter of urgency, and once the State of Israel had become a fact, there no longer seemed to be much point to the heated debates of previous decades. To be sure, there were still extreme factions in both the Reform and Orthodox camps whose ideological opposition to Zionism persisted even after statehood, but most of the world's Jews became committed to the survival of the fragile state and its population of refugees. Indicative of this consensus was the widespread adoption of Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday with a status similar to Hanukkah or Purim.

Although messianic allusions, and their implications as regards the extent of Israel's territory, were part of the rhetoric of both secular and religious Zionists, they did not occupy a prominent place in either, since with the rise of Hitler there were enough immediate concerns to occupy the Zionists and to justify their original minimalist programme of providing a place of refuge for persecuted Jews. The miraculous proportions of the Jewish victory in the War of Independence were not lost on its contemporaries; nor were the conceptual links to the gruesome catastrophes that were expected to precede the redemption--the "War of Gog and Magog" or the "birth pangs of the Messiah"--according to the traditional Jewish eschatological scenario. Nevertheless, I think it is accurate to say that when religious Jews recited the Hallel on the first Yom Ha'atzma'ut it was for most of them as a song of thanksgiving, and not out of a belief that the Messiah had arrived or was at the door.

After the Six-Day War

A watershed in the evolution of religious attitudes towards Israel occurred in 1967. By this time an entire generation of religious Israelis had been quietly educated according to a religious ideology that focused disproportionately on territorial and messianic components of Jewish tradition. The unification of Jerusalem and the expansion of Israel's borders suddenly lent new relevance to those themes, and there was a surprising receptivity to those ideas among a public that no longer felt satisfied by the various secularist ideologies that had provided motivation to their parents and grandparents. Viewed as the unstoppable unfolding of a preordained historical process, the expansion of Israel's borders became a central priority in the agenda of Israeli religious Zionism. This idea also proved attractive to some non-religious nationalists who could not justify their territorial claims on political or military grounds.

This momentous transformation of religious Zionism into a messianic movement can be felt on a number of planes. In particular, it has involved a delegitimization of the secular Zionist agenda to which the classic Mizrachi movement had adhered. In the Israeli religious schools, religious devotion is equated with patriotism of a sort that can pit the believer against the elected government; since democracy itself is seen as a questionable institution from the perspective of traditional Judaism. Pragmatic and moral considerations tend to be ignored in favour of ritualistic points of halakhah and dogma. History is rewritten or reinterpreted in such a way that the traditional spiritual links to the holy land as expressed in medieval times through prayer or pilgrimage, are presented as the authentic Zionism. The commitment to religiously defined territorial boundaries is expressed as an absolute obligation, not as a component that must be weighed against other moral and pragmatic factors.

In significant ways, I believe that this type of religious nationalism has more in common with the earlier religious anti-Zionists than with the mainstream Jewish Zionist movement, religious or otherwise. Like Rabbi Zadok Hacohen, it rejects any attempt at Jewish sovereignty that is not part of the messianic scheme. Like those myopic rabbis of earlier generations, it prefers to cite biblical or talmudic concepts rather than confronting the complexities of ethical decisions, politics or historical needs. The decisive difference is, of course, whether or not one believes that we are living in messianic times.

An instructive illustration of these phenomena may be seen in the varying attitudes towards the two calendar celebrations related to events in Israeli history, Israeli Independence day and Jerusalem Liberation Day. As I noted above, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut was adopted as a religious celebration in recognition of its momentous importance in Jewish history, particularly as a haven for the remnants of the Holocaust. The festival's validity was in no way seen as dependent on eschatological considerations. By contrast, when Yom Yerushalayim came to be celebrated after the Six Day War it was clear that it was no mere commemoration of a military victory, but rather it was tied specifically to a particular piece of sacred territory.

Now the whole concept of "holy places" that derive their sanctity from historical associations is an unusual phenomenon in Jewish tradition. The Bible did not even bother to preserve the locations of many of its most important events, let alone establish days to celebrate conquests or liberations.

Thus, the creation of a modern holiday built around Jerusalem should be recognized as an uncommon occurrence in Judaism, though it is fully consistent with a religious mentality that attaches tremendous importance to soil and territory. What strikes me as even more intriguing is the fact that in Israeli national-religious circles, Jerusalem Day has rapidly eclipsed Independence Day in importance. Whereas a generation ago it was standard for religious Zionists to observe Yom Ha'Atzma'ut with the recitation of a full Hallel (in spite of the equivocations of the official rabbinate), the current norm is to recite full Hallel with blessings only on Jerusalem Day, while relegating Yom Ha'Atzma'ut to the dubious status of half-Hallel without blessings. In addition to distancing themselves thereby from the mainstream Zionist tradition, I would venture to suggest that this trend also reveals their preference for the Land of Israel over the people of Israel in their scale of values.

Although people and land are both cherished values in Judaism, I believe that it is the question the relative importance of the two that will define the agendas of the religious Zionists camps for the foreseeable future.

But of course, in the context of Jewish history "foreseeable future" is something of an oxymoron.

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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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[1] Talk presented to the Jewish Federation of Edmonton, May 22, 1997