Holistic and Holy: A Halakhic Approach to Eretz Yisrael

This is an edited transcript of a short lecture delivered by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig at a conference honoring both Rabbi Dr. Bernard Rosensweig and Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth. The edited transcript was prepared by R. Rosensweig’s student Avraham Wein. All edits and revisions were reviewed by R. Rosensweig.

I see my role here as one who is a committed Religious Zionist: one who identifies with the movement of Religious Zionism and its aspirations, and is proud of its accomplishments; and also as one who is concerned about the direction of Religious Zionism and its future prospects - both ideologically and practically, both in terms of challenges and opportunities that are unique to our present time, both in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. Some of these challenges overlap, while others of them are quite different and reflect varying perspectives.

My basic argument will be that the most important contribution of American Jewry to Religious Zionism has been the effective ability to integrate the issue of Eretz Yisrael more generally, and the State of Israel more particularly, into the broader spectrum of Jewish thought and Jewish life. Both on a pragmatic level and an ideological level, I think that some of the advances in various areas of Jewish thought and the application of Jewish law to issues of Religious Zionism took place, not coincidentally, on the ground of America. The issue I want to address here is the impact of American Jewry, especially American rabbinic leadership, upon Religious Zionist thought in general.

Let us begin with the problem. When we speak about the American contribution to Religious Zionism, apparently we are dealing with a kind of oxymoron. After all, what is the most obvious and salient expression of Religious Z​ionism if not ​aliyah, the decision to actually live in Eretz Yisrael? Particularly in our era, where this is something which no longer has to be a dream or even include excessive hardship, the capacity for Jews to pick up and live in Eretz Yisrael today is obviously a special gift that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has given us in our historical circumstance. So, what do we mean when we speak about a Religious Zionist contribution by American Jewry, if seemingly our presence on these shores appears to defy the very purpose of Zionism?

However, obviously the concept of shelilat ha-golah, the negation of any positive contributions coming from the Diaspora - a phenomenon which was popular some decades back, particularly in Eretz Yisrael - is something which is historically absurd, halakhically invalid, and philosophically unacceptable. Obviously, much of Jewish thought and Jewish life has been lived outside of Eretz Yisrael in the Diaspora. The greatest proponents, the most inspiring and eloquent spokesmen of Religious Zionism, are of course individuals who yearned and aspired to be in Eretz Yisrael but whose careers were actually carried out in ​Chutz la-Aretz. Whether we are talking about the author of the Kuzari, Rav Yehuda ha-Levi, or the Ramban - both of whom made it to Eretz Yisrael only at the end of their lives, but whose careers took place in Spain and in other places as well - the beginnings of the Religious Zionist movement emerged on the shores of Europe rather than in Eretz Yisrael itself. Historically speaking, there was no way that it could have been otherwise.

Along with Rav Kook, the other great ideological giant of Religious Zionism in the modern era - that is, in the post-Eretz Yisrael era - is ​moreinu ve-rabeinu, our teacher and rabbi, ha-Rav Soloveitchik zt”l. What I would like to do here is focus on some of the Rav’s unique contributions to Religious Zionism. I think that the Rav represents a certain model of Religious Zionism which is quite different from that of Rav Kook and what generally prevails in the Merkaz ha-Rav circles in Eretz Yisrael today, and which is singularly related to the American contribution - both because culturally it had to be that way, and of course, due to the impact of the Rav more directly as well.[1]

The fact is that the Diaspora was always poised to make these special ideological contributions to our understanding of Religious Zionism, precisely because of the challenge raised earlier - namely, how one justifies living life outside of Eretz Yisrael when one has the capacity to be there. Partially as an aspect of defensive culture, this challenge forces the honest individual to come to confront and come to grips with it. In some cases, it opens windows to a wider and deeper understanding of the role of Eretz Yisrael in halakhic life and, in our era, the status of Medinat Yisrael in the larger mosaic of Jewish life. Indeed: someone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is not motivated to grapple with this issue, and therefore may not be sufficiently engaged with it so as to be able to formulate the valuable insights and perspective its struggle yields, which in turn enrich Jews the world over - including the Jews in Eretz Yisrael as well - by broadening, deepening, and making more profound the notion and impact of Religious Zionism. Jews who live in the Diaspora and yet are acutely sensitive to their halakhic responsibilities are uniquely equipped and sensitive to the potential rare impact of Eretz Yisrael beyond its borders in history, in world Jewry, and in the interface between the pragmatic and ideological issues that we face.

