Rav Soloveitchik’s Bold Stance on Kedushat Erets Yisrael

One aspect of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s philosophy that distinguishes him from other prominent Orthodox Jewish thinkers is his boldness in challenging conventional ideas while remaining true to halakhic principles. In one such instance, the Rav breaks away from a prominent opinion among Rishonim concerning the uniqueness and kedushah (sanctity) of the Land of Israel.[i] R. Yehudah ha-Levi argues that Israel has specific metaphysical qualities and inherent advantages over other lands. For example, its ideal weather (“moisture,” in his words) is particularly conducive to optimal health and spiritual life.[ii] For these reasons, God had to bring Abraham to Israel before He could make a covenant designating him and his descendants as God’s treasured people.[iii] Ramban[iv] and others agree that Israel has intrinsic sanctity.

The Rav strongly opposes this notion on halakhic grounds in his posthumously published essay, The Emergence of Ethical Man:

With all my respect for the Rishonim, I must disagree with such an opinion. I do not believe that it is halakhically cogent. Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category. A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority. The halakhic term kedushat ha-aretz, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest (heroic deeds) or the mere presence of the people in that land (intimacy of man and nature). Kedushah is identical with man’s association with Mother Earth. Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.[v]

It is important to see how the Rav’s bold claim in Emergence about the origins of Israel’s sanctity compares with his discussion of the same topic in a teshuvah and yahrtzeit lecture of his. As is true of so much of the Rav’s Torah, he conveys his thoughts on this topic by means of explicating a perplexing ruling of Rambam.

A well-known debate in the Talmud relates to the sanctity of Israel in different eras. There are differing opinions among Tanna’im as to whether the “first kedushah,” which began in the time of Joshua, terminated when the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their land.[vi] Rishonim similarly debate the status of the “second kedushah,” from the time of Ezra and the Second Temple. The Sefer ha-Terumah[vii] believes that both the first and second kedushot were temporary, and each vanished upon the destruction of the respective Temple. Rambam disagrees; he records in several places in Mishneh Torah that, while the first kedushah disappeared upon Israel’s exile, the second kedushah remained and is therefore still in effect.[viii] Rambam explains his distinction based on the nature of each Jewish settlement in Israel. Joshua’s entrance into Israel was through military might, and that produced the status of sanctity in Israel. Once the Babylonians amassed greater military might and defeated and exiled the Jews, the original Jewish conquest was nullified and the land’s sanctity expired. Ezra, in contrast, established the Jewish presence in Israel through dwelling, hazakah, a term borrowed from the halakhic method of acquiring real estate. As Jews returned to reside in Israel, they became the owners, and the sanctity their presence brought to the land remains to this day.[ix]

The Kesef Mishneh notes, “I do not know why the strength of hazakah is greater than the strength of conquest, and why we don’t also say regarding hazakah that, once the land is taken from our hands, the hazakah is nullified. Moreover, at first, when the land was sanctified through conquest, was there not also hazakah? Is hazakah without conquest [in Ezra’s time] greater than hazakah with conquest [in Joshua’s time]?”[x] The Tosafot Yom Tov explains that the gentile conquest nullifies the Jewish conquest because the land’s sanctity was based on the Jews’ military might, which was negated when the Jews were defeated. However, the second kedushah arose because the landowner, King Cyrus of Persia, allowed Jews to settle in Israel. The Jews thus had permission to settle the land, and, even after the Romans exiled them, they continued to be the rightful owners, so the land’s sanctity endured.[xi]

While this approach explains Rambam’s distinction between the first and second kedushot, Rambam’s full opinion is more complicated: he also distinguishes between Jerusalem and the rest of Israel. He believes that Jerusalem was sanctified forever when Solomon built the First Temple; even though the sanctity of the rest of Israel disappeared during the first exile, Jerusalem and the Temple remained sanctified.[xii] This assertion apparently lacks a source, as Ra’avad notes.[xiii]

Rambam seems to acknowledge that his opinion is unprecedented, as he anticipates the reader’s question. “And why do I say for the Temple and Jerusalem that the first kedushah is eternal, but, for the rest of Israel…, it is not eternal? Because the kedushah of the Temple and Jerusalem is due to the Shekhinah (the divine presence), and the Shekhinah is never nullified.”[xiv] Rambam quotes from a Mishnah that even when synagogues are destroyed, their sanctity persists;[xv] he applies the same concept to the Temple.

