Thursday, January 6, 2011

Raising the perfect grapes: The religious significance of the Land of Israel

I was recently asked by a Muslim student about the religious significance of the Land of Israel to Jews. This is of course a huge and important question. I am a little daunted. Rather than try to give an answer. (The truth as always is that there are multiple answers) let me offer something to stimulate our thought. This material is from a famous Judeo-Arabic book the Kitab –Al Khazari by Rabbi Yehudah haLevi, written in the 11th century.

The book is framed as a dialogue between the King of the Khazars (a Turkic tribe in search of a religion) and a Rabbi. In the course of their discussions, the king asks the Rabbi ”Just how important is the Land of Israel?” The king is genuinely perplexed by the whole concept of a “Holy Land.” Land is land? So what is the "holy" all about. I think a lot of us share his question.

[A note on terminology .The 19th century translation of the Kuzari uses “Palestine” as the then current geo-political designation which I preserved. The Hebrew translation of the original Arabic text uses “Eretz Yisrael” “the Land of Israel”. Many religious Jews, including myself, may avoid the use of the simple term “Israel” to distinguish between “Medinat Yisrael” the “State of Israel” “Eretz Yisrael” the “Land of Israel.” The latter has clear religious significance as the land given to our ancestors for the particular service of G-d. The former may or may not. That itself is a great subject of debate within contemporary Judaism.]

Here is what the Rabbi responds on the importance of Palestine/Land of Israel…

“The Rabbi: Here is how important it is in our scriptures. It says: All roads lead up to Palestine [The Land of Israel], but none from it. Concerning a woman who refuses to go there with her husband, they decreed that she is divorced, and forfeits her marriage settlement. On the other hand, if the husband refuses to accompany his wife to Palestine, he is bound to divorce her and pay her settlement. They further say: It is better to dwell in the Holy Land, even in a town mostly inhabited by idolaters than abroad in a town chiefly peopled by Jews; for he who dwells in the Holy Land is compared to him who has a G-d, whilst he who dwells abroad is compared to him who has no G-d. Thus says David: 'For they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods' (1 Sam. xxvi. 19), which means that he who dwells abroad is as if he served strange gods. They praise him who is in the land more than him who is carried there after death. This is expressed thus: He who embraces it when alive is not like him who does so after his death. They say concerning him who could live there, but did not do so, and only ordered his body to be carried thither after his death:. Other sayings are: Fines can only be imposed in the land itself; no slave must be transported abroad, and many similar regulations. Further, the atmosphere of the Holy Land makes one wise. They expressed their love of the land as follows: He who walks four yards in the land is assured of happiness in the world to come.”

This paragraph expresses nicely just how important the Land of Israel is to Jews.
Still it doesn't really answer the why.

Later in the book, The Kitab al-Khuzari addresses the "Why?" question an analogy or parable (a mashal) which beautifully describes the relationship between the Jewish people and the land. He compares to Jewish people to a grape vine and the land of Israel to a hillside which is perfect for growing grapes. Other plants could grow there but its perfect for grapes. Similarly, the grapes could grow somewhere else but they would never be quite as sweet. This hill has just the right kind of soil and just the right exposure to sun for growing grape vines. Now, if you planted these grapes on that perfect land but failed to water and fertilize them them, they might survive but they would be stunted and bitter.. Rabbi Yehudah haLevi compares the commandments of the Torah to the watering and nurturing of the plants. So when you take the grape vine of the Jewish people [just the right people] and put them in that land [just the right land] and nourish them with the commandments of the Torah [just the right treatment], they flourish and produce the perfect fruit. So the flourishing of the Jewish people depends both on being rooted in the Land of Israel and on the nourishment of G-d's commandments.

It is a beautiful parable and I have often contemplated it. It raises some interesting questions.

What does it say about the diaspora experience? (Grapes planted on foreign soil)
What does it say about non-Jews in the land? (Other plants)
What does it say about the secular state? (a vineyard without cultivation)

I invite others to share their thoughts. These posts are really meant only to stimulate thought and discussion.


  1. Shaalom:

    As a Muslim, I struggle to respond to this. I think you know that. Also, I feel I have a unique perspective on this because I was Jewish before I re-verted to Islaam. I still have Zionist family members.

    Do Jews feel they cannot be Jewish outside of Palestine? Must all Jews be in Palestine - "other plants" be damned?

