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.