In two separate homiletic contexts, the Rav deals with this interesting opinion of Rambam. These speeches are recorded in the collections of the Rav’s teshuvah lectures and his yahrtzeit lectures.[xvi]

In one of his teshuvah lectures, the Rav compares the personal, spiritually redemptive aspects of repentance to the national, political return of the exiles. Following this connection, he addresses the matter of Israel’s sanctity and Rambam’s unique stance. The Rav is bothered by the questions the Kesef Mishneh raised: what is more lasting about turning destruction into settlement (in Ezra’s time) than forceful conquest (in Joshua’s time)? The Rav sees significance in the fact that Rambam explains the reason for the distinction between the first and second kedushot only in Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, even though he mentioned the halakhic difference twice before, in Hilkhot Terumot and Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel. This may be connected with Rambam’s discussion of a second issue in Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah – the unique status of the Temple and Jerusalem, whose kedushah never expires. The Rav proposes that the same force responsible for Jerusalem’s eternal sanctity is also responsible for the eternality of Ezra’s sanctification of Israel; namely, the Shekhinah. Ezra’s settlement of Israel, like Solomon’s construction of the Temple, was “be-derekh ha-Shekhinah,” by way of the divine presence, so the later destruction of Israel could not impact its sanctified status, just as the destruction of the Temple did not reduce its sanctity. Joshua’s conquest, though, represented the Jews’ physical power, which the Babylonians’ conquest negated.

The foremost decider of kedushah is behirah, divine choice. God’s choice of the Temple and Jerusalem is suggested by the beginning of Solomon’s prayer upon his Temple’s dedication.[xvii] As for Israel, the Mishnah lists ten kedushot, concentric regions of sanctity, in ascending order;[xviii] the Land of Israel is listed first, for it serves as the foundation of the “pyramid” of all sanctity. This Mishnah implies that God chose Israel, since a region cannot be sanctified without divine selection. But when did these kedushot of Jerusalem and of Israel arise? Joshua conquered Israel before the Temple was built, and even before Jerusalem was selected. The sanctity which came along with the Jews’ military victory and forceful settlement of the land was “kedushah al yedei kibbush,” sanctity via conquest. Only generations later, when Solomon completed the Temple, did God finally choose Jerusalem as the dwelling place of His Shekhinah. Joshua’s Israel was sanctified first in Jericho, then Ai, and then the south and the north, as he and the Jews defeated the Canaanite armies and settled their cities. The process of sanctification evolved from the periphery inwards. The result was that only Jerusalem had the sanctity of divine choice, while the rest of Israel had a more temporary sanctity which could be removed through destruction.

Ezra’s resettlement of Israel was different. The primary hazakah of the returning exiles was in Jerusalem and the Temple, for which they returned, and which they immediately began to rebuild. Since Jerusalem was already the seat of the Shekhinah from the time of Solomon’s Temple, the entire resettlement of Israel, which overflowed outward from Jerusalem like a spring, attained the heightened and permanent level of sanctity by way of the divine presence. The mekaddesh, the sanctifier, was the Mikdash, the Temple. Therefore, Rambam believes, the areas of Jewish settlement in the time of Ezra continue to be sanctified nowadays for the same reason Solomon’s Temple is always sanctified: the Shekhinah is never nullified.[xix] The Rav uses this insightful explanation of Rambam’s opinion to establish two routes of personal repentance. While some may feel a passionate inner drive to return to God which then infects their whole being, in a way parallel to Ezra’s resettlement of Israel, there is also a gradual type of repentance, corresponding to Joshua’s conquest, which slowly works inward to impact one’s heart.

In one of his annual yahrtzeit shiurim, the Rav gave a different explanation of Rambam’s opinion. The lecture was about the difference between Moses’ Torah and Ezra’s Torah, between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God’s Ark in the wilderness had a dual role. “It was as the Ark travelled that Moses said, ‘Arise, God, and Your enemies will scatter and those who hate You will flee from before You.’ And as it rested, he would say, ‘Reside, God, among the myriad thousands of Israel.’”[xx] Each of these two functions – smashing enemies and resting in place – creates kedushah.

In its mobile military function, the Ark, which contains the Torah and represents the Shekhinah, was conqueror and sanctifier of conquered lands. Joshua’s conquest of the land was achieved through the mobile Ark; the Jews merely had to bring it with them into battle, and God promised, “Every area on which you set the sole of your foot, I have given to you.”[xxi] In its stationary function as well, the Ark sanctified its home, the Temple. The sanctity of the conquered lands vanished when the Jews were defeated, because it was no longer the case that “Your enemies will scatter, and those who hate You will flee from before You.” But King Josiah hid the Ark in secret tunnels which Solomon had dug under the Temple. Even though the Temple was destroyed, the Ark remained; the Shekhinah was not nullified.

