The Third Promise

Can Judaism’s indigenous core help us rise above the damaging politics of our time?

Ancient stone terracing in the Palestinian village of Battir


Ancient stone terracing in the Palestinian village of Battir, which sits on the 1949 armistice line and is named after the nearby site of Betar, where the Bar Kochba revolt made its last stand and was destroyed by the Romans.

[ Editor’ note: A lot rides on whether one sees the Jewish people as indigenous to Canaan/Israel/Palestine, including how we think about annexation. Is Israel first a European settler-colonial state, as people in postcolonial studies like to claim, or first an expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, as much of the Jewish community would claim? Could there be multiple types of indigeneity, and could Jews and Palestinians be indigenous in different ways? If you want to look at the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in a new way that affirms both sides and also critiques both sides, read “The Third Promise” – and then read my book, Embracing Israel/Palestine (get a free copy by clicking here–you pay only for the postage!). In “The Third Promise,” David Seidenberg also explores a fundamental question about the meaning of Judaism: does the Torah guarantee Jewish indigenousness – or does it do the opposite, guarantee that the Jewish people lose their indigenousness if they fail to act with justice toward the stranger and the land? If you read the Seidenberg article and Embracing Israel/Palestine, you will gain tools to fight the attempt by some who hate Jews to turn legitimate critique of Israeli policies into a new and more sophisticated form of anti-Semitism. — Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun ]


The biblical religious traditions that birthed Judaism are indigenous to Canaan/Israel/Palestine.[1] What this means, why it matters, and how it plays out in both the context of Judaism’s origins and in post-exilic contexts, is the first focus of this article. However, the claim of indigeneity presents us with a conundrum. Evaluated independently from Zionism, Judaism and Jewish peoplehood meet many of the criteria for being indigenous. Evaluated independently from Judaism and Jewish peoplehood and historical context, Zionism is barely distinguishable from settler colonialism. My second focus is to find a language that allows us to make sense of this contradiction. Both areas of focus bear directly on the contemporary politics of Israel and Palestine, including on the most pressing issue of annexation.

I. The land that drinks from the heavens

Seven thousand years ago, Sumer, in Mesopotamia, was one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known – the creator of paradigms and inventions that spread the world over, including writing and the plow.[2] It was moreover a morally creative civilization, the best of whose shepherd-kings took responsibility for the poor and articulated laws to protect them.[3] Its collapse would have had a tremendous impact on the many civilizations it had touched, whether through trade or slaves or war or treaty.

The details of Sumer’s collapse remain the subject of debate. But some combination of ecological factors probably led to this collapse, including the Sumerians’ own over-farming of what had been marshlands and over-flooding those lands with standing water that came from the Tigris or Euphrates via a system of canals, along with over-logging of the slopes where the great rivers originated, which was carried out not by the Sumerians but by their trading partners to meet Sumer’s wealth-born need for wood.[4] The land bloomed with salt as the original water table rose,[5] the main staple crop that could be grown shifted from wheat to barley, the land’s fertility declined, and eventually, the land of Sumer was abandoned.[6]

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In the Genesis story, Abram, soon to become Abraham, left the Mesopotamian valley and Ur Kasdim with his family to head to Canaan. His story, set after the biblical dispersion from Bavel (Babylonia), seems to start at least one or two civilizations after Sumer. What is important is that the sought-after land of Canaan was archetypally the opposite of Mesopotamia – a hilly land dependent almost entirely upon rainfall, which could not be irrigated by diverting any river’s flow.

An 1893 photograph of the terraces in Battir.


An 1893 photograph of the terraces in Battir.

Though Mesopotamia was the matrix from which Canaanite and Israelite culture grew,[7] the references the Bible makes to a land watered by rivers are not to Sumer. Instead, the land of Egypt, whose social system and wealth were sustained by the annual overflow of the Nile, takes Sumer’s place, becoming the biblical paragon of an unsustainable, hierarchical, idolatrous society radically out of sync with divine intention. Being out of sync was a function of Egypt’s ecology: because the river could be counted on to flood like clockwork, Egypt had no need to appeal to divine providence for rain.

This distinction, which to most modern ears would sound like a boon, is the reason for Egypt’s contumely and Canaan’s praise:

For the land that you are coming to is not like the land of Egypt, which you came out from, where you sowed your seed and gave drink with your foot (by pumping water from the Nile), like a garden of greens. [For] the land where you are passing over to is a land of mountains and valleys – through the rain of the heavens will she drink water (Deut. 11:10–12).[8]

A land that must drink from the heavens, however, is a land subject to drought. And yet the Torah teaches this is the ideal land, the land of promise, because “the eyes of YHVH your God are continually upon her.” This mystical-sounding relationship describes a simple ecological reality, imagined from a divine perspective: the lack of human control over irrigation means that God is continually assessing whether the people merit rain. Canaan was the opposite of the land of Egypt, which can go for centuries sustained by the Nile’s flooding and the technology of the pedal pump, no matter the state of the weather or the state of justice, until it finally gets its proverbial seven years of famine or its ten all-consuming plagues. Unlike Egypt, the feedback loop in Canaan is short and swift – the loop may be closed, the consequences felt, within a season or two. It is that very fact—that everyone’s tenure is tenuous—that makes Canaan/Israel a holy land.

II. Sustainability

That this is the intended meaning is clear from the passage that follows, Deuteronomy 11:13–21, which Jews the world over recite as the second passage of the prayer called the Sh’ma. The first promise of the passage is the very definition of sustainability: “[Y]our days and the days of your children will increase on the land which YHVH swore to your ancestors to give to them, like the days of the heavens over the land” (Deut. 11:21). The second promise, the consequence of not listening to the covenant, follows: “the heavens will be shut up and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give her produce, and you will be destroyed quickly from off the good land which YHVH gives you” (Deut. 11:17).

What sustainability looks like is also specific to Canaan: the land will receive both early rains and late rains,[9] the people will gather their grain and their wine and their olive oil, and there will be grass in the fields for their animals (Deut. 11:14–15).

Could the ancient Israelites have also realized that land watered by rainfall can never be made permanently infertile by salinization the way that the Mesopotamian valley was? Perhaps that is why a third promise is found in many similar passages (though not in Deuteronomy 11): a remnant of the Israelites will eventually return to the land, and the land will return to its fecundity (Lev. 26:42–45; Deut. 30:1–7).

