How Can a People Survive without a Land?

How is your Hittite cousin?

Today we don’t know any Hittites. Or Amorites, Jebusites or, for that matter, Mycenaeans. Time does that to most peoples. Over time, borders and human barriers shift, mingle and mix. Absent visible distinctions that make it impossible for a minority to blend in, most peoples assimilate into their host countries sooner or later.

In a pagan world, this happens more quickly, since pagan cultures are connected to the deities they create and rely upon: a sea god is central in a Viking society, but not relevant to someone living on the Snake or Salmon River. Similarly, mountains (which are invariably deified in primitive and modern societies alike – see “Denali”) can only be important if they are close enough to be seen. So a nation anchored to a certain deity loses its moorings if it is dispossessed and moves away from that same deity. It is not just deities, of course. In a generation or two, an ex-Englishman’s emotional connection to the monarchy fades. Our landmarks and institutions and relics are what help keep us who we are.

Judaism is the exception to the rule that minorities eventually assimilate, that removed from their host land, a people eventually loses their original culture. We Jews have lived for thousands of years as strangers in strange lands, lands that were often hostile. When expelled from one nation we would move to others, somehow retaining whatever it is that allows us to remain distinct.

How? I think a part of the answer is that the Torah refuses to call any specific place holy. When Moses dies, the burial place is not noted or remembered. When G-d promises the land of Israel/Canaan to the Jewish people, He does not call the land holy, and our possession of it is entirely conditional on our behavior, on whether we make good choices. (G-d does not even give us the land – he set it before us, using the same word used in Gen 1:17 for setting the sun and the moon in the sky.) The Torah avoids connecting the people to any specific place.

Indeed, the holiest place in the world for Jews, the Temple Mount, is not even named in the Torah. Instead, it is referred to repeatedly as “the place where the Lord your G-d will choose.”

Why is the text coy about the location? We know that place is Jerusalem. We know it was the same place the Binding of Isaac took place, and where Jacob dreamed of angels on a ladder… and yet the Torah declines to name it. Why?

I think the reason why this is so, is because the purpose of Judaism is not, unlike with pagan religions, tied to any specific place, or even to a specific land. Our connection to the Land of Israel and to the Temple Mount are not because they are intrinsically holy places, but only because G-d chose them. It was the choice, not the actual location, that matters.

In other words: the Temple Mount is important because it is the gateway to a relationship – not because the place is itself meant to be a shrine. Similarly, Moses’ burial place is not named because our path to a relationship with G-d is through His Torah, not through His servant. We are each meant to find a way to connect that does not rely on any holy relic, or prayer at any given place.

In that sense, then, the Jewish people are uniquely equipped to exist anywhere, unconnected from any specific place. G-d is not found in a certain mountain or seashore or canyon. He is found where we connect with Him.

The Torah reinforces this message by explaining that pagan faiths must be rejected:

You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. (Deut. 12:2-3)

The Torah is telling us that a connection to a god who is synonymous with a specific place is inherently wrong. G-d is not in or of the natural world, and religions that worship Mother Earth or any of the forces contained within nature (mountain, wind, sun, or sea, etc.) are opposed by Judaism, root and branch.

This is how a people can survive without landmarks or specific shrines or sacred relics. They need the touchstone, to be sure – but that touchstone is not the land. It is the Torah itself, a portable text that lives in the mind instead of in any one holy place.

I should note that the Temple Mount today resonates with enormous spiritual power. I believe that this is because it has absorbed millennia of prayers from Jews both in that place and around the world. It is special not because it was created that way by G-d, but because we invested in it after G-d chose it. The Torah makes it clear that the things that man and G-d both invest in, are the things that become holy as a result of our investment.

It is undeniable that Israel has remained in the prayers and dreams of the Jewish people ever since we were first expelled, over 2,500 years ago. But we must remain careful and vigilant to not confuse the end with the means: what makes Israel special is that the land is a gateway to a full relationship with G-d (and each other). (This is similar to the sentiments expressed by many of the prophets when they told us that G-d does not want our offerings. They made it clear: the purpose of the Temple was not for its own sake or for sacrifices, but instead as a way for people to grow closer to G-d and to the rest of society.)

Because Judaism is grounded in texts and not places, it has been possible to live – and even thrive – in strange lands with inhospitable hosts. You may not know any Hittites, but thanks to the power of the text of the Torah, you certainly might know some Jews!

Comments are welcome!