Of course, the impact of actual life in the United States and the responsibility of leadership impose this kind of responsibility and challenge as well. The American Jew consistently has to decide on his priorities - the local community versus Eretz Yisrael - when it comes to even simple matters like support for a political candidate. Candidates who espouse a position on Eretz Yisrael which is attractive, but also adopts some domestic positions which are problematic, force every Jew, and especially Rabbinic leaders, to come to grips with the major role that Eretz Yisrael plays in daily life.

Some years ago, my father, along with the leadership of the RCA, was involved with the question of Soviet Union immigration. Beneath the surface, the question really was, to what extent do the priorities of Eretz Yisrael dictate for ​Chutz la-Aretz. The issue wasn’t simply Diaspora vs. Eretz Yisrael or ​Medinat Yisrael, but ultimately a truer, deeper, and more profound understanding of the role of Religious Zionism, Eretz Yisrael, and Religious Zionism’s responsibility to World Jewry, which ended up determining the policy on that issue in a much more complex way than had it been left simply to Israeli leaders.

The role of Rav Soloveitchik as the foundation of this perspective and ideology contrasts in some respects with the ideology of Rav Kook. Let us highlight this contrast briefly in the following ways. The Rav, as is known, gave several famous lectures to the Mizrachi, which were published as the ​Hamesh Derashot. If one analyzes those ​derashot objectively, one finds self-contained sections having nothing to do with Eretz Yisrael or the ideology of Religious Zionism which are standalone gems on all sorts of different topics like Teshuva, Jewish destiny, and the role of halakha in Jewish values. We can analyze these topics even by subject heading, we can count them, and we can gauge quantitatively and qualitatively the impact that they have had. Yet, the ability to weave these together - that they should be not only connected to, but should help constitute a cohesive statement about religious Zionism - is a reflection of a broader perspective: the notion of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael is not a topic in its own right in which we try to isolate importance, but is one which is integrated into the much larger world of Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, and especially the world of halakha.

The Rav had a particular fondness for a certain halakhic perspective on matters of Eretz Yisrael which can be characterized as follows: the Rambam, as is well known, sometimes deals with the status of Eretz Yisrael in a seemingly anachronistic way. The Rambam rules in several places that the ​kedusha of Ezra, the second investment of sanctity in the Land of Israel, is the one that is durable. Everyone knows that the geographic constriction of those boundaries left certain areas that were in the original geography of ​kedushat Eretz Yisrael on the outside. Yet, the Rambam employs the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael at the time of conquest of Joshua, which according to his own rulings were no longer determinative when it came to the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael, he operates with those boundaries when it comes to several issues.

The Rav noted this, as did others, and formulated the following explanation. There are two ​dinim of Eretz Yisrael, he posits: there is on the one hand a ​din of ​kedushat karka, the sanctity of the soil, which relates to matters having to do with ​terumot, ma’asrot, sheviit, tevel, and ​challah. These laws have to do with the nitty-gritty, the actual produce of Eretz Yisrael that is obviously a matter of ​kedushat ha-Aretz. Then on the other hand, there are other issues which affect all of Jewish life. This second category includes things like Rabbinic ordination, regarding which we know that when the Sanhedrin operates in Eretz Yisrael it also holds sway in the diaspora; ​kiddush ha-chodesh, which affects via the calendar both Eretz Yisrael and the diaspora; and other issues as well, like the ​par he’elem davar shel tzibur, the idea of communal atonement as opposed to individual one, all of which depend on the majority population of Eretz Yisrael. The Rav noted that these laws seemingly have nothing to do with the sanctity of the land, seeing as after all they apply throughout the Jewish world. Moreover, the geographic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael do not seem to be applied consistently: despite the Rambam’s ruling that the geography that is invested with sanctity are only the Ezra boundaries and not the Joshua boundaries, we see that it is the Joshua boundaries which are invoked when it comes to the second category of various rules.