The continuity of living on the land for as long as the heavens stay suspended over the earth was not simply a reward for obedience. Three commandments most determined one’s fitness to remain in the land: eschewing idolatry, allowing the land to rest, and doing justice for the poor, widow, orphan and stranger, that is, for the vulnerable.[10] Sustainability in the ecological sense and in the social/political sense is a direct outcome of following the latter two.

Tying all three together was the observance of Shabbat, the weekly celebration of Creation and Creator, when agricultural activity stopped and animals and people rested. Shabbat in turn was a miniature version of the Sabbatical or Shmitah year, when land ownership was annulled, when poor and rich would be sustained equally from a common food supply, when wild animals would share the produce of the land with the people, when the land would rest, and when the people would recognize God’s sovereignty over the land (Lev. 25).[11] The Sabbatical year was the capstone achievement of a society following the covenant.[12]

One could say that the purpose of religion, from the Torah’s perspective, was to teach people how to achieve a true symbiosis with the land. This is what it means to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). If the mission of the Torah was to create a truly sustainable model of agriculture, then another way to frame that is that the Torah’s mission is to change the direction of what we now call the Anthropocene.[13]

III. Indigenousness and the Israelite religion

Indigeneity is not only determined by the mere fact of being first or longest in a place, but also by forming a way of life that evolves in relation to the place where one lives. An indigenous religion[14] is one whose rituals, stories, times, dreams and laws are tied to a particular land and to its ecological rhythms and necessities.[15] One could describe the nature of these ties as constituting a covenant between a people and a land.

By most of these measures, Judaism as a religious culture and civilization should be described as indigenous to Canaan/Israel.[16] This is true regardless of how that impacts questions related to Israel/Palestine or to what degree this applies to modern Judaism. Every one of Judaism’s celebrations is exquisitely tuned to Canaan’s ecosystems and crop and water cycles.[17] 

A very old pistachio tree growing next to Rabbi Tarfon's tomb.

David Mevorach Seidenberg

A very old pistachio tree growing next to Rabbi Tarfon’s tomb.

The land’s complete dependence on rain is reflected in the fact that an entire tractate of the Talmud is concerned with what fasts, prayers, and rituals the community should perform if the rains have not come when needed.[18] 

Laws defining which animals are kosher also provide a clear example. The land animals acceptable for sacrifice or eating were uniquely suited to maximizing the advantages of the local ecosystem: cloven hooves mean an animal can graze rocky and hilly land unsuitable for farming, while chewing cud means an animal can eat plants inedible to human beings.[19] Furthermore, the Israelites not only understood themselves to be YHVH’s flock, but also understood themselves to be in a covenantal relationship with their own herds and flocks.[20] 

IV. Strangers in the land

However, there is one element found in many indigenous traditions that is not found in the Hebrew Bible or Judaism at all. Because of the generative relationship between the land and the people, many traditions describe the people as being born from the land to which they are indigenous.[21]

The opposite is the case for Israelite religion and the Judaism of the rabbis that grew from it.[22] Even though both are acutely attuned to the hills of Canaan, the Torah adamantly asserts that the Israelites and their ancestors were not from Canaan.[23] Rather, the Israelites’ self-understanding was that they came from other places – Ur Kasdim (Abraham), Aram (most of Jacob’s sons) and Egypt (the Israelites, after they evolve from a family into a nation) – to settle in Canaan.[24] 

Even more dissonant than this is the biblical commandment that the Israelites displace and dispossess, or even wipe out, the original, i.e. indigenous, inhabitants of Canaan.[25] 

It is no small relief to learn that stories about the genocide of the Canaanites at the hand of Joshua are unsupported by archaeological finds or even by other stories in the Bible.[26] There is near consensus among archaeologists that the Israelites did not cause the collapse of Canaanite culture but rather benefited from the vacuum that a prior collapse might have created.[27] Some speculate that the Israelites comprised indigenous Canaanites, escaped slaves from Egypt, the nomadic Apiru.[28] But if that is true, why would these stories depict the Israelite/Canaanites as strangers in the very land where God commands them to reside in order to fulfill their covenant? The goals and visions of the people who received and passed on the Torah cannot be understood without explaining this fact.

In this author’s opinion, the Israelites understood well what it meant to reject the claim of original indigeneity and instead claim to be strangers. The Torah teaches that “you will treat the stranger the same as one native-born, and love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Explicit in this verse is the idea that seeing oneself as a stranger is necessary in order to adequately (and radically) empathize with the stranger.[29] 

The story of being strangers in Egypt also makes the Israelites strangers in the land of Israel, because part of that story is that Egypt, not Canaan, is where their national identity was formed. From God’s perspective as portrayed in Leviticus 25, they were and would always remain strangers and temporary residents in the land (v. 23), while only God could be the land’s true owner.[30] Implicit in the structure of the story of leaving Egypt is the third promise of the covenant, that one could be exiled from the land and still be able to return.[31] 

This pattern of exile as origin and destiny is etched into the story of humanity as a whole. God shapes adamah, dirt or soil, into the first human, the adam, in a place that is not Eden. God then takes the first human from its birthplace and places him or them in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:7–8, 15).

When the human(s) sin by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they are expelled from the garden, but they are not cast out into the wide world. Rather, they are specifically sent from Eden to “serve the land from where [the adam] was taken” (Gen. 3:23) – a kind of second chance to connect to the Earth by connecting to that earth that is flesh of their flesh. These stories operate on mythical and political levels to reinforce two ideas: that one can be at home anywhere upon the Earth,[32] but one can never own any part of Earth.

V. Creation-centered religion and God’s option for the land

Other defining features of the ancient Israelite vision of the land are brought into high relief when one views Judaism and the Hebrew Bible as parts of an indigenous tradition. Five elemental ideas stand out. First, Creation, the world as a whole, is inherently “very good.” Second, the purpose of religion is to increase life. Third, when the people farm the land correctly, farming becomes a sacrament, performed in service to the land itself. Fourth, people’s sins—most especially violence and injustice—damage the land. Fifth, God’s covenant with the land takes precedence over God’s covenant with the people. Though festivals and sacrifices tied Israelite communities to the rhythms of the land, living securely in the land depended on justice:

For if you make good your ways and your practices, if you do justice between a person and his fellow, [and] stranger, orphan and widow you will not oppress, and innocent blood not spill in this place, and not walk after other gods, to the harm of yourselves – I will make you dwell in this place, in the land I gave to your ancestors, from forever and til forever. (Jeremiah 7:5–7)[33]

The fifth element is paramount for this discussion. YHVH is a God who covenants with the land, not just with the people, which means that there is no divine promise that the land will belong to any group or tribe by virtue of inheritance. Rather, the second promise of the covenant is that when the people commit sins, including injustice against other people or the land, they will go into exile and lose those privileges that come with being indigenous, which we think of as rights.

The most ecologically relevant understanding of what exile looks like is found in response to not letting the land rest, in Leviticus 26:16–43. There one reads a progression of curses that represent the unraveling of the relationship between the people and the land, starting with not getting to eat the food one grows, proceeding through famine, predators and cannibalism, and culminating with the curse, “You will be lost in the nations and the land of your enemies will eat you” (26:38).[34] Symbolically, if the land eats the people, this represents the final step of the nation’s destruction: a complete reversal of the right relationship between people and land.

However, like any natural living system, no state is permanent: while the people are exiled, the land will get its years of rest (Lev. 26:34–35, 43). Eventually, the third promise will also be fulfilled, and the people will regain the privilege to return to the land (Lev. 26:44–45).[35] 

VI. The political complexities of indigeneity

Does this myth of “eternal return,” the third promise of the covenant, imply that the Jewish people are irrevocably indigenous to the land of Canaan? Not necessarily by contemporary legal or moral standards.[36] Even according to the Torah and prophets, the Jewish people can only restore their belonging to the land through a relationship characterized by humility, justice, and compassion. For example, Leviticus 26 states: “then their hearts will be humbled… and I will remember for them the covenant of the first ones whom I took out from Egypt” (vv. 41, 45).[37] 

The early Zionists certainly believed they could return to the land while upholding those virtues. Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine before the state of Israel came into being, once wrote:

Since we (the Jewish people) are a “righteous nation, keeping faith,” our conquest [of the land of Israel] can only take place via the path of peace, by means of purchase with money. It [must be] our will to uphold the commandment to “love your neighbor like yourself” not only with individual people, but also with [other] nations.[38]

This is not how it happened.[39] But this raises a critical question. If according to the indigenous knowledge of the ancient Israelites, a renewed relationship with the land cannot be forged without love and equal justice for neighbor and stranger, is a Jewish people whose relationship with the land is lacking in those qualities no longer indigenous?

If the answer is yes, if Judaism’s indigeneity is conditional, this leads to a more fundamental question: if Judaism was once indigenous, can it again become indigenous?

Regardless of how one answers this question, one is immediately confronted by the polemical and political dimension of most arguments for or against Jewish indigeneity. Many Zionist settlers in the West Bank, for example, see themselves as the indigenous people of the land.[40] But claiming or reclaiming indigenousness is also important within the Jewish environmental movement of North America as a way of embracing the natural world where people live.[41] 

At the same time, outside Jewish studies, the state of Israel is mostly seen within academia as a settler-colonial enterprise bent on uprooting the indigenous people of Palestine.[42] The Jewish claim of indigeneity hardly dents that perspective, especially given that the polemical claim of indigenousness is a consistent mark of settler colonialism in other places and times.[43] But having mostly non-Jewish, mostly European academics in postcolonial studies decide whether the indigenous standing of the Jewish people should be suspended or forfeit feels intolerable.

There is very little theorizing that addresses the specificities and contradictions of Israel/Palestine.[44] Nevertheless, whatever the truth about Zionism’s essence, the manner in which the state of Israel administers the West Bank today is analogous to how a settler colonial state would act in order to displace an indigenous people and take control of its land.

VII. Decolonizing Judaism

There are other contingent reasons why having the majority of the people separated from the land for so long could impact Judaism’s claim of indigenousness. Fundamentally, the framework of indigeneity tends to disintegrate in exile.[45] Over many centuries, the Jewish people’s self-understanding and worldview became thoroughly colonized by Western ideas, including the modern idea of the nation-state.[46] This is unsurprising, given that the Jewish people needed to survive within societies that denied their rights and asserted that the Jewish covenant had been superseded.[47] 

A vast store of concrete knowledge of sacred history was also lost in exile, including such things as knowing which archaeological tels in the land corresponded to which ancient cities, or knowing which hills or caves were associated with which biblical stories, along with practical ecosystem knowledge like knowing the best ways to raise olives, or where in a particular region to bring sheep in the dry months.

When Jews took up the mantle of Zionism in the 19th century, they imagined they could restore indigeneity. For the secular Zionists, this often meant rejecting what indigenous wisdom they could learn from Judaism. Jews emigrating to Palestine also could have made swift progress toward this goal by learning from the “natives”[48] about living in the land.[49] (It should be emphasized, however, that Palestinian and Bedouin cultures, on the level of religion, are mostly not indigenous.[50]) But by and large, the mostly European settlers saw themselves as bringers of modern knowledge, rather than students,[51] and as the true indigenous people of the land.[52] 

As Jews confront the tragedy of the Anthropocene extinction, they (here I might say, “we”) have become conscious of the way being colonized distorts the Torah. In fact, there is a cadre working to uproot those distortions.[53] Claiming indigenousness, it turns out, is a far quicker task than restoring indigenousness.

VIII. Strangers in a strange land

Most branches of Zionism struggled with how to restore or renew Jewish indigenousness in the land of Canaan.[54] Trying to do this without being rooted in Judaism’s native wisdom is consequential. Since its inception, the Israeli government has used indigenousness, sometimes described as the “eternal bond” between the Jewish people and the land, as cover to abnegate Palestinian and Bedouin tenancy or living connection to the land. Under the terms of the covenant itself, this undermines the very conditions which are necessary for the Jewish people to regain the privilege of returning to the land.

The ancient Israelites’ self-understanding that they were strangers in the land should have the power to counteract this self-defeating dynamic. As a mythically charged story, it teaches that the goal is not to become native to one’s land, but rather to go from being strangers in a strange land[55] to being strangers in a land that is nevertheless home. Anyone one who fully internalizes the message that we are all strangers would be unable to claim that God gave the Jews the “promised land” to the exclusion of everyone else.

The eternal promise to the descendants that they could return to the land of their ancestors has led to a political reality that is the opposite of this sacred vision.[56] There is a willful effort on the Israeli and Jewish right to see Palestinians as strangers who do not belong on “our land,” even if a particular family is on land they have farmed over generations. This is inevitable when the people who most want to see the land as “promised” to them put the greatest stock in stories from the book of Joshua about ethnic cleansing, stories that archaeology might guide us to skip over entirely.[57] 

With the power to determine everyday life overwhelmingly in the hands of Israel, the competition over indigeneity leads to vastly unequal consequences that severely harm Palestinians.[58] One such consequence is the prospect of annexing Palestinian land, which is dangling like a poison bait before the current Israeli government. In the extreme, this competition gives license to radical Jewish settlers from settlements like Yizhar to destroy and burn down olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers.[59] This is not just tragic and horrifying. It is also a kind of witless self-immolation, given that destroying fruit trees is a direct violation of the very covenant that is the settlers’ basis for claiming indigenousness (Deut. 20:19–20).[60]

Even so, it seems wrong for that to cancel the Jewish people’s indigenousness, since it was the Roman Empire’s conquest that caused the Jewish people’s separation from the land. If that separation is permitted to impair every Jewish claim to be indigenous, wouldn’t that essentially ratify and privilege every conqueror’s aggression?

Fundamentally, Judaism’s indigenous core will be incomplete as long as it fails to recognize what is indigenous in Palestinian and Bedouin culture and acknowledge the rights that should accompany that recognition.[61] Becoming indigenous or “reindigenizing” can never be accomplished by competing for the mantle of indigeneity.[62] 

IX. After exile

We have explored the originary indigenous wisdom of the Torah and the Israelites, most importantly in relation to the idea that injustice harms the land, that the land has rights, and that the rights of the land take precedence over the rights of the people. One impression I may have given by this schematic overview is that Jewish people’s indigenousness is solely determined by what happened before exile.

But connection to the land also provided the foundation for the truly great project of the rabbis, which was to preserve Jewish civilization’s indigenous worldview in the face of conquest by an empire.[63] One cord of that connection was forged by the rabbis’ insistence that even Jews living in the land of Israel, if they lived under foreign rule, were also living in a state of exile.

After the classical rabbinic period, in fits and starts, Jewish culture continued to elaborate its indigenous wisdom, often as not in Palestine itself. Some of the wisdom that arose in exile is equally significant for accomplishing the Torah’s mission, which we have characterized as sustainability. Here are a few examples.

Most importantly, in 12th century Spain and Egypt, Moses Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimun, perhaps the most important Jewish philosopher of any period) articulated a radically organic, holistic picture of the universe, comparable in many ways to Gaia theory.[64] His interpretation of Torah and monotheism vehemently opposed anthropocentrism.[65] 

The Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) is also a wellspring of ideas important for thinking about ecology and sustainability. Kabbalah affirmed that the pattern of divinity called God’s image was found in the body—a rabbinic idea that had been rejected by philosophy.[66] Moreover, in Kabbalah the image united the human body and soul with Creation, which was itself seen as the greatest image of divinity we can know.[67] 

The kabbalists also found the divine image in specific aspects of Creation, such as fruit trees, animals, rainbows, constellations, in the four elements, directions and colors, and much more.[68] The focus on directions, colors, and other correspondences wrought a cosmology that is closer to other bodies of indigenous knowledge than even the cosmology of the Torah.[69] Most importantly, Kabbalah searched for God’s presence not only in the divine unity that underlies Creation, but also in the divine infinity that generates the inexhaustible diversity of created beings.[70]

As with religious knowledge in general, the truth of these ideas does not lie as much in their metaphysics as in their ethical impact.

X. Intercession and theurgy in Kabbalah

The role of the people was also transformed in an ethically vital way in Kabbalah. To be a kingdom of priests, as the Torah enjoins (Exod. 19:6), already implies being responsible to pray for all of humanity.[71] But Kabbalah expanded this responsibility into a quest to draw down cosmic blessing for all creatures and all Creation.[72] Hence, the kabbalist’s goal according to Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570, Palestine) is “to make life stream forth to all,” meaning to all creatures and existences that are alive or can become part of life.[73] In this manner, a particularistic tradition rooted in one place became universalized, not through transcendent ideologies or mythologies or campaigns of conquest, but through an immanence that expanded in all directions and dimensions, encompassing the whole world.

According to Kabbalistic theurgy, the resonance between the human body and the whole of Creation magnifies both human responsibility for Creation and the human power to bring blessing or harm to Creation. As the Zohar teaches, “All who wound God’s works wound God’s image. And the name [of God] does not rest on a wounded place.”[74]

XI. Hasidic indigenous wisdom

Other ideas rooted in Kabbalah sustained Judaism’s indigenous wisdom and were further elaborated by Hasidism. Cordovero, for example, spoke about our responsibility to show compassion to all creatures and to care for the soul and personhood of those plants and animals whose lives human beings take in order to live.[75] The Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760, Ukraine), founder of Hasidism, added that we should experience not just compassion but also comradeship with “all our relations,” to use the Native American phrase.[76]

Since we must use other creatures in order to survive—whether to farm or to eat or to make tools from or to use for work—we can use well those creatures we use at all, even as we live among all of them, nurturing them with compassion and supporting a world in which all thrive.

Hasidic thinkers of the 18th and 19th century also transformed the Zohar’s mythical encounters on a fictionalized land of Israel into a mystical relationship with the real lands where they lived.[77] Conversely, several Hasidic leaders were inspired to actually immigrate to the holy land with their communities.[78]

Most vitally, we also find in Hasidism belief in a kind of ecosystem of divine energy in which the human being and the ground itself are both organs of a complex cycle nurturing both Life and divinity. Two examples of such models of the universe come from Nachman of Breslov and from Shneur Zalman of Liady.

Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810, Ukraine), great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, instructed his followers to go alone everyday into the fields or forests to pray aloud. He taught that human prayer derives its strength from the fields and plants – specifically from their songs.[79] All the plants in a given locale or circuit of transhumance form a kind of chorus, and from their chorus the shepherd—the one who cares for other species of creatures—derives a niggun or melody in synchrony with them that can help the plants there grow.[80]

Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745–1813, Russia), founder of Chabad Hasidism, perceived a spiritual light “greater than the hosts of heaven” radiating from the earth that begets the plants and trees.[81] He describes this Or Chozer—meaning returning or reflected light—as a revelation of the original light of Creation, which he identifies with chesed, lovingkindness.[82] 

The evidence of many centuries proves that wisdom we might characterize as indigenous continued to evolve during exile, both in the land of the promise and outside of it. Moreover, this wisdom shaped how Jews related to the land of Canaan/Israel/Palestine.


Indigeneity in postcolonial thought may be treated as an ontological category, but on a cultural level it is actually something created through relationships, something that grows and evolves and that can wax or wane. In this respect, though a people may count as indigenous based on blood or genetic inheritance, a culture can only be indigenous based on its living relationship to the earth. That relationship can be nurtured even in exile – and it can be denied or belied even in the land of the promise.

After the exile that started in the year 70, rabbinic Judaism found a way to maintain its relationship to being indigenous and to the land. The wisdom endemic to the ancient biblical and Israelite traditions, characterized by ideals about the personhood of the land, agriculture as a sacrament, and husbandry as a covenant, became sealed within vessels that were easy to transport but difficult to open. Indigenous Israelite wisdom continued to evolve in diaspora, but the indigenousness of the Jewish people as a whole broke down over the centuries of exile.

In the context of modern nationalism, which is embodied by the state of Israel, some of those vessels were opened in a way that distorted the mission and the message. The very indigenousness that would forbid the violation of what we think of as human rights is instead used to justify the violation of those rights.

What existed at the time of the formation of the state of Israel were two incommensurable realities, each holding different parts of the equation of indigenousness: a Jewish culture based on religious tradition, which encoded indigenous knowledge, and a Palestinian and Bedouin culture based on practical knowledge and experience with the land. The same differences of kind that separate Jewish and Palestinian indigenousness make it hard for each side to recognize indigenousness in the other. Whether these two realms of indigenousness can or will ever be brought together in synergy, rather than enmity, is a question as yet unresolved.

The covenant remains the only basis for claiming a Jewish right to return to the land of Palestine. What has become clearer and clearer through the decades is that the third promise of the covenant is not the return engineered by Zionism. Though annexation seems to be a willful turning away from a more humanistic version of Zionism, the blindness it represents dates back to the origins of the state and the failure of the state to live up to the third promise of the covenant, the promise to “redeem Zion through Justice” (Isa. 1:27). The only way to safely open Judaism’s vessels, to validly reclaim indigeneity and to return to the land, is to embrace being in a land that is home to more than one indigenous people and more than one type of indigenousness.

Only then can the Jewish people find the common ground needed to thrive together with the Palestinian people. This too is the only way that the mission of Israelite civilization—to create a world which does not self-destruct the way that Sumer self-destructed, a world in which humans serve the land and live in justice—can be reborn and fulfilled.

[1] Thanks are due to a rather large group of friends on facebook who helped me work through some of the questions I deal with here, most especially to Sue Salinger and Sam Brody.

 Some would restrict the term “indigenous” to the peoples now under oppression whose oppression is a continuation or consequence of modern colonialism. For the sake of this article that distinction is less critical at the outset, though I will return to it below.

[2] Eisenberg, Ecology of Eden (1998), 69–125; The Mountain and the Tower (2000), esp. 26–41. Eisenberg first proposed that the land of Canaan was a contrapositive image of Sumer and Mesopotamia. This section is entirely grounded in his research and ideas. For a more general survey of the indebtedness of Israelite culture to Mesopotamian religious traditions and motifs, see Middleton, The Liberating Image (2005), 130–136, 147–184.

[3] Starr, “The Sumerian Shepherd Kings” (2015); Zaccagnini, “Sacred and Human Components in Ancient Near Eastern Law” (1994). Pointedly, in Mesopotamia the king alone was also seen as the image of God. Middleton (145) concludes that the Torah asserted that all humanity was “in the image of God” in direct contrast with that idea.

[4] Perlin, A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization (1995), 35–43. Sumer’s stance vis-à-vis its own culture’s achievements, especially with respect to deforestation, was ambiguous. The Epic of Gilgamesh thematizes the destruction of the natural world as a result of human insecurity and greed. Most importantly, Gilgamesh journeys to the sacred mountain forests with his companion Enkidu, where they slay Humbaba, god of the forests, and strip the forests bare. This can be read as a story of human triumph or desecration (Sentesy, “Gilgamesh and Ecology,” 2020).

[5] Artzy and Hillel, “A defense of the theory of progressive soil salinization in ancient southern Mesopotamia” (1988); Perlin, 38, 43; Eisenberg (1998), 122–124.

[6] Jacobsen and Adams, “Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture” (1958); Eisenberg (1998), 124.

[7] Middleton, 130–136, 147–184.

[8] All translations are the author’s.

[9] In Hebrew, yoreh umalqosh. If we accept the principles of linguistic relativity, the diverse Hebrew vocabulary for different kinds of rain reflects the culture’s deep dependence on rain.

[10] E.g. Exod. 22:21–22; Lev 19:9–34; Deut. 10:12–20; Jer. 7:5–7; Ezek. 22:7, 22:29; Zech. 7:10; Psalm 94:6.

[11] Other agricultural commandments (e.g. Lev. 19:9–10; Deut. 24:19–21) similarly emphasized caring for the poor and limited the scope of human ownership over the land.

[12] Avery-Peck, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, (1991), introduction, 1–4; Rosenblum, “Is Gaia Jewish? Finding a Framework for Radical Ecology in Traditional Judaism” (2001); Deutscher et al., The Hazon Shmita Sourcebook (2013); Seidenberg, “Shmita: The Purpose of Sinai” (2013).

[13] Needless to say, the mission has not been brought to fruition yet.

[14] The word “religion” presumes a separation between spiritual/theurgic/ritual practice and the rest of life that is neither characteristic of indigenous traditions nor of Judaism. Moreover, the term “paganism,” though outdated, would in its meaning “of the land” apply equally to most indigenous traditions and to Judaism. See Schwartz, “Judaism and Nature: Theological and Moral Issues to Consider While Renegotiating a Jewish Relationship to the Natural World” (1985); Hammer, “An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar” (2004); Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology (2015), 8–10, 23.

[15] Gindin, “Are Both Jews and Palestinians Indigenous to Israel?” (2017); Rappaport, Ecology, Meaning, and Religion (1979) and Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).

[16] Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (1996), esp. 61–62, 78, 136; Hftterman, The Ecological Message of the Torah: Knowledge, Concepts and Laws which Made Survival in a Land of Milk and Honey Possible (1999); Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (2009); Joerstad, The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics: Humans, NonHumans, and the Living Landscape (2019), esp. 22–23.

[17] Sukkot marks the fall harvest of tree fruit as well as the crucial beginning of the rainy season; Passover comes when barley is harvested in spring at the end of the rains, which is also the beginning of the maturation of the wheat; Shavuot is when the first loaves made from the new wheat were offered in the Temple, and also when first fruits have started to form on trees, followed again in the fall by the fruit harvest. The way the seasons and festivals interlock was experienced as a dimension of the land’s holiness. Of the extensive literature on this topic, Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy (1982) was seminal.

[18] This tractate, Taanit, is thoroughly analyzed from an ecological perspective in Watts Belser, Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster (2015).

[19] Seidenberg, “Kashroots: Towards an Eco-history of the Kosher Laws” (2008b).

[20] Seidenberg, “Veganism and Covenantalism: Contrasting and Overlapping Moralities” (2019b). Other examples of laws attuned to the ecosystem include the prohibition against taking a wild bird tending its nest along with the eggs or nestlings (Lev. 22:28), and the prohibition on cutting down fruit trees, even in times of war (Deut. 20:19), and in addition to these, myriad other agricultural laws, many focused on the needs of the poor.

[21] Of course, there are just a few places to which the human species is actually native in the evolutionary or biological sense. Gindin writes, “All people throughout the world ultimately come from somewhere else. What makes a people indigenous to a place is their having become a people in that land, and having all the earmarks of a unique culture associated with that place.”

[22] A related indigenous motif does hold an important place in Jewish imagination: the idea that world was built starting from the spiritual or cultic center of the indigenous land. In the case of rabbinic Judaism, the foundation stone from which the whole Earth was built, also sometimes described as the navel of the earth, was the place of the stone altar at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mishnah Yoma 5:2 (2nd cent. Palestine), Midrash Tanchuma, Q’doshim 10 (approx. 9th cent. or earlier), Bemidbar Rabbah, Naso 12:4 (approx. 12th cent. Europe)). This stone was also said to be the place where Abraham slew a ram in Isaac’s stead (Targum Yerushalmi ad 2 Chron. 3:1), which is to some degree an origin story, but not a birth story. The Dome of the Rock is thought by Muslims and Jews to be built around this stone. There are also midrashic texts claiming the Temple was the site from which soil was taken to form the first human being (Bereishit Rabbah 12:8, 4th cent. Palestine). The conservation of the foundation stone motif in midrashic collections separated by many centuries testifies to the persistence of indigenous thought patterns.

[23] What the books of the Bible “do share in common is the insistence that the Israelites were outsiders, a non-indigenous group that was distinct from the Canaanites” (Killebrew, Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians (2005), 151; see also Machinist, “Outsiders or Insiders: The Biblical View of Emergent Israel and Its Contexts” (1994); and Wazana, “The Land Within and Without: The Cycle of Israel’s Life” (2014)).

[24] Isaac, Jacob and Benjamin however are born in Canaan. Ur Kasdim (“Ur of the Chaldees”) and Aram (or Paddan-Aram) are both located in Mesopotamia.

[25] In fact, the theme of dispossession comes right after the encomium to sustainability, in Deut. 11:22–25. See also Gen. 15:18–21, Exod. 33:2, 34:11–13, Deut. 7:1–6, Joshua throughout.

[26] For example, Judges describes long periods of coexistence punctuated by skirmishes and minor wars. In Kings, David’s court includes officers who come from the Canaanite nations that were supposed to have been destroyed.

[27] Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (2003); Killebrew (2005). Killebrew describes four theories of ethnogenesis, stating that the only one lacking evidence is the story of conquest (181–185).

[28] Killebrew, 184–185. This may seem like apologetics, and people who find inspiration in these stories of genocide will likely dismiss such arguments. But we should at least note that from the rabbinic perspective, the commandments about the seven Canaanite nations were nullified completely long ago and cannot have any normative value.

[29] The degree to which the Tanakh (Bible) focuses on the stranger is literally the stuff of midrashic legends; it is the most frequent and generative subject thematized in the commandments. All the verses related to the stranger are listed in Seidenberg, “Neighbor and Stranger” (2018).

[30] Absent this element, the stranger motif can be abused to justify “enlightened” colonialism, in which Jews could assert their own indigenous rights, while extending a lesser rung of rights to Palestinians, who would be placed in the category of strangers in the very land where they may have lived for some generations.

[31] This may be the originary meaning, especially if these stories were shaped by people who were living in exile.

[32] The classical rabbis emphasized this point by imagining that the soil used to make the first human being was gathered from every place on Earth: “The One began to gather the dirt (to make the first human) from the four corners of the world…Why from the four directions of the earth? So that if one…reaches the end (of his life) to separate from the world, the land won’t say, ‘The dirt of your body is not from me. Return to the place you were created’” (Yalkut Shimoni 13:2; see also Tanchuma Pekudei 3:17). Note the contrasting midrash, discussed above, in which the dirt is gathered from the future site of the Temple.

[33] Cf. Ezek. 22:7, 22:29; Zech. 7:10; Psalm 94:6, among many other examples.

[34] Seidenberg (2015), 157n.509.

[35] See also Deut. 4:29–31, 30:1–5; Isa. 10:21, 11:16; Jer. 23:3, 29:10–14, 30:3; Mic. 7:18; Zech. 8:7.

[36] Some would disagree strongly with my hesitant assessment. As Bellerose (“Are Jews Indigenous to the Land of Israel? Yes.” (2017)) and Rÿser (“Indigenous Israelis and Palestinians” (2014)), both of whom are indigenous, point out, the Jewish people seem to meet the criteria for indigenousness articulated by José Martínez Cobo, UN special rapporteur on discrimination against indigenous peoples. Rÿser, however, equally affirms Palestinian indigeneity (as does Gindin, who also cites Cobo), whereas Bellerose rejects the idea that the Palestinians are indigenous. Cobo was instrumental in creating the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which does not have any sunset clause based on length of time in exile.

[37] Other examples include Mic. 6:8, 7:18; Jer 22:3, 23:3.

[38] Kook (1988(, 168. On Kook’s use or misuse by the settler movement, see Mirsky (2014). Secular Zionist A.D. Gordon similarly said that the land could not be acquired by “blood and fire” (“Avodateinu Mei’atah” (1919)). We must add here that in his essay “The Iron Wall,” Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, explicitly describes the Palestinians (whom he calls the Arabs) as the indigenous people of the land (Benstein, 203).

[39] For example, the massacre at Deir Yassin, carried out by the extremist military group Lehi weeks before Israel’s declaration of independence, convinced thousands of Palestinians to flee to zones controlled by the Arab armies, while the Israeli army drove out many thousands more in the months that followed from central areas of what was to become Israel. See Morris (1989).

