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September 2, 2015 | 18th Elul 5775

Israel in the Torah VI

Galilee Diary #270
January 29, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

In looking at the Torah as a user manual for the land, it is interesting to note that the instructions can be divided into three categories, at least in terms of how they were understood by later generations:
a. Laws that apply to us as individuals wherever we live.
b. Laws that apply only in a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael – essentially the constitution of the monarchy with its official Temple cult; they do not apply, even in the land, if the government is not in our control.
c. Laws that apply only in Eretz Yisrael – primarily dealing with agriculture – without regard to whether or not we have sovereignty, or the Temple.

These distinctions are not intuitively obvious when one reads the text of, say, Exodus 20-23, the first catalog of laws. After all, the beginning of the revelation of the law, the Ten Commandments, seem pretty obviously universal, independent of place or sovereignty; it seems that the continuation of Moses’ teaching in the following chapters should carry this forward. However, many of the laws specify punishments – even capital punishment – which presuppose the existence of an authority and a system of judgment [courts] (for example, 21:12-13; 21:14; 21:37-22:3). And mixed in with these are some laws that are clearly land-related; for example:

Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat… (23:10-11)

As a sovereign state, under Kings David and Solomon – and their successors in the kingdom of Judah, all three categories of law could be seen as a unified system – cultural norms, criminal and civil law, and agricultural law together defined a national way of life based on divine revelation. With the destruction and exile, a new equilibrium became established: the personal, universal laws we carried with us wherever we went; they never lost their authority. The laws dependent on state sovereignty or a national religious center (the Temple) were all placed in storage, awaiting the longed-for restoration. We continued to study these laws, and enact symbolic simulations of them (e.g., prayer in place of sacrifice), but we no longer lived them. An important debate over the past half century concerns the status of the present state: is the state of Israel the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy? Is it the messianic restoration? Should we bulldoze the mosques on the Temple Mount to rebuild the Temple? Or is this just another historical episode, in which case we can leave the biblical laws of state and cult on the bookshelf for now.

The third category, agricultural, land-based laws, were only observed by those who remained on, or returned to the land. Thus, for example, the sabbatical year was reinstated by settlers in Palestine in 1888-9 and has been observed ever since (next sabbatical: 5768 = 2007-8). Needless to say, this law is not easy to observe in the context of modern agriculture. There have been three major responses, and a bitter controversy among their supporters: a) abstaining from eating any agricultural produce from Israel during the year (or preserved produce the next year), relying on imports and preserved fruits, vegetables and grains from the previous year; b) declaring that the sabbatical year is actually in the second category, only observed when we have a Temple and monarchy; and c) declaring that the sabbatical laws only apply on land owned by Jews – so if we enact a symbolic sale of all Israel’s farmland to a non-Jew for the year, then we can continue to farm and eat the produce (like selling hametz on Passover); this is the mainstream approach.

Aside from its significant economic implications, it is fascinating how this seemingly abstruse controversy over points of Jewish law is actually a conversation about the very meaning of the land in our identity, and over the nature of our relationship to it.

Meanwhile, think about trying to troubleshoot a problem in Windows XP using the manual from Windows 95.

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