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The Halakha, Eretz Yisrael and the Territories by Rabbi Joshua J. Adler
The Halakha, Eretz Yisrael and the Territories by Rabbi Joshua J. Adler

Volume 4 , Issue 2

Although most Orthodox Jews are not willing to admit it, there is really no single way of living a Jewish life even if one wishes to follow the halakha strictly. The reason for this lies in the fact that within its legal system, there have always been differences of opinion and interpretation on how a Jew is to conduct his daily life. We usually speak of such differences among religious leaders within the halakhic framework as being similar to the arguments between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel or Abbaye and Rava in the Talmud.

In Jewish history, we know of many conflicts among halakhists, some of which were far from peaceful or gentlemanly, such as the one surrounding Maimonides (Rambam) and those who were opposed to him. In that controversy Maimonides's books were even burned! Then there was the bitter conflict between Chasidim and their opponents, the Mitnagdim, in the 18th century, where members of both sides even used violence against each other with some even landing in Russian government jails as a result of being denounced. Even two chief rabbis are known to have differences over halakha. A few years ago, one chief rabbi ruled that it is a mitzva to pluck the grass which grows out of the Kotel Hamaaravi while the other ruled that it is forbidden to do so. Given the history of halakha, it should, therefore, not surprise us that there are differences among contemporary religious leaders on the issue of Eretz Yisrael and the territories.

Suprise Ruling

Among Zionist halakhists, one did not hear of a difference of opinion on the issue of territories until this past decade. From the beginning, religious Zionists held that everything must be done to redeem every square centimeter of the land even if it meant violating Shabbat, and certainly never to give up land once it was in Jewish possession. It, therefore, came as a surprise when last year Ovadiah Yosef, the former chief rabbi and halakhic authority, ruled that it is permitted for Jews to give up Judea and Samaria in exchange for a peace treaty between Israel and the Arabs because of the principle of Pekuach Nefesh (saving lives).1 However, many other religious leaders have been critical of Rabbi Yosef's ruling: former chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (The Lubavitcher Rebbe) and followers of the school of Rabbi Kook. Some of the arguments against Rabbi Yosef are as follows:

  • The principle of Pikuach Nefesh cannot be applied when it comes to a mitzva which inherently calls upon every Jew to risk his life, such as the mitzva of Kibbush Ha'aretz (conquering and settling the Promised Land) since in war there will always be casualties. According to this view, Jews would never have been permitted to settle in Eretz Yisrael in the first place since from the time of Joshua there was always a struggle and a fight for possession of the land.
  • There is no proof that the Arabs would keep their end of the bargain after signing a peace treaty. (There is already overwhelming evidence that their word cannot be trusted such as Arafat's declaration against committing acts of murder and terror which he gave to the Americans over a year ago.) In fact, by surrendering Judea and Samaria with their defensible mountain ranges, we are probably risking more lives than if we would have those areas under our control. Thus, we can turn the Pikuach Nefesh argument around and say that because of this principle, we must never give up Judea and Samaria.
  • Another flaw in Rabbi Yosef's ruling lies in the fact that the Arab‑Moslem world would never be satisfied with anything less than obtaining Jerusalem for itself, especially the Old City. If, then, he is to be consistent, Rabbi Yosef would have to allow Jews to surrender even Jerusalem on the basis of Pikuach Nefesh. And if he would be willing to surrender Judea and Samaria, but not Jerusalem, on what grounds would he make such a distinction?
  • In addition to these halakhic strictures on Ovadia Yosef's ruling, we must also point out that according to his interpretation of the principle of Pikuach Nefesh, the entire Zionist enterprise should never have occurred since there was never a time when it was not dangerous to live in Eretz Yisrael. Individual Jews have always been murdered by Arabs who resented our in?trusion here, and there were always pogroms during which many Jews were murdered; for example in 1920, 1921, 1929 and during the ?Arab revolt? (1936‑39). All this took place before there was even a Jewish state and before there were any ?territories? to be given away!

These, in sum, are some of the arguments used by halakhists against Rabbi Yosef, and it is up to the reader who is committed to halakha to decide which view to accept.


1. Several other rabbis such as Rabbi Yehuda Amital and Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein of the Gush Etzion yeshiva agree with Rabbi Ovadia's ruling. Some halakhic authorities contend that the issue of the territories is similar to a medical decision where the rabbis simply go along with the opinion of experts which, in this case, are military men. If they feel that Israel can be defended without Judea and Samaria, then halakhists can follow their view and accept the formula ?peace for territory.? The problem, however, is that like halakhists, military men are also divided over the issue, though most military experts, including American generals, feel that Israel cannot be defended without the mountain ranges being under Israeli control.

Rabbi Joshua Adler was a US Army chaplain and congregational rabbi in Harrisburg, PA before going on aliya in 1972. He is currently a lecturer on Jewish subjects and managing editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly in Jerusalem.



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