Many people take it for granted that the physical land of Israel is innately holy. Since traditional sources constantly refer to the land as such, it is not much of a stretch that people make the assumption that every facet of the land is imbued with some sort of beatified, transcendental significance. To our detriment, we have witnessed fundamentalism and fanaticism emerge from this doctrine, calling our core national ethos into question.
As an Orthodox rabbi who spent years studying in Israel, I have seen that holiness from synagogues and study houses to coffee shops and museums, and to the markets and villages that dot the rolling hills. But this is holiness that is made, not discovered. It stems from a cultivated relationship, not through a mandatory essence. It’s connected to ethics, not disconnected from the human condition. The holiness that we find in Israel is neither brought down from the heaven nor sprouts up from the earth; it emerges in relationships, and ethical moments. When the ethics of living in such a place break down, any spark of holiness ceases. The land is not an end in itself, but a sacred entity calling us to responsibility, a spiritual vehicle towards a greater ethical enterprise.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the late rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, inspired by the thought of Maimonides, explained:
“For [Rabbi Yehudah Halevi and the Ramban], the attribute of kedushah, holiness, ascribed to the Land of Israel is an objective metaphysical quality inherent in the land. With all my respect for the Rishonim [Talmudic commentaries], I must disagree with such an opinion. I do not believe that it is halachically cogent. Kedushah, under a halachic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority.”
In another context, Rabbi Soloveitchik makes clear that the priority of saving life trumps possession of land in Israel. After all, the mitzvah of saving a life (pikuach nefesh) is trumped by only three negative prohibitions: idolatry, murder and incest. For Maimonides, the land is but an instrument to help a person achieve intellectual perfection, as well as a means to help society achieve political perfection [“Guide for the Perplexed,” 111:27]. Furthermore, he does not include the conquest and settlement of the land as one of the 613 mitzvot decreed by the Torah. Ultimately, Maimonides argued that Israel is unique as the place that Jews can achieve sovereignty, but not for any objective inherent holiness in and of itself [Hilchot Beit ha’Bekhira 7:12].
Rather than be ethically elevated by the holy land, many throughout history (and surely today) have attempted to use the position of holiness to elevate their own political status. Many suggest that if an object (or land) is holy in our tradition then it belongs to us; we are the owners of our holy land. Leaders of the settlement movement insist that the West Bank is part of Israel and thus holy, and cannot be given up. But the Jewish tradition teaches that holy things are that which cannot be owned, used, or controlled; God is the owner and we are mere tenants, borrowers. Our job, then, is to morally and spiritually elevate them without attempting to control or own them.
Consider Shabbat or the sabbatical year: During the former, we give up control of time and the latter we give up control of the land. We do this to give respect to spaces and moments that have the potential for immense holiness. Likewise, that which is deemed holy cannot be a pawn in politics. There is a halachic prohibition against using a synagogue as a short cut to get somewhere else; the holy cannot be made instrumental.
The land is stripped of metaphysical essentialism in order to serve its pragmatic moral purpose. This is true not only for land but for all “holy objects.” Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (the Meshech Chochmah), in regards to the seemingly very holy tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai and then shattered, wrote:
“Do not imagine that the Temple and Tabernacle are intrinsically holy. Far be it! The Almighty dwells amidst His children and if they transgress His covenant, these structures become divested of all their holiness. … Even the Tablets — “the writing of God” — were not intrinsically holy, but only so on account of you. … To sum up, there is nothing intrinsically holy in the world save the Lord Blessed be He, to whom alone reverence, praise and homage is due.”
David Ben-Gurion famously said: “In Israel, anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.” Recent history has demonstrated this most miraculous turn of events. Though the Jewish return to the Holy Land has been wondrous, in its wake has come a zealotry that moves almost toward an idolatry of worshipping the land itself. As if the rocks themselves are innately holy.
Sometimes, a rock is simply a rock, with no other values ascribed to it. It is our relationship to the land that makes it holy, that makes it worth sustaining, especially when we elevate ourselves to live to our highest values. Isaiah taught that it is ethics and justice that creates sanctity: “But the Lord of Hosts is exalted through justice (mishpat), and God the Holy One is sanctified through righteousness (tzedakah)” [5:16]. We must end the fetish of making the physical land of Israel holy. To raise ourselves up and imbue this land with the most powerful spiritual qualities our souls can muster: This is our crucial task today. Moving from passive awe towards active responsibility ensures the Jewish spiritual relationship to the land of Israel for millennia to come.
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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.