Marsha B. Cohen NHC 2002 - Course A-6
Ambivalence Toward the Land of Israel in Text and Tradition (NHC Summer Institute 2002, Course A-6)

Instructor: Marsha B. Cohen

Since ancient times, most Jews have felt a strong attachment to the Land of Israel. The nature and extent of that attachment has varied, however, and for more than 2500 years more Jews have lived outside Eretz Yisrael than in it. This course will examine texts from the TaNaKh, Talmud, siddur, medieval commentaries, poetry, travel diaries, and the writings of 19th and 20th century Jewish thinkers, including the post-Zionism debates in contemporary Israel, which express the complex and often ambivalent relationship between Jews and Israel.

Course Preparation

Please bring a TaNaKh (Bible including Torah, Prophets and Writings) to class for the first and second sessions if you can. No special advance course reading or preparation is necessary, but you'll find some full-text, online suggestions below if you'd like to do some.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions!


Marsha B. Cohen
Course Outline

Session 1 - Ambivalence toward the Land of Israel in the TaNaKh:

Were the patriarchs Zionists? Abraham was the first oleh chadash ("new immigrant"), but he was also the first yored ("one who leaves the Land"). Jacob fled the land of Canaan and was gone for 21 years, and it seemed like "just a few days" to him. We will begin our course with a close look at the relationship of various biblical figures to the Land of Israel, particularly those in the Ketuvim ("Writings") sections of the Bible.

Session 2 - From the Second Temple through the Middle Ages:

Only about 10-20% of the Jews exiled to Babylonia in 586 BCE chose to return when they were permitted to do so. Even during Second Temple times, more Jews lived outside the Land of Israel than in it. After the Bar Kochba revolt, Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael diminished sharply. We will examine texts from the Talmud, midrash, and commentators concerning the Land of Israel, including the "three promises," rabbinic warnings against any attempt by Jews to to return en masse to Eretz Yisrael or to forcibly re-exert political sovereignty there, and the debate over whether or not yeshivat ha-aretz ("dwelling in the Land") should be considered one of the mitzvot. We will also examine the attitudes of and toward the Karaite "Mourners of Zion" and other anti-rabbinic Jewish sects.

Session 3 - The Late Medieval Period through the Origins of Zionism:

We will examine letters. poetry, and the diaries of medieval travelers for reports of Jewish presence in Palestine and the attitudes of diaspora Jews toward Eretz Yisrael. We'll discuss how the Lurianic spiritualization of the motifs of exile and return made physical aliyah unnecessary, while literalist interpretations of kabbalistic imagery by David Reuveni and Shabtai Zevi reinforced the close (and sometimes disastrous) link between messianism and physical return to earthly Jerusalem. Why did some early Zionists such as Leon Pinsker prefer that the a Jewish national homeland be established somewhere (anywhere!) else?

Session 4 - Jewish State or as the State of the Jews?

We will analyze some of the criticisms of and conflicts within the Zionist movement both before and after the declaration of Israeli statehood. What were the various arguments made by Jews who were opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel? We'll read and discuss the writings of Yeshayahu Leibowitz against the both State of Israel's religio-political structure and against Rav Kook's mystical and messianic view of the Land imparting holiness. How did the Six Day War politicize the concept of Kedushat ha-Aretz? We'll conclude with a brief look at the contradictions inherent in the uneasy mix of "normalization" and "sacralization" that shapes the Israel's political culture, and that confronts diaspora Jews as they try to define their attitudes and obligations toward the State of Israel.

Click here for Marsha B. Cohen's "Jewish Personal Training" Website