The Question That Simply Won’t Go Away

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The so-called “land-for-peace” debate has been vigorously, even ruthlessly, fought for so many years already; it will not go away. This exhausting, existential dilemma for our fellow brethren in Israel has invariably resulted in toxic denominational factionalism.

Parshat Devarim
Shabbat Chazon
Earlier this summer, on our congregational tour to Israel, we stopped by the Supreme Court for a pre-scheduled visit and had the opportunity to sit in on a case presided over by Deputy President Elyakim Rubinstein and two of his colleagues.
From what we learned, the dispute centered around the use of a Palestinian farmer’s land for the purpose of passing a water line meant only for Jewish settlers. This case involved questions pertaining to property infringements and eminent domain and whether the plaintiff, in this case, might be entitled to the same aquatic benefits as the settlers.
I thought of this recent visit when writing this column because it highlighted, yet again, one of the persistent, perplexing, perennial questions for Israelis and Palestinians alike that simply won’t go away: How best do we determine the allotment of land?
The opening chapter of Deuteronomy seems to infer that the Israelites, in their conquering of the land, were free to subjugate the indigenous tribes present at the time. “… go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors … see, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to give to them and to their offspring after them,” (Dt. 1:6-8).
The same theme is repeated a little later: “See, the Lord your God has placed the land at your disposal. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you. Fear not and be not dismayed,” (v. 21).
The tone of the very next chapter, however, is decidedly different. Whereas the first chapter of Devarim seems to suggest that the Israelites were given carte blanche to subdue their foes and appropriate their lands, the second chapter is decidedly more cautious.
“You will pass through the territory of the descendants of Esau who live in Seir … I will not give you of their land as much as a foot can tread on …,” (Dt. 2:4-5). Likewise: “Do not harass the Moabites or engage them in war. For I will not give you any of their land as possession …,” (v. 9). Not only are the descendants of Esau and the Moabites to be left alone but the Ammonites, too! “Do not harass or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of their land to you as a possession,” (v. 19).
In reading, carefully and comprehensively, about the Israelites’ conquest of the land, we may deduce that other peoples enjoyed certain inalienable land rights and that God was going to protect them, too.
My teacher, Rabbi Dow Marmur, boldly suggests that the opening chapters of Parashat Devarim might be considered a commentary on the contemporary situation in Israel.
He quotes, in turn, the distinguished Orthodox scholar, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “The uniqueness of the Jewish people should not be sought in its conquest of the land, not in its settlement, and not in dispossessing other nations, but in what is incumbent upon it, to do in that land.” Is this to be regarded as both an emphatic and empathic endorsement that within the Land of Israel “resides” (literally and figuratively!) the notion of more than one “state”?
For Leibowitz, the deciding factor is not Jewish conquest but Jewish conduct, and that the latter is best determined by following the mitzvot and not maximizing possession of the land.
Can we infer from this that the clear and present danger to the modern state of Israel is not to be found at the militaristic level but rather the moralistic? That the integrity of statehood is ultimately challenged by an unwavering and scrupulous commitment to Jewish teachings?
The so-called “land-for-peace” debate has been vigorously, even ruthlessly, fought for so many years already; it will not go away. This exhausting, existential dilemma for our fellow brethren in Israel has invariably resulted in toxic denominational factionalism. Let us not forget that well-known reason for the destruction of the ancient temples, according to the Talmud (Gittin 58a), was the presence of sinat chinam — the unwarranted hatred, the causeless animosity between and among Jews.
Have we returned to an earlier age of recrimination and victimization that Torah, prophets and the Talmud have all cautioned us against? We all know that the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the very shadow of the Temple Mount, has been and continues to be, the latest battleground over Jewish hegemony.
Will we ever see, in our lifetime, the largest and most revered open-air synagogue in the world become the rightful and undisputed domain of each and every Jew, regardless of religious denomination and gender identification?
Parashat Devarim is a timely and critical reminder to us all — whether adjudicating in the courtroom or genuflecting in the prayer hall — that eternal Jewish values and timeless Jewish teachings truly matter.
Robert S. Leib is the senior rabbi at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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