Ask the Rabbi: Land for peace

Can you explain the halachic debates regarding the propriety of trading land for peace?

rabin shake 88 (photo credit: )
rabin shake 88
(photo credit: )
Q Can you explain the halachic debates regarding the propriety of trading land for peace? - D.F., Ra'anana A Based on anecdotal evidence, I would venture that I'm not the only Israeli who thinks that debaters regarding "land for peace" negotiations frequently do not speak the same language. The many complex issues, including differing historical narratives, theological perspectives and geopolitical outlooks, make it difficult, yet all-the-more essential, for people to better understand their interlocutor's perspective. Before discussing the legal debates surrounding this perennial issue, one must distinguish between the theoretical discourse and its practical implications. This essay will focus on the former, asking whether territorial concessions remain hypothetically legitimate. One might answer affirmatively, but assert that contemporary geopolitical realities render any deal imprudent or dangerous. Alternatively, one could claim that land concessions might prove strategically astute, yet condemn them as betrayals of our religious covenant. (In reality, the latter scenario occurs much less frequently.) Unfortunately, the mixing of religion and politics in Israel occasionally conflates these two distinct perspectives, creating much confusion and discord. The theoretical debate revolves around the balance of two important values: the commandment to settle the Land of Israel and the primacy of saving lives. In general, all commandments are pushed aside to save lives, excluding the proscriptions against murder, idolatry and illicit relations (Sanhedrin 74a). As such, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Tehumin 10) and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, among others, consistently contended that under satisfactory military and political conditions, Israel may cede control over contested territories to prevent further bloodshed. They further argued that just as doctors determine whether a person can fast on Yom Kippur, so too the relevant military and political experts should determine the probability of success for any peace deal. (The irresolute diplomatic stance of the Shas party reflects constant updates of its political assessments, not changes in its halachic position.) A number of scholars, such as Yeshivat Mercaz Harav deans Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (Tehumin 10) and Rabbi Avraham Shapira, challenged this thesis, contending that the commandment to conquer and settle the land inherently calls for endangering one's life. As Rabbi Yosef Babad (19th century, Galicia) noted, warfare naturally entails casualties on both sides, yet nonetheless the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:2) commands us to eradicate the seven biblical nations inhabiting the land (Minhat Hinuch 425:3). They further cited Nahmanides's codification of this commandment (Hashmatot Sefer Hamitzvot No. 4), which includes a communal obligation to gain sovereignty over the land, as well as its talmudic interpretation that forbids relinquishing control of any land to gentiles (Avoda Zara 20a). While this commandment does not obligate aggressive warfare, especially if destined to failure, it does prohibit withdrawing from previously conquered areas, especially for the sake of questionable security benefits. This remains particularly true for border areas, which the Talmud categorized as particularly important to protect, lest our enemies seize them toward deeper incursions (Eruvin 45a). Their interlocutors, however, cite sources that downplay the contemporary obligation to settle the land, as discussed in my previous column, while further contending that without the appropriate spiritual leadership, no warfare falls within the category of the biblical commandment of warfare. They further contend that the prohibition of relinquishing territory only applies toward idolaters (Sefer Hamitzvot No. 51), and then only when Israel maintains uninhibited control of the land, which it does not under current geopolitical conditions. More poignantly, they argued that the commandment, while permitting self-endangerment, does not obligate it, especially under inopportune circumstances. The approaches of Jeremiah, during the last days of the First Temple (Jeremiah 28-9) and Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, at the end of the Second Temple (Gitin 56b), both represent historical precedents for surrendering sovereignty to preserve Jewish life in the land. These cases, however, might be seen as desperate preservation attempts when defeat was inevitable, with the talmudic condemnation of Hezekiah's concessions to Assyria perhaps a better example (Pessahim 56a). Although not inherently connected, messianism sometimes plays an implicit role in this debate. Rabbis who perceive the state's founding and military victories as miraculous events heralding a messianic process (at'halta degeula) tend to view territorial concessions as defying this divine plan, although they may be interpreted as painful birth pangs (hevlei mashiah) in the redemption process. Religious Zionists like Rabbi Soloveitchik, who did not attribute eschatological meaning to Israel's founding, and certainly religious anti-Zionists, like Degel Hatorah party founder Rabbi Eliezer Schach (d. 2001), tend to view these matters in more pragmatic terms. Rabbi Yosef quotes Rabbi Haim Soloveitchik (d. 1918) who, when told that the unprecedented bloodshed of World War I must be redressed by the coming of the messiah, forcefully responded, "Better for the redemption to be delayed and the life of a single Jew saved. The commandment of saving lives overrides all commandments, including the coming of the messiah." One hopes that greater understanding of each other's perspectives will bring peace among ourselves, if not with our neighbors. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. Submit questions to: