Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Abraham and the Settlements, Or How to Use the Torah to Prove Whatever You Want

The first academic article I ever published, back in 1984, was an analysis of the use of the beginning of this week's Parasha, Chayyei Sarah, in Israeli religious circles. The Parasha begins with the death of Sarah in Hebron. Abraham, describing himself to the locals as a "stranger and sojourner," buys the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as an "achuzat kever," a family burial plot. But the word "achuza" is significant because it evokes permanent ownership and the right to hand it down from generation to generation.

So this Biblical story clearly supports the building of Jewish settlements in Hebron. Abraham bought the land, he has the right to pass it on to his descendants. We Jews are his descendants, the land belongs to us by right, end of story.

So says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) settlement movement.

Not so fast, says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) peace movement. Abraham bought the land, even though it had already been promised him by God. If God had promised him the land, why didn't he just take it, since it was his by divine fiat? Nevertheless he bought the land, because he valued peaceful relationships with his neighbors. He knew that simply taking the land by force would lead to conflict, which he sought to avoid. Therefore, this text clearly supports recognition that the Palestinians have rights in the land as well, and that Israel needs to seek some sort of mutual accommodation with them.

Which interpretation is correct? I suspect that how you read this text will depend on how you are already predisposed to read it. Which interpretation speaks to you?

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