Ezra did not use the Ark, which was still buried, to sanctify Israel; he instead employed a hazakah. The Talmud Yerushalmi interprets the verse “And He will do good to you and increase you more than your forefathers”[xxii] to mean that the second wave of Israel settlement could sanctify the land even while under the burden of foreign rulers, when the location of the Ark is unknown.[xxiii] The Rav believed this new form of sanctification was the Oral Torah. This can be contrasted with Joshua’s settlement of Israel, where the Ark, representing the Written Torah, was responsible for the land’s sanctity. The Written Torah is an object which the tsibbur, the group, wields. When Nebuchadnezzar scattered the group, the sanctity vanished. However, the Oral Torah lacks a physical form, and each Jew individually sanctifies Israel when he learns the Oral Torah. As long as there are individuals who study Torah, even if the group is fragmented by a defeating army, the sanctity is not nullified.

Are the Rav’s two explanations of Rambam consistent with each other? Do they fit the Rav’s arguments against R. Yehudah ha-Levi and Ramban found in Emergence? The Rav’s teshuvah and yahrtzeit lectures were of a homiletic, rather than halakhic, nature.[xxiv] Each developed an approach to Rambam’s opinion that advanced the message of the lecture: instantaneous versus gradual repentance and the distinction between Written and Oral Torah, respectively. This certainly allows for aggadic and less philosophically rigorous perspectives, which need not necessarily be directly consistent with Emergence, or with each other. However, since the Rav criticized the opinions expressed in R. Yehudah ha-Levi’s Kuzari and Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah, neither of which is a halakhic work, it is worthwhile to attempt to fit his own extra-halakhic lectures with his philosophical-halakhic stance. Indeed, the two explanations can work together and match the Rav’s assertions in Emergence.

In comparing the two approaches with each other, the cause of each of the three sanctities must be considered; namely, the first sanctification of Israel through Joshua’s conquest, the sanctification of the Temple by Solomon, and the second sanctification of Israel via Ezra’s settlement. The Rav described Joshua’s conquest in two ways: that Joshua first battled in the periphery of Israel, and that he used the Ark as his conquering force. These explanations are both true because Joshua brought the Ark to the battles against the Canaanite cities.[xxv] As the Jews defeated their enemies and dwelled in their cities, they instilled “kedushah al yedei kibbush” while the Ark, and the Written Torah within, sanctified the land.[xxvi]

The Rav’s two homilies attributed Solomon’s sanctification of the Temple to the divine choice of Jerusalem and to the presence of the Ark in the Temple. Of course, both of these are correct. God selected Jerusalem as the epicenter of His Shekhinah, “The place which God will choose.”[xxvii] The Ark’s presence was also integral to the Temple; in fact, David originally desired to build the Temple because he was distressed that “God’s Ark is sitting in a cloth tent.”[xxviii] Both God’s selection and the Ark’s steady presence established the Temple and Jerusalem’s irrevocable sanctity, since the Shekhinah is never nullified.

Finally, the Rav’s two explanations of Israel’s second kedushah can also be aligned. He says that Ezra’s resettlement created lasting kedushah both because it began in Jerusalem and radiated outward, and because he used the Oral Torah to sanctify the land. Again, these reasons work together. As the returning Jews rebuilt Jerusalem and flowed from there to populate Israel, they carried with them the study of Oral Torah.[xxix] With their source in the divinely selected city and their individual involvement in the oral study of Torah, they propagated and perpetuated kedushah throughout Israel.

In his argument that Israel had no a priori sanctity, the Rav states, “Kedushah, under a halakhic aspect, is man-made; more accurately, it is a historical category… Nothing should be attributed a priori to dead matter. Objective kedushah smacks of fetishism.”[xxx]  In neither of the Rav’s lectures about the various stages of kedushah in Israel does he allow for inherent sanctity. On the origin of sanctity, the Rav writes, “The halakhic term kedushat ha-aretz, the sanctity of the land, denotes the consequence of a human act, either conquest… or the mere presence of the people in that land.”[xxxi] The ways in which the Rav’s lectures explain the origins of Israel’s sanctity must be analyzed, to see if they really reduce to conquest and human presence.

