As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “Are Jews the inheritors of Eretz Yisrael?” Here are their responses:
Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, The New Israel Fund, NY: We need to distinguish between religion and geopolitics. Jews have a deep spiritual connection to Eretz Yisrael, beginning in the Torah and continuing through scores of generations of Jewish longing for a homeland. That is different from the political reality of the modern State of Israel and its borders. The Tanakh is our holy text. But it does not give us the exclusive right to a political region. We are not the only people with ancient and sacred ties to that land. Recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination does not negate the political entity of a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel, nor does it undermine our religious connection to the biblical Eretz Israel.
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: Many people lay claim to the land of Israel. It is past time that both Jews and Arabs begin to listen to each others’ narratives and hear the pain and partial truths that are on both sides. Only when each side can really sit and listen to the other will we be able to begin to sort out the claims to the land.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: Jews don’t own the land of Israel. As God says in Leviticus 25:23: “The land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and residents with Me.” Rashi’s first commentary on the Torah explains that God gave Israel to the Jews. But this is commonly misunderstood. His point is that God can decide to give the land to anyone. Our presence there is conditional: “And you shall observe all My statutes and all My ordinances, and fulfill them; then the Land… will not vomit you out.” (Leviticus 20:22). The more we act like we’re entitled to the land, the sooner we’ll be vomited out.
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: Anyone who takes the Bible seriously — and that is usually Christians more so than Jews — must believe that all of Israel — from the river to the sea — was given to the Jewish people. The purchase of Hebron by Abraham, of Nablus by Joseph, and of Jerusalem by King David, are recorded in the Bible. It’s hard to understand why Christian Evangelicals take this seriously, but most Jews don’t. The fact is, the Jewish people living today in the land of Israel are the same people, living on the same land, speaking the same language, observing the same religion as the people living in Israel thousands of years ago. It may very well be that for the sake of peace, some of the land may have to be given to the Palestinians. But it should be clear that we are giving them some of our land!
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”:Eretz Yisrael doesn’t just mean the literal land, but also an idea, and an ideal. We are the inheritors of the idea of a civilization based on justice, equality, and holiness. That idea is one we can share with everyone and make real everywhere – and I think we have a special calling and obligation to do so in the spiritual homeland we now call the State of Israel. In a broader sense, our challenge is learning how to live righteously — whether in Diaspora or in the Land of Israel — as part of a diverse and multicultural Jewish people, and as part of a diverse and multicultural human family.
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: No one inherits or owns any piece of land; we’re at best stewards of the earth wherever we may live. We’re the inheritors of a vision, a purpose, and of endless struggles, triumphs and tragedies trying to fulfill it in a place we’ve called home for thousands of years. Like most beneficiaries, we argue over our inheritance — its size, proportion, value and fairness. And we wrestle with having to share it with others. But as important as claiming our inheritance is ensuring our ability to pass it on — its significance as much as its substance.
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Base Hillel:Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is not Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is not only a physical place; it is a spiritual destination, a place of longing, the same locale that God commanded Abraham and all Jews to seek, a spiritual home. The Bible is clear in suggesting a correlation between Jewish behavior and our right to dwell in the physical Land of Israel. When we sin, we are exiled. Gone are the days, though, where such a dichotomous fate awaits our people. Through thousands of years of homelessness, our ancient homeland, the Land of Israel, was never far from the Jewish imagination. The Pslamist declares the “Earth is the Lord’s.” We are merely tenants here. Inasmuch as we are only visitors, though, Eretz Yisrael is the permanent rental property of the Jewish people and it is incumbent upon the Jewish stewards of God’s land to serve as a light unto the nations to any and all who call this land home.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Author of “Torah of the Street, Torah of the Heart”: Yes, the land of Israel is a perpetual Jewish inheritance. But, it’s also important to separate the timeless religious vision of Judaism with contemporary ethics. As Jews, we must always have one eye trained toward our history and tradition. When it comes to the land of Israel, we celebrate the ancient endowment of the land to our ancestors and defend our holy connection to it. Yet, our other eye must be trained on contemporary ethics. Operating with the vision to foster peace and build international relationships is a vital concern. Finding this proper balance is our sacred obligation and existential challenge.
Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: Yes, we are. It’s the home from which we came, and, for most of the Jews in history, the land of our yearning. I think of it as an inheritance we (should) share, with Palestinians. But it is certainly our home, and our land. I hear a lot of contemporary Jews saying something else. Usually it’s phrased as, “Israel has nothing to do with my Jewish identity,” or “Israel has consumed Jewish identity. Why can’t we focus on the diaspora?” In this I hear something thoughtful: an assertion that our wanderings have contributed beauty and ethical understanding to us. We should not surrender those hard-earned lessons. But if we believe that we have a moral vision, let’s prove it. That will only come from fighting for its goodness, not denying our relationship to it.
Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey: The thrust of this question boils down to whether one views the tradition and transmission of Torah as being immutable and authentic, versus flexible and fictitious. The sacred lens through which my ancestors and teachers taught me the story of Abraham, embodies not a parable but a promise. It was amid the covenant between God and Abraham, wherein the Almighty promised the land of Israel to his descendants, following redemption from slavery. For countless generations, throughout bitter diasporas and exiles, we gathered at the Passover Seder singing of that agreement with the noted song, “V’hee She’amda,” which stands as an intergenerational reminder that no matter where we roam, we continue to hold on to that firm promise and long to return to our beloved land of Israel.
