September 23, 2019

Torah portion: The importance of humility

When we confront the emotions and arguments around the politics of Israel, we rarely square off with the rigorous biblical claims that undergird the Zionist project and, by extension, the Jewish state itself — but we probably should. The Israeli Declaration of Independence refers to the Bible, even though the nascent democracy represented a predominantly secular population. It invokes the biblical legacy of the Jews in their historical land, and it looks forward to peace and justice as “envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” 

All the same, the document seems to exhibit mixed feelings about our biblically based rights to the Land of Israel. Though it refers to the history of biblical authorship, it avoids adopting the biblical claim that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. American Jews seem to avoid the claim as well. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” fewer than half of us (40 percent) actually believe that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people in the first place. That’s 4 percent fewer than Christian Americans who believe it, but it’s high enough to imply some notable ambivalence.

Meanwhile, Jews still very much believe in God, depending on the context. According to the Pew study, 72 percent of all Jews believe, with some degree of certainty, in God, including 45 percent of those who define themselves as “Jews of no religion.” Nevertheless, “Jews are among the most strongly liberal, Democratic groups in U.S. politics,” according to the same study. As such, we tend to embrace secular social views and to be suspicious of religion in the public sphere. 

In short, as we tangle over Israeli politics, even among ourselves, our recent history and our current makeup discourage voicing the explicitly biblical or theological argument for Israel’s existence, even if, deep down, many of us believe in it (either literally or figuratively). Against this backdrop, this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, bursts onto the scene, and its aggressive message seems to tip the scales of our ambivalence against broadcasting the biblical argument. 

Eikev focuses on one of our civilization’s central covenantal blessings: “The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill” (Deuteronomy 8:7). But the promise is not innocuous — at least not to the inhabitants of the land whom the Israelites will displace and destroy. “The Lord your God will dislodge those peoples before you little by little. … He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens” (Deuteronomy 7:22-24). 

Jews of all political stripes have long held the position that Israel seeks peace; one could forgive them for not citing Eikev. But embedded in the parsha, certain countervailing messages qualify the disturbingly violent ones. First, Eikev unstintingly insists on humility. Moses admonishes all of us to “beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the land of Egypt … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’ ” (Deuteronomy 8:14-17). And this humility is not merely theoretical; it is intended to shape our behavior, to “befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Second, the conquest of the land belongs in the context of a covenant defined by specific terms. As such, God takes care to stipulate the consequences for failure to fulfill those terms. If the Israelites abandon their unique obligations, “you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you” (Deuteronomy 11:17).  

The great interpreter of Torah, Moses Nahmanides (1194–1270), emphasizes this theme of moral and covenantal responsibility. He cites both Psalms and the rabbis to remind us that God “chased out those who rebelled against Him, and settled in His servants [in their place] … and if they sin against Him, the land will vomit them up as it vomited up the nation before them.”

American Jews, in their great majority, will not likely resort to biblical passages to justify their political stances on contemporary Israel, but ambivalence about theology-based politics need not be not the only reason for that reticence. 

If we take our Torah mandate seriously, even if only privately, then it forces a highly nuanced and deeply committed ethic of stewardship, which resists easy nationalism or cherry-picked scriptural quotations. We should appreciate — even celebrate — the fact that Torah itself, the very foundation for Israel’s existence, also presents us with tremendous political and moral demands. In the end, it is to our credit that we learn and grapple with it a great deal, but also cite it with care. 

Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.