In the teshuvah lecture, the first sanctification of Israel is said to be based on human conquest and Jewish presence in the land. However, the Rav says that a divine action – God’s choice – created kedushah in the Temple and Jerusalem. Still, God’s choice came historically only after man’s initiative in seeking, and then building, a home for God; to that extent, man is responsible for the sanctity of Jerusalem, which Ezra spread to all of Israel by expanding the human presence. The yahrtzeit lecture similarly emphasizes man’s role in establishing sanctity: man leads the Ark everywhere and thus takes credit for causing the sanctity. Solomon and Josiah placed and secured the Ark in the Temple in Jerusalem. Nowadays, Jews everywhere extend Ezra’s sanctification of Israel by continuing to study the Oral Torah. In these ways, both the Rav’s teshuvah lecture and yahrtzeit lecture are consistent with his statements in Emergence.

In the matter of the origins of kedushat Erets Yisrael, Rav Soloveitchik adopts a daring but consistent stance that all its sanctity is man-made. In terms of the kedushah’s lasting power, he agrees to a more traditional approach, that Israel is forever sanctified. On either end of history, Rav Soloveitchik emphasizes man’s role in creating and maintaining spiritual value in the world. Only man can sanctify this world, and he may, at times, be summoned to do so. Ezra’s sanctification of the land remains to this day only because Jews throughout the world continue to study the Oral Law. Man’s spiritual impact in the world and the centrality of Torah study are two broader themes in the Rav’s philosophy that reveal themselves in the discussion of Israel’s sanctity.


Gilad Barach is a fourth-year student in Yeshiva College, majoring in Physics and Mathematics, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] For the purposes of the present article, “Israel” refers to the Land of Israel.

[ii] Kuzari, 2:10.

[iii] 2:16.

[iv] Ramban, Commentary to Leviticus, 18:25.

[v] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 150.

[vi] Archin, 32b; Shevuot, 16a; and others.

[vii] Sefer ha-Terumah, Hilkhot Erets Yisrael.

[viii] Hilkhot Terumot, 1:5; Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel, 4:26; Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, 6:16.

[ix] Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, ad loc.

[x] Kesef Mishneh to Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, 6:16.  My translation.

[xi] Tosafot Yom Tov to Edyot, 8:6.  My translation.

[xii] Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, 6:14.

[xiii] Hassagot ha-Ra’avad, ad loc.

[xiv] Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah, 6:16.  My translation.

[xv] Megillah, 28a.

[xvi] R. J. B. Soloveitchik, “Atonement, Pain, and Redemption” (Hebrew), in Al ha-Teshuvah, ed. by Pinhas Peli (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1975), 259-311; idem, “Reading the Torah on Shabbat, Monday, and Thursday” (Hebrew), in Shiurim le-Zekher Abba Mari, ed. by Amihai Bennet (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 2002), volume 1, 176-197.  Unfortunately, neither of these sources is dated.

[xvii] I Kings, 8:16.

[xviii] Keilim, 1:6

[xix] After explaining Rambam’s opinion, the Rav states that he agrees that Israel continues to have kedushah, not because he is a Zionist or a Mizrahi, but because it is the logical conclusion from the halakhic sources (Al ha-Teshuvah, 304).

[xx] Numbers, 10:35-36.  My translation, in accordance with the Targum and Rashi.

[xxi] Joshua, 1:3.  My translation.

[xxii] Deuteronomy, 30:5.  My translation.

[xxiii] Talmud Yerushalmi, Shevi’it, 6:1.

[xxiv] The yahrtzeit lectures usually contained a rigorous halakhic discussion together with extensive aggadic material.  In most cases, the published shiurim are composed predominately from the Halakhah portions of the lecture.  In this instance, however, the editor writes in an introductory note, “This shiur has a unique combination of Halakhah and Aggadah” (p. 176).

[xxv] This is stated explicitly for the battle against Jericho (Joshua, 6).

[xxvi] One might ask why there are two separate causes for the land’s sanctity, and how they interact, but these lectures are, by nature, sufficiently aggadic that it is adequate, should one be so inclined, to merely demonstrate the compatibility between them, here by showing that both required elements (the conquest and the Torah) were present as the land became sanctified, while the Rav focuses on one or the other for a given lecture.  Deep analysis and what-ifs are unproductive.

[xxvii] This phrase appears in some form twelve times in Deuteronomy.

[xxviii] II Samuel, 7:2.  My translation.

[xxix] Rambam lists Ezra as a link in the chain of transmission of the