I had been engaged in dialogue for two years with an imam from the Middle East, a gentle and seemingly moderate man. One day, in the middle of our conversation, he turned to me and asked, “Why do you Jews need a land? After all, Judaism is a religion, not a country or a nation.”
I decided at that point to discontinue the dialogue. There are 56 Islamic states and more than 100 nations in which Christians form the majority of the population. There is only one Jewish state, 1/25th the size of France, roughly the same size as the Kruger National Park in South Africa. With those who believe that Jews, alone among the nations of the world, are not entitled to their own land, it is hard to hold a conversation.
Yet the question is worth exploring. There is no doubt, as D.J. Clines explains in his book, The Theme of the Pentateuch, that the central narrative of the Torah is the promise of and journey to the land of Israel. Yet why is this so? Why did the people of the covenant need their own land? Why was Judaism not, on the one hand, a religion that can be practiced by individuals wherever they happen to be, or on the other, a religion like Christianity or Islam whose ultimate purpose is to convert the world so that everyone can practice the one true faith?
The best way of approaching an answer is through an important comment of the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi; born Gerona, 1194, died in Israel, 1270) on this week’s parshah. Chapter 18 contains a list of forbidden sexual practices. It ends with this solemn warning:
Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. The land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws … If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Leviticus 18:24-28).
The Ramban asks the obvious question. Reward and punishment in the Torah are based on the principle of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. The punishment must fit the sin or crime. It makes sense to say that if the Israelites neglected or broke mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz, the commands relating to the land of Israel, the punishment would be exile from the land of Israel. So the Torah says in the curses in Parshat Bechukotai: “All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it” (Leviticus 26:35). This means: This will be the punishment for not observing the laws of shemittah, the sabbatical year. Shemittah is a command relating to the land. Therefore the punishment for its non-observance is exile from the land.
But sexual offenses have nothing to do with the land. They are mitzvot hateluyot baguf, commands relating to person, not place. Ramban answers by stating that all the commands are intrinsically related to the land of Israel. It is simply not the same to put on tefillin or keep kashrut or observe Shabbat in the Diaspora as in Israel. To support his position he quotes the Talmud (Ketubot 110b) that says, “Whoever lives outside the land is as if he had no God” and the Sifre that states, “Living in the land of Israel is of equal importance to all the commandments of the Torah.” The Torah is the constitution of a holy people in the holy land.
Ramban explains this mystically but we can understand it non-mystically by reflecting on the opening chapters of the Torah and the story told about the human condition and about God’s disappointment with the only species – us – He created in His image. God sought a humanity that would freely choose to do the will of its Creator. Humanity chose otherwise. Adam and Eve sinned. Cain murdered his brother Abel. Within a short time “the earth was filled with violence” and God “regretted that he had made human beings on earth.” He brought a flood and began again, this time with the righteous Noah. But again humans disappointed by building a city with a tower on which they sought to reach heaven, and God chose another way of bringing humanity to recognize him – this time not by universal rules (though these remained, namely the covenant with all humanity through Noah), but by a living example: Abraham, Sarah, and their children.
In Genesis 18 the Torah makes clear what God sought from Abraham: that he would teach his children and his household after him “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” Homo sapiens is, as both Aristotle and Maimonides said, a social animal, and righteousness and justice are features of a good society. We know from the story of Noah and the ark that righteous individuals can save themselves but not the society in which they live, unless they transform the society in which they live.