To resolve this seeming contradiction in the words of the Rambam, the Rav developed the theme that there are two aspects of Eretz Yisrael. One is the ​kedushat karka, narrowly defined by the sanctity and soil of Eretz Yisrael, and the other is the concept of Eretz Yisrael, the ​shem Eretz Yisrael. In one of the ​derashot, the Rav develops this conceptual distinction even further. The truth is that this was an old and favorite topic of the Rav: it appears in the ​Igrot ha-Grid, sometimes he quotes it in his father’s name and sometimes in his own. In the ​derashot, though, the Rav makes an additional suggestion: he says that the ​covenant of Sinai, where the Torah was given, places no special emphasis on ​kedushat Eretz Yisrael as anything more than a mitzvah among the 613 mitzvot. In fact, there exists a well-documented problem that Yishuv ha-Aretz, living in Eretz Yisrael, is not counted as a mitzvah in Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot. However, what the Rav characterizes as ​brit avot – namely, that which relates to the history of the Jewish people and the covenant of our forefathers — is something which focuses on the ideal: the ambition of life in Eretz Yisrael. The Rav argued that the ​dinim of ​kedushat karka represent only one small slice of the role that Eretz Yisrael plays in our life. What is more important is the concept of ​shem Eretz Yisrael – that is to say, the fact that we as a people identify throughout history with the history of our people, and with the national headquarters in Eretz Yisrael. The nuances are very important, but this general point represents the broader, deeper, more pervasive and profound (albeit less hyperbolic) contribution of the Rav to the concept of Religious Zionism.

There are a number of passages in Gemara and Midrashei Halakha which make very startling claims about the centrality of Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara in ​Masekhet Ketubot (110b) says that one who lives in ​hutz la-aretz is like a godless person. The ​Sifrei in ​Parshat Eikev famously seems to imply that the only reason why we do any mitzvot in ​hutz la-aretz is for practice. Some of the more enthusiastic or hyperbolic Religious Zionists seized on these statements in order to underscore the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, namely, the idea that it is indispensable. For the same reason, the Kuzari is oft-quoted for his inspirational, but (from a halakhic point of view) somewhat exaggerated emphasis on the ​inyan ha-Eloki aspect that is connected to Eretz Yisrael.[2] Rav Soloveitchik, on the other hand, shied away from all of this. Indeed, his explanation of ​Ketubot (110b) is that it is limited to the aspect of ​brit avot. The Beit ha-Levi, Rav Soloveitchik’s great-grandfather, had a particularly interesting explanation about the ​Sifrei in ​Parshat Eikev. The point is that how you treat these unvarnished texts, and whether or not you look for dimensions of ​kedushat Eretz Yisrael that go beyond the obvious and affect the entire Jewish world, Diaspora included, albeit with the center of Eretz Yisrael, reflect a different approach: one less slogan-oriented and less radical, but in the end more ambitious and entailing a deeper take on these issues.

Following the example of Rav Soloveitchik, if I were to speak about or analyze the halakhic writings of American Religious Zionists, the program I would undertake would be to examine how these various texts fared in the treatment of these topics - whether addressing passages like the Gemara in ​Ketubot and the ​Sifrei, or - on the other side of the coin - the exceptions which allow one to leave Eretz Yisrael, and how expansive and how limited these might be. There is a methodology, in other words, that can be developed which would highlight that different communities have different perspectives on the role of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish life, on the religious status and stature of ​Medinat Yisrael, and on the historical and philosophical question of whether or not the opportunities sometimes signified by ​reishit tzemihat geulateinu represent a discontinuity in history or a continuity. These are contributions, both intellectually and pragmatically, which are anchored and rooted in this perspective of the role of Eretz Yisrael in world Jewry which is less slogan-oriented, but in my opinion, far more substantive.[3]


[1] While Rav Kook’s view is associated with a well-known and acute perspective of Religious Zionism, his larger view, especially when you analyze his halakhic contributions, which paint a much more traditional thinker, is something that is worth devoting a more extensive treatment to. It would be particularly interesting to compare his pre and post Israel years, and to discuss the implications of his halakhic decisions.

[2] This is not meant to reject the importance of the Kuzari’s comments, but rather to emphasize that for this to be the foundation on its own is a problem. The Kuzari’s important contributions to the topic of Eretz Yisrael are entirely deserving of a lengthier treatment. I hope to have the opportunity to expand on this topic in the future.

[3] For further reference see R. Rosensweig’s articles “The Central Role of Eretz Yisrael in Torah Life,” “Reflections on Yom ha-Atzmaut: Eretz Yisrael as a Framework for Kedushah and Spiritual Opportunity,” and “Eretz Yisrael: The Heritage of the Jewish People,” available at torahweb.org. For a more extensive treatment of these issues, see his “Diaspora-Israel Relations: A Study in Halakha and Contemporary Issues,” available at yutorah.org and “The Halakhic Centrality of Eretz Yisrael,” printed in the Koren Mahzor for Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, 73-91.