Denise Eger, Reform, The Central Conference of American Rabbis: I do believe that the Jewish people are the inheritors of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. The story of our ancestors in the Tanach tells us of God’s promise of this sacred land to our people. And it is a miracle that the modern state of Israel is about to observe 70 years as the Jewish democratic nation reborn. That being said, as inheritors of this sacred land, we also have an obligation to be responsible stewards of it and of all those who live there. And yes, we have an obligation to make peace with our neighbors — the Palestinians and other nations. The current situation is untenable and is corrosive to the values of Israel the nation and to Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: Religious Jews and Muslims would get along well if we stopped trying to kill each other. We are all monotheists with strict religious rituals and diets. Together, we dissent from the permissive, consumerist ethos that dominates the Western world. We can and must live together fruitfully in the land God gave to the Jews. Jews have lived in and contributed to the following Christian countries without calling for the abolition of the state religion: England, Greece, Finland, Argentina, Bolivia, Denmark, and more. The state of Israel can have a state religion, as well, without minorities feeling alienated. English Jews are proud of their English heritage. Israeli Muslims should be proud of their Israeli heritage, as well.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: No one on earth has a claim to Israel more than the Jews. There is no second place nor runner up. We are the natural heirs and our unshakable title to this holy geography is evidenced irrefutably by archeology, linguistics, language, literature, history, liturgy, culture and 3500 years of absolute fidelity and longing. Even when in exile and even when others ruled the land, it belonged to the Jews. The revisionists of today are motivated not by facts but by hateful mythology and a counterfeit history.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Yes. And our inheritance is to learn how to share.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: It is clear from the Torah that G-d gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as an eternal inheritance and homeland.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: If Eretz Yisrael refers to the Biblical boundaries of Israel, we should be the inheritors of it, but we will not be. If the Palestinians demonstrate they have abandoned the goal of destroying Israel, there will be a Palestinian state in part of Biblical Israel, including our second holiest city, Hebron. If it truly brings peace, it is a price Israel will gladly pay. However, this in no way diminishes the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland in Israel within safe and secure borders. That is not only our inheritance. It is our right. We have a perfectly good word for those who believe in that right, but we have let our enemies co-opt and distort it. I am reclaiming it. I do not describe myself as pro-Israel. I am a proud Zionist.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: The first comment that Rashi wrote in his commentary to the Torah stated that God created the world and God can decide to whom each part of the Earth belongs. God gave the Jewish people the land of Israel. It is our right and heritage. The Jewish people are also the indigenous people of the land of Israel. They have the longest claim to the land.
Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah:Eretz Yisrael is central to Judaism, from the moment that God commands Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and head toward the Promised Land. For thousands of years following the destruction of the Temple, Jews have prayed for a return to Eretz Yisrael, and mourned our expulsion. Anyone who denies the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael erases our history and a major piece of our practice and theology. That said, Eretz Yisrael is not the same as Medinat Yisrael — the modern state of Israel. I believe strongly in the right of Jews — like every other people — to have a political state in our homeland. But that doesn’t mean that the boundaries of Medinat Yisrael must exactly match those of Eretz Yisrael. We must acknowledge that the Palestinians also have a legitimate claim to same land. It is possible — and desirable — to establish a boundary for Medinat Yisrael that recognizes both the political reality and the fundamental human rights of Palestinians, including the right to the state. But that doesn’t mean giving up our religious connection to Eretz Yisrael; as was the case for thousands of years, we can retain that connection even without demanding that every piece of Eretz Yisrael be incorporated into a modern state.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: We can take G-d’s word for it that we indeed are. And we wouldn’t have survived as long as we did if He would not have kept his word. As Ben Gurion put it, “in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” He hasn’t told us, however, when we are to take full, irrevocable possession, which won’t be until the coming of the Messiah. And in both the present and future there is room for non-Jews who abide by basic moral laws. Meanwhile, calling ourselves inheritors of the Land – true as it may be – does not meet the needs of the Jewish State, which must fend off the attempts of Palestinians and others to delegitimize our claim to our small country. With the exception of some of our Christian allies (and a shrinking number at that), others need to be convinced of the justice of our stake in the Holy Land through entirely secular arguments, which accurately and soberly lay out our case in historical and moral terms.
Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: Land, like any inheritance, may have many heirs. “Land where my fathers died” is adopted by American immigrants, including Jews, whose fathers lie elsewhere. This verse does not eliminate Native American roots or historical developments – they co-exist. The Jewish people — those with historic roots and new “adoptees” — are heirs to Eretz Yisrael. This does not cancel other claims developed in the course of history. In the Torah, a son eliminated any daughter’s inheritance. Today, we do not need to demand the firstborn’s right in order to have a just claim. We are heirs, but not the only ones.
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School:Eretz Yisrael is the inheritance of the Jewish people. Zionism means that every Jew has a place in the Land of Israel if they choose to take it. Yet there is space — horizontal and vertical — for other people in the land. Another nation may even see the land as theirs. There is a cat that thinks he owns our front yard. We think it belongs to us. Really, it belongs to Hashem and the bank! The Jews have a divine right to live in safety and freedom on the land, but there is room for other nations to do the same, as long as they don’t infringe on the Jewish inheritance.
Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: Yes, see Genesis 26:3.