A desert in Israel (illustrative).
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
‘The reason that the Bible begins with the creation of the world,” US Ambassador David Friedman told National Public Radio on Monday, “is to create the chain of title from God directly to the Jewish people for the land of Israel, so that if the nations of the world say that the Jewish people don’t own the land of Israel, they would point to the fact that God created the world and gave it to them.”
Setting aside the fact that the nations of the world may not accept the Torah’s authority (or that of the medieval exegete Rashi, whom Friedman cites for this interpretation), it’s worth asking whether the Torah really says that God “gave” the land of Israel to the Jewish people to “own”? And does the Torah really say that national ownership of land is a good thing? No and no.
To be sure, the Torah prefigures the 19th century idea of the nation, and it captures what is so appealing about that idea: nations give every individual “citizen” a secure place both on this earth and in a community, with institutions that can provide meaning, protection and prosperity. This was the promise of the Exodus and it is the promise of modern Zionism.
But if nationalism has its appeal, it also has its issues. The core problem is that it naturalizes the link between nation and land even though that link always results from (often violent) struggles that produce winners and losers. Is Alsace part of France or of Germany? What language should reign in Montreal? Why don’t the Kurds get a state? Why are the Romany treated as outsiders in the lands they are from, and why are Mexican- Americans considered national minorities in the American southwest? National myths tend to sweep such difficulties under the carpet, only to see them reappear again and again.
But the Torah confronts this core problem directly. It argues against the naturalization of the link between nation and land, and for the moral primacy of minorities.
Consider Moses’s speeches in Deuteronomy: after 40 years of wandering, a new generation is eager to cross into the Promised Land and fulfill its parents’ dreams. The talk on the eastern bank of the Jordan must have revolved around the land; there are at least 65 references to it in Deuteronomy.
But nowhere in Deuteronomy (or in the Torah more generally) is the land described as the “Land of Israel”! Instead, Moses employs an ever-changing array of cumbersome descriptors such as “land flowing with milk and honey”; “land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”; and “land that is under God’s scrutiny.”
Only once does Moses give it a name: Canaan.
Why? Because Moses is cautioning us against naturalizing the connection between nation and land.
Accordingly, Moses explicitly describes Israel as undeserving; it is instead the immorality of the predecessor nations that has given them this opportunity (Deut. 9:4-5; cf., Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:28). And the Torah features two long and presciently dark passages – one in Leviticus (26) and one in Deuteronomy (28) – where it is foreseen that Israel will lose its hold on the land for extended periods and suffer long years in exile because it will fail to heed God.
So, yes God “gives” the land to Israel. But title is not transferred; it is more like a lease that can be revoked at any time depending on the behavior of the tenant. God alone owns the earth (Exodus 19:5), and all nations are “sojourning foreigners” in it (Leviticus 25:23). Israel is thus never to take its hold on the land for granted (Deut. 8:17); to avoid exile, it must continue to recognize the land as a gift from God and to emulate God’s holy ways (Lev. 19:2).
In answering the question of “Hear O Israel, what does God ask of you,” Moses (Deut. 10:12-19) Moses succinctly brings these ideas together, with a notable climax.
To know that God is creator of the world is to know that “The heaven, the heaven of heaven, the earth and everything in it, all belong to God!” Yes “He loved [your ancestors] and therefore chose you, their descendants, from among all nations,” but this has an implication unmentioned by Friedman: “you must remove the barriers from your heart” and emulate God’s lead: “God your Lord is the ultimate Supreme Being and the highest possible Authority. He is the great, mighty and awesome God, who does not give special consideration or take bribes. He brings justice to the orphan and widow, and loves the foreigner, granting him food and clothing. You must also show love toward the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
Yes, God promises the land to Israel, but Israel realizes this promise only when it emulates God in maintaining a high moral standard. Most notably, this entails being solicitous of the socially and economically vulnerable; and it implies Israel must love the foreigners in its midst.
Religious Zionists like the US ambassador argue that the commandment to love the foreigner applies only to those who accept Israel’s sovereignty over the land. Perhaps.
And perhaps that’s a dangerously narrow reading.
Regardless, it’s clear the US ambassador’s doesn’t grasp the Torah’s message: it is God, not the Jewish people, who “own” the land of Israel; and Jewish exercise of “title” hinges on the moral standard Israel maintains, especially in its treatment of minorities.
More generally, those who wish the Torah to guide their nationalist projects must stop straining to hear the Torah’s purported proclamation of support for their maximalist claims; they must instead open their ears to the Torah’s subtle, wise message that points to a more moral, compassionate form of nationalism.The author is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is deputy dean.
His opinions are personal views and do not represent any institution. He tweets at @ewzucker.
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