[40] Benstein, Place and The Other – The Place of the Other: Contested Narratives in Environmental Activism Among Jews and Palestinians in Israel (2004), 139. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss nuances within the settler movement, but it should be noted that the range of beliefs among religious settlers is very broad. It includes genuine fascism in settlements like Yizhar, but it also includes the followers of peacemaker Rabbi Menachem Fruman, some of whom have vowed to support the emergence of a fully equal Palestinian state in which they hope to become citizens. Many of the early Zionist immigrants, irrespective of political party or religious affiliation, similarly saw themselves as indigenous or as participating in a struggle to become indigenous.

[41] This movement has two axes, organic farming and wilderness experience. The latter often focuses on drawing connections between Jewish practice and Native American practice, which is imagined to be closer to ancient Judaism. See esp. Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism (2003) and the website of the organization Wilderness Torah, founded by Zelig Golden, which defines its mission as “reconnect[ing] Jewish culture to its indigenous roots.” On the relationship of environmentalism and Zionism, see Benstein, 16–57. On Jewish environmentalism’s potential to be either a complement or an alternative to Zionism, see Seidenberg (2015), 125n.405.

[42] See e.g. Piterberg, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (2008); Lloyd; Amoruso et al., “Knowledge, Power, and the ‘Settler Colonial Turn’ in Palestine Studies” (2019) (along with the whole issue in which Amoruso appears), Khalidi, The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance (2020). Busbridge, “Israel-Palestine and the Settler Colonial ‘Turn’: From Interpretation to Decolonization” (2018) argues that the purpose of academic study should be to create political solidarity with Palestine, and that the paradigm of settler colonialism is the best way to accomplish that. Though Penslar (2017a) has reservations about the settler colonial paradigm, he agrees that Israel became a colonizing state after 1967. But Thompson, “Moving Zionism to Asia: Texts and tactics of Colonial Settlement, 1917–1921” (2017) and Khalidi both describe Zionism as already being a colonial enterprise in 1917.

[43] Lloyd, “Settler Colonialism and the State of Exception: The Example of Palestine/Israel” (2012); Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor” (2012, 8ff); Veracini, “The Other Shift: Settler Colonialism, Israel, and the Occupation” (2013), and Penslar, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Colonialism” (2017b), 31. Settlers do not generally realize the irony this imputes to their claim. Nevertheless, in Israel’s case the claim of the settlers is not entirely devoid of solidity: the traditions on which Judaism is based are indigenous to the hills of the West Bank, generally called Judea and Samaria by the settlers and their supporters, not to the coast of Tel Aviv.

[44] Benstein is an admirable exception. He writes,

While much has been written both for and against the colonialist interpretation of Zionism, most of the scholarly writings on the subject assume that it has to be one way or the other: if colonialism, then the consciousness of return is a dangerous, wholly invented myth; if “reindigenization,” then colonialism is an anti-Semitic libel. A colonialist has to be a foreigner, and somebody returning home is per force not engaging in colonialism. Few have been able to acknowledge that a phenomenon as complex as a national movement can be Janus-faced in this way—not either/or, but both/and.  

In postcolonial studies, Albert Memmi is also essential, though it requires reconciling his works The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965) and Decolonization and the Decolonized (2006). Memmi’s pro-Israel stance led to his being written out of the field of postcolonial studies (Linfield, “Albert Memmi: Zionism as National Liberation” 2019). See also Case, “Decolonizing Jewishness: On Jewish Liberation in the 21st Century” (2018) and Penslar (2017a), who takes pains to differentiate the Zionist movement from typical settler colonialism, along with Cole’s critique (2017) of Penslar. Yiftachel, “Israeli Society and Jewish-Palestinian Reconciliation: Ethnocracy and Its Territorial Contradictions” (1997, 505) articulates a model of colonialism that takes the Jewish history of exile and persecution into account (“colonialism of the displaced”). Newman (1997) discusses the same reality with greater empathy. Benstein (107) among all these scholars is also the only one who reflects on Jewish religious practice and its indigenous relationship to the land of biblical Israel.

[45] Without the framework of indigeneity, Judaism has been consistently misinterpreted by Jews themselves (Seidenberg (2015), 23, 30–33, 110–114, 123–126) as well as by others (e.g., Royal, Indigenous worldviews—a comparative study (2003), 30, 63). Indigenous conceptions of the universe, including the idea that everything is alive and ensouled, were also overwritten as Judaism aligned itself metaphysically with the body-soul dualism that characterized Hellenism (Seidenberg (2015), 131–138, 354–356). For example, there is no concept of soul distinct from the body in the Torah and the same word, nefesh, can mean living body or corpse or soul in the Torah, while the word eitz means both tree and wood.

[46] The alienation induced by this process eventually led to absurdities such as the idea that Judaism is concerned with history in opposition to Nature, or that concern for Nature is “pagan” (Schorsch, “Tending to Our Cosmic Oasis” (1991); Sokol, “Ethical Implications of Jewish Conceptions of the Natural World” (2002)). At the same time Jews were co-creators of Western modernity wherever they were empowered to be. This fact confounds creating a pure narrative of indigeneity.

[47] Supersessionism also meant that Jewish claims to the holy land were negated. This was true in both Christian and Muslim societies.

[48] Some of those natives were Arab Jews, including the family of my great-grandfather, Binyamin Mevorach, who grew up in Jerusalem and came to the United States in 1910 to escape the Ottoman draft.

[49] At the same time, earth-based knowledge in Palestinian culture would not necessarily apply to ancient ways of life in Canaan, because it is grounded in ecosystems far less diverse and verdant than the ecosystems of the Bible, which would have predated the widespread deforestation of the land under Rome and later conquerors and colonizers.

[50] Though Islam is the most important religion in Palestinian culture, it is a religion of the land’s conquerors. The fact that Islam is rooted in a desert culture, making it readily transferable to the context of Israel/Palestine, and the fact that the Muslim conquest defeated far more oppressive Christian rule, cannot make it indigenous. Of course, Christianity in its origins would have been indigenous to Israel/Palestine, but the globalized form it took when it was turned into an instrument of conquest makes it no more indigenous than it would be to Ireland. This tension between the religion of the colonizers and the claim of Palestinian indigeneity seems to be ignored in postcolonial literature about Palestine.

[51] Penslar, “Is Zionism a Colonial Movement?” (2017a), 280–282.

[52] Koffman, The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America (2019), 216.

[53] See e.g. Schwartz; Hammer; and Seidenberg (2015), 9–10, 23.

[54] Benstein explores this process of “reindigenization” at great length (100–123).

[55] “Stranger in a strange land” is how Moses describes himself when he is actually living in the holy land (Exod. 2:22). Moses never gets to make that transition to being home.