    Must all Muslims live in Saudi Arabia or some other "Muslim" country? Witness the treatment of Jews and Christians in "Muslim" countries. Witness the treatment of non-Jews in Israel.

    Is this what He, the Source of Peace wants?

    Palestine belongs to all monothestic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. We all share in its history. We all have a religious right to it.

    Why do the Zionists insist it only belongs to them?!

    Your turn, Lee!

    1. great work my muslim sister islam will rule oh and by the way did you know your name is the same as one of the wives of the prophet (saw) who was also jewish

  2. w'aleikkum salaam Saffiya!
    Thank you for your thoughtful response.
    B’ezrat Hashem – with the help of G-d, I will do my best to respond sincerely.

    We struggle over many of the same issues. I am haunted by the question. Is this really He wants from us? The last Mishnah (the most authoritative collection of Rabbinic teachings)states that "G-d could find no vessel to hold his blessings (brachot /baraka) but peace." Without peace, the peace between nations, the peace between individuals and the peace in ourselves, we are unable to accept the blessings of G-d. How do we dare to come to accept the bounty of our Creator with a leaky bucket? We can see it with our own eyes, people who really mean to do good torn apart by strife, by hatred and suspicion. I can’t stand it any more. I can’t stand seeing what it does to people. That’s what this effort is about. The Talmud says, “One who does not rebuild the Temple in his lifetime, it is as if he destroyed it.” Or in 60’s lingo, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

    I have come to believe that people can live together. I woke up early for selichot prayers during the month of repentance, Elul. I would see my neighbor Ahmed’s lights on as well. It strengthened me to know that he was preparing to pray. I prayed that his taubah (repentance) should be accepted. What a beautiful thing was happening on this little suburban street! I hope that I inspired him on occasion too. As I have gotten to know my Muslim neighbors, I have met many on a path like mine, struggling with themselves, searching for connection to G-d, for more faith , more sincerity and more awareness of G-d’s presence in conformity with His will. The purpose of this effort is to help folks develop relationships with each other, to know each other. We can’t want to be neighbors til we know each other.

    I believe the same is possible in Eretz Yisrael. Further I believe that there is something powerful in the coming together of the Abrahamic faiths in Eretz Yisrael that can be a model for the entire world. Hamas’ Sheikh Yassin once said to Rabbi Menachem Froman (the Rabbi of Tekoa) “With YOU I could make peace in 5 minutes.” “Why?” he asked.. “Because you and I both know who the land really belongs to – it belongs to G-d, the rest is just figuring out who lives where.” (slight paraphrase) Seems to me there is a great truth in that.

    At the same time, I believe that the Torah does teach of a unique relationship between the Jewish people and the land. It’s a complicated relationship. It requires a lot of Jews to live in the land. There are special mitzvot that apply to the land. We are warned over and over again that failure to live properly in the land will ensure an utter lack of security and eventual exile. Its pretty sobering stuff. But as my wife put it to me we have a “hard wired” connection to the land that is independent of “Zionist” nationalist ideology. I think the Kuzari’s allegory expresses that nicely. Though we might flourish elsewhere, there is perhaps a special possibility for us in the Land of Israel. But if we have failed to achieve that possibility it is not because of the non-Jews in the land, it is because of materialism, ethnic chauvanism, secularism, militarism and other diseases of the heart. Halacha (jewish law) provides for a protected lifestyle for the Ger-toshav (the permanent resident) whose position is much like that of the Ahle Kitab in Sharia. They too are part of the spiritual life of the land.
    I am going to hold off on trying to answer your questions about a more exclusivist Zionist position. I am afraid I couldn’t really represent it well. I am going to look for someone who could answer you articulately. You may not like what you hear but I think there is a value in hearing each other and understanding.

    Again thank you for your input and please keep on participating. You have a unique voice and experience and it good to hear it.

  3. I am so glad to have stumbled on this blog. I am learning more about Judaism and its refreshing to see a new angle and a new spirit of openness through your blog. It's unfortunate that more people do not think the same way. I have already added this blog as my favorite places to visit and I look forward to learn more about Judaism and even other religions with an "open" eye and more importantly, an "open" mind.


  4. i agree with first person zionists are not jews israel persecutes religious jews and some rabbis have been tortured why bot let palestine rule you didnt have propblems thousands of years ago well except the european i think they were persecuted