Thursday, August 4, 2016

Parsha Masei: Is Settling in the Land of Israel an Actual Mitzvah?

From the sound of it, Jews are moving to Israel, or making aliyah, in droves. The Jewish Agency claims that 30,000 Jews made aliyah in 2015 (see here for World Bank migration data). Since the creation of the modern nation-state of Israel in 1948, Israel has been a focal point of Jewish identity. Even with the anti-semitism in France and the Ukraine helping maintain aliyah numbers, many in the Diaspora feel comfortable living in the Diaspora. There are pros and cons about making a move all the way to Israel, but I was wondering about religious arguments about living in Israel. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jews have had to deal with exile. The vast majority of Jews did not live in the land of Israel for centuries. Modern-day Zionism was formed in the late nineteenth-century, and was predominantly secular in nature. While there were some Orthodox figures that were Zionist when Zionism began, it really didn't start to take off in religious circles until the 1950s. Although many Jews throughout history did not have the option of living in the land of Israel, those of us in modern-day times have the option of moving to Israel. The question here is whether Jewish law mandates that a Jew live in the land of Israel (ישוב ארץ ישראל).

The biblical text from which one commonly derives a sense of obligation to live in the land of Israel is in this week's Torah portion:

והרשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה. כי לכם נתתי את הארץ לרשת אתה
And you shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you, have I given the land to possess it. -Numbers 33:53

With the centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, one would expect an unambiguous mitzvah to live in Israel. However, as we will see shortly, that is hardly the case. Ramban (Nachmanides) argues that "the fourth mitzvah that we were commanded [is] to conquer the land that G-d gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and not to abandon it to the hands of other nations or to emptiness." He uses the Talmud, Ketubot 110b, which states it is better to live in the land of Israel in a town surrounded by non-Jews than it is to live in the Diaspora. This Talmudic passage even goes as far to say that living in the Diaspora is as if one worships idols. The words of Ramban can also be supported by the Midrash Sifre, Re'eh 80, which states that dwelling in the land of Israel is equal to performing all the commandments in Torah.

Rambam (Maimonides), on the other hand, does not even include living in the land of Israel in his list of 613 mitzvahs. His view is enigmatic. On the one hand, he says that it is permitted to live anywhere in the world (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 5:7), except Egypt. On the other hand, he states that it is preferable to live in Israel (ibid., 5:12), and that living outside of the land of Israel is not considered pious (ibid., 5:9). For Rambam, there is enough in his worldview that has a yearning to live in the land. Even so, he did not force that obligation through his codifications. Why Rambam didn't add it to the list seems to be the technicality that it is subsumed in the commandment to conquer the land. But again, Rambam does state that it is permitted to live outside the land of Israel. Also, Maimonides himself visited Israel in 1165, but did not remain in Israel. Actions speak louder than words, which should tell us how Rambam really felt about living in Israel being a mitzvah.

In his text Megilat Esther, R. Issac de Leon defends Rambam's stance by arguing that the obligation only can exist in Messianic times. However, many reject de Leon's argument, one reason being that Rambam enumerates laws about the sacrificial system, even though they are not currently in play.

Even with that caveat, R. de Leon brings a number of arguments to the table, including that of the Tosafot in Ketubot 110b. Tosafot cites two reasons why the mitzvah does not apply in his times. One is that the journey and subsequent life in Israel are full of danger. The second reason, quoting R. Chaim HaKohen, is that it is not possible to fulfill the agricultural commandments connected to Israel (mitzvot ha'teluyot ba'aretz) because of the poverty and other difficulties as a result of moving. It might seem that the argument of the Tosafot is no longer relevant. On the other hand, if moving to Israel would cause considerable financial hardship, especially given Israel's high cost of living, then perhaps the Tosafot still have a point. R. de Leon also brings the Talmudic passage of the Three Oaths, which is still used by certain ultra-Orthodox Jews that we should not enter the land until the Messiah shows up. This point is upheld by Ketubot 111a, which uses Jeremiah 22:27 to point out that G-d needs to be instrumental in bringing the Jewish people back to Israel. Religious Zionists counter by saying that the oaths are indeed being fulfilled, which is why it is acceptable to make aliyah prior to the Messianic Era.

What is more interesting is the opinion of R. Moshe Feinstein on the matter, with which R. Josef Dov Soltoveitchik agreed. When asked whether it was an obligation, he argues that while there exists a biblical mitzvah, the nature of the mitzvah to settle the land of Israel is different than other mitzvahs. For R. Feinstein, if one does move to Israel, he does fulfill an optional mitzvah (mitzvah kiyumit), although one does not have an obligation to move Israel (mitzvah chiyuvit). Think of it being like in school: you don't get a lower grade in class for not doing it, but if you do it, you get extra credit. Additionally, two other medieval rabbis echoed this viewpoint. R. Israel Isserlein thought that while it was praiseworthy to live in Israel, each individual should assess their own situation to determine whether to move. R. Meir of Rothenburg thought that while making aliyah is not a mitzvah, anyone who moves to Israel for the sake of Heaven and conducts their life in holiness and purity will experience considerable reward in the afterlife.

Having settling the land as an obligation brings about one other qualm. For most of history, Jews did not live in the land of Israel. If it were truly obligatory, then the vast majority of Jews have been living in sin, and I find that to be problematic. This is why I look at the laws, and agree with Maimonides and R. Moshe Feinstein. There is a compelling religious case for it to be considered preferable, even though the extent of its application is disagreed upon by rabbinic authorities. Nevertheless, it is not an obligation to live in Israel. There are a number of Jews, many of whom are religious, who do not presently live in the land of Israel.

For those of us who opt not to live in the land, we need to figure out how to still make the mitzvah have some relevance. Traveling to Israel is one way. The Magen Avraham argued that visiting Israel is a partial fulfillment of the mitzvah, and he based this on the Gemara (Ketubot 111a) that says that one who even walks steps four cubits in Israel attains atonement for one's sins. There is also the option of buying real estate in Israel. Although not a fulfillment of the letter of the law, giving money to Israel, buying Israeli agricultural products, getting involved with a Zionist organization, praying for the State of Israel, or helping others make aliyah would be in the spirit of the law. In an even more general sense, the Lubavitcher Rebbe maintained that for those of us Jews living in the Diaspora, if you are making a positive difference with your Jewishness, you have a purpose of elevating and revealing holy sparks that exist, thereby engendering the holiness of Israel throughout the world. Regardless if a Jew decides to live in or outside of Israel, there is no doubt that the land of Israel plays a vital role in the context of the Jewish religion. 

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