[56] Many would argue that it is the opposite of the Zionist vision as well. Gans even argues that moral consistency would require most versions of Zionism to call for Palestinian repatriation to the some of the places inside of Israel from which they were exiled (“The Palestinian Right of Return and the Justice of Zionism” (2004)).

[57] Some on Israel’s extreme right would even equate the Palestinians with the Canaanites, who according to the book of Joshua and parts of the Torah were subject to genocide. There are also Palestinians who claim to be Canaanites as a way of preempting Israelite history. Such claims have little material basis. Conversely, some of the early Zionist immigrants saw the Palestinians as descending from Jews who had assimilated.

[58] This is in fact the meaning of occupation, and fatuous arguments about U.N. resolutions or Jewish indigenousness that have been marshalled by the right in order to deny that Israel is an occupying power, even were they to be legally correct, are irrelevant to that fact.

[59] For examples, see Magid, “Army says Palestinian olive grove torched by West Bank settlers” (2017) and Shezaf, “120 Olive Trees Belonging to Palestinians Destroyed in West Bank” (2019). It should be noted that there are also very different settlements where one can find followers of peacemaker Rabbi Menachem Fruman, some of whom have vowed to support the emergence of a fully equal Palestinian state in which they hope to become citizens.

[60] In a more just and Torah-guided world, Israel would immediately expel settlers committing such crimes from the West Bank and permanently ban them from re-entering.

[61] Does the same hold true in the opposite direction? Because of the asymmetry in historical reality and political power, this is by no means a given.

[62] Obviously, Palestinians and their supporters also compete for this mantle. But for Jews, this competition is also self-undermining.

[63] See e.g. Kadushin, Organic Thinking: A Study in Rabbinic Thought (1938); Seidenberg (2015), esp. chs. 2, 4, 5, 12. The way the rabbis adopted a Hellenistic concept of “soul” to fit their own purposes is illustrative Seidenberg (2015), 133–136.

[64] Seidenberg (2015), ch. 10. In The Guide for the Perplexed (1963), note especially 1:72, 184–190.  

[65] Guide for the Perplexed, 3:12, 3:13, 442, 452. Maimonides employed Gen. 1:28 (“And God saw all that God had made, and behold, it is very good”) for both these purposes. He explained that the goodness of every created thing (“and God saw that it is good”) meant that each creature exists for its own sake, rather than for the sake of humanity, while the description of Creation as very good indicated the value of the whole Creation, which incomparably surpasses the value of any creature or species including human beings (Guide, 452). Furthermore, the goodness that makes Creation “very good” is what God showed Moses when Moses asked to see God’s own goodness. According to Maimonides, apprehending this goodness means understanding the “nature [of all existing beings] and the way they are mutually connected” (Guide, 1:54, 124). See Seidenberg (2015, 15–17). For further discussion of Maimonides, see Seidenberg, “Maimonides (1135–1204) – His Thought related to Ecology” (2005) and Seidenberg (2015), 23–30, 70–72, 148, 345.

[66] Seidenberg (2015), 176–177, 187–201.

[67] This is most explicit in the writings Yosef Ashkenazi (c.13th/14th cent.) (Seidenberg (2015), 215, 238, 250–254).

[68] Seidenberg (2015), chs. 6, 7.

[69] I explore this phenomenon in Seidenberg, “The Kabbalah of the Sweatlodge” (2010), and more generally in Seidenberg (2015), ch. 7.

[70] Seidenberg (2015), 231–233, 256–257, 343; examples include Zohar 2:15b–16a and 2:176a–b.

[71] As does the promise to Abraham that his seed will be a blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3; also Gen. 18:18, 22:18, 26:4, 28:14.) This idea was expanded in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6, Micah 4:2). According to the rabbis, following Zech. 14:17, the Israelites were commanded to offer sacrifices on Sukkot on behalf of all the nations of the world (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 28:1; b.Talmud Sukkah 55b). (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, written in Palestine, and the Talmud, written in Babylonia, both date to the 4th–6th centuries.)

[72] Seidenberg (2015), xi, 37, 218, 335–336.

[73] Tomer Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah), ch. 20.

[74] Ra`ya Mehemna 3:123b.

[75] Seidenberg, “Building the Body of the Shekhinah: Reenchantment and Redemption of the Natural World in Hasidic Thought” (2019a), 17.

[76] In a lesson about humility, he describes all creatures as chaverim, “friends” or “comrades”: “If God had not given one intelligence, one would not be able to serve the One blessed be except like a worm. A person should think that a worm and the rest of the small creatures are important, like friends in the world, for all are created beings, and none have any ability except what was given to them by the Creator” (Tzava’at Harivash (1998), 5, §12).

[77] This is emblematized in the stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov spending entire weeks meditating in a cave in the forest, and in the widespread Hasidic practice to go on pilgrimage to the graves of notable rebbes in Eastern Europe. A group of Hasidim even claimed in 2017 to have found the actual cave (Batya Jerenberg, “Meditation Cave of Mystical Jewish Leader Discovered” (2017)).

[78] Most notably, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk led some 300 followers to establish a community in the Galilee in 1777.

[79] Likutey Moharan (1965), 2:11. See Seidenberg (2019a), 3–5.

[80] Likutey Moharan, 2:63Melody, unencumbered by words, can cross the silence and empty space separating the universe from God, reaching all the way to Ein Sof, the infinite, primordial source (1:64).

[81] Likutey Amarim—Tanya (1956), Iggeret Hakodesh 20, 510–512. See Seidenberg (2015), 255–265.

[82] According to Shneur Zalman, this light upwells from the earth itself without the need for human intervention, even though human involvement in sowing and farming can engender the flow of mayin nukvin, the feminine waters, which stimulates the realms above.

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2 thoughts on “The Third Promise

  1. I question self-determination as a foundation for a nation. Self-determination as a foundation for a nation means that the nation is founded on the basis of a particular ethnic or religious paradigm. Regardless of the intent of the founders of the nation those citizens who do not subscribe to the paradigm on which the nation is founded must eventually become second-class citizens. A democracy must have no second-class citizens, but that is the inevitable outcome of a nation founded on self-determination unless there is ethnic cleansing of those who don’t fit the paradigm. However, ethnic cleansing in itself is wrong. A democratic state must be a state for all its citizens. Self-determination is incompatible with democracy. I am an American Jew living in Australia. Jews can and do hold high office in both countries. Non-Jews will not hold high office in Israel as long as Israel is a Jewish state and not a democracy.