Is the Land or the Torah the Basis for Jewish Peoplehood?

May 28, 2020 | Tzvi Novick
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According to the Talmud, the covenant at Sinai not only bound the people Israel to God, but also to one another, so that “all Jews are responsible for [more literally, are guarantors of] one another.” Some rabbinic texts understand that a negotiation took place, whereby God agreed that He would hold the Israelites responsible for the public transgressions of their coreligionists, but not private ones. To yet other sages, this condition was removed when Joshua led the people into the Land of Israel.

After carefully piecing this story together from various ancient texts, Tzvi Novick writes:

[W]e may better appreciate the rabbis’ thinking by reference to a different tradition associated with Joshua, that of the “conditions under which Joshua bequeathed the Land to Israel.” According to this tradition, Joshua conditioned the Israelites’ inheritance of the land on their willingness to accept certain rules, most of which set limits on private property rights. One condition, for example, gives individuals the right to gather grains from anywhere, even another person’s field; another allows someone who is lost amidst vineyards to cut a path forward.

Both the institution of private property and the notion that mutual responsibility extends only to overt sins rest on the same assumption: individuals are entitled to their own space, physical or religious, within which they may do as they choose—without interference from, or implications for, the community. In both cases, Joshua, the foundational figure for collective Israelite existence in the land, qualifies this assumption. The community has a limited right to infringe on private property, and it has the obligation to ensure that individuals behave properly, even when concealed from the public.

Digging further into the relevant rabbinic texts, Novick notes a “polemical tension” between those who emphasize the covenant of Sinai and those who emphasize the covenant the Jews entered into while arriving in the Land of Israel. The underlying question is this: is it the Torah, given at Sinai, that “constitutes the people Israel as a nation,” or is it the land? To Novick, the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this evening and celebrates both “the bringing of the first fruits of the land and the giving of the Torah” makes clear that there is no need to “decide between these alternatives.”


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