(Rabbinic Fantasy & The Land of Israel) Tractate Ketubot Is More Complex Than Zionism or Anti-Zionism


The concluding mishna and gemara of tractate Ketubot is a locus classicus of Haredi anti-Zionism and an even more interesting textual unit in its own right. It is most famous for the almost mythic posing of three primary vows in relation to the Land of Israel and the nations of the world. First, the people Israel is made to swear not to ascend like a wall to the Land of Israel before the coming of the messiah. Two, they swear not to rebel against the nations of the world. Third, the nations of the world swear not to oppress Israel, or not too much. Perhaps in the form of an afterthought, an additional three vows emerge as the text moves forward: The prophets are not allowed to reveal the End, the Jews are sworn not to distance the End, and they swear not to reveal the secret to gentiles.

Rather than split apart the text into various historical, geographical, and ideological strata, I am reading the sugya not as a miscellany, but rather as constituting a coherent five part program that modulates the tension between affection for the Land of Israel and stubborn allegiance to Babylonia born of political caution:

[1] The first part is composed of halakhic rulings about domicile in the here and now in the Land of Israel. It begins towards the bottom of 110b, apropos to a baraita that builds on the point of the Mishnah that a person should always dwell in the Land of Israel. There are a number of rulings about husbands, wives, and children, relocating from one place to another. Attraction to the Land of Israel trumps patriarchal authority. A husband can neither prevent his wife from ascending to the Land of Israel if they live abroad or from leaving the Land of Israel if they already live there. The bold upshot is that whoever dwells in the Land of Israel is as if they have a God, and those who dwell outside the Land are as if they have no God.

[2] What follows is a disavowal of politics, if by that we mean the mass action of a large and organized collective. R. Zeira wants to go to the Land of Israel and Rav Yehudah wants to hold him back from leaving Babylonia. In this patriarchal move, meant to establish dominance, according to Rav Yehudah, it is, in fact, a positive commandment to stay in Babylonia, the Song of Songs adjuring the daughters of Israel, by the gazelles and hinds of the field, not to rouse love until it pleases, until God wants it. It is R. Zeira who brings up the three oath, in order to argue that they refer only to collective action, ascending to the Land of Israel like a wall, and rebelling against the nations. As an individual, he has license to leave. But the oath hangs over the people. Whoever violates the terms of the oath may be eaten like the gazelle and hinds of the field by human predators.

[3] As the text carries forward, the point of this exercise is to uphold the privilege of Babylonia, the Babylonian rabbis, and their talmud Torah. Yes, only in the Land of Israel will there be resurrection of the dead. But the righteous of Babylonia need not worry. Babylonia is like living in the Land of Israel, but only better because, they are promised, they won’t have to endure the terrible birth pangs of the Messiah. They will, in fact, enjoy resurrection in the Land of Israel, with tunnels underground easing the passage of their bones as these roll towards the Land of Israel where they will come to life. There are other points, gem-like in terms of attitudes that will later crystallize today in the State of Israel. These include  expressions of hatred for non-rabbinic Jews followed upon by the notion that rabbinic Jews should not hate the am ha’aretz (too much) or compare them to the dead as long as they support the rabbis, marry their daughters to their students, finance religious academies, and so on.

The text could have stopped there as a strict diasporist manifesto. It doesn’t.

[4] What follows in due order is a fantastic panegyric to the Land of Israel. We’re at the top of 111b. The gemara makes one final lurch back to the resurrection of the dead and to the Land of Israel. The righteous among the dead will sprout and arise in Jerusalem. They will stand up in their clothes. The Land of Israel will produce ready to eat baked goods, abundant grain and marvelous wheat stalks that grow as high as a date palm, as high as a mountain, its fine flour falling to the ground at the rustle of the wind. There will be wheat as fat as kidneys, stalks of mustard grains and cabbage, enormous grapes full of wine that one can tap into with a spout and drink from like from a keg. There are pictures of eyes red from wine and whiteness of teeth, figs dripping honey up to your ankles, the entire land flowing with milk and honey, gigantic peaches, clusters of grapes that look like calves. The fertile land surpasses Egypt, even in rocky parts like Hebron.

[5] The fantasy motivates impetuous acts and acts of devotion, and one final warning. R. Zeira pulls himself across a rope spanning the Jordan River in order to enter the Land of Israel, now before he sins and it’s too late. R. Abbas kissed the stones of Akko. R. Chiya bar Gamda rolls in the dust, animating the verse “For your servants have cherished her stones and favored her dust.” The Bavli reminds us, once more, that the End won’t come without contempt for Torah scholars, without smelting after smelting, purging of Israel, and plundering; things that the Babylonian rabbis do not want to live to see. But at the End, all the barren trees in the Land of Israel will bear fruit. And that’s the end of the sugya, the end of this gemara, the end of the tractate constituting the last word on the topic at hand.

Back and forth, our text moves steadily from one point to the next. Halakhic rulings about living now in the Land of Israel. A sharp disavowal of collective political action, one based on fear. The supremacy of the Torah taught in Babylonia and the good fortune enjoyed there. Back to the Land, In short, the sugya is more complex, more complex than Zionism or anti-Zionism, more savvy about the political than radical politics. What the Babylonian rabbis cannot have in this world, it wants in the end. The very text that disavows political action vis-à-vis the Land, that cements Babylonia as the privileged place of talmud Torah is finally given over, back to the Land of Israel. One will note the non-appearance of the messiah as a figure in this eschatological spectacle, or mention of the Temple in Jerusalem. Is this vision natural or supernatural or some amalgam? In Babylonia, the rabbis shut their eyes and dream about the Land of Israel as a fecund site of intense natural life, no longer stinting, no longer merely natural. Not anti-Zionist by a long shot, the text attenuates the sense of the here in the Babylonian diaspora. The Babylonian rabbis agree not to rebel against gentile rule. They do not engage the community in collective action. It’s too late for that. Completely infatuated, it is a richly imagined fantasy that preserves by way of “instituting” a real while not actual connection to a faraway place and future. Insofar as people act towards the Land of Israel, it is not without a certain strangeness.

One last word about “the political,” which is that I think it’s telling that fantasy gets the last major substantive word in this sugya. It tells us something important about the Bavli, about the imagination and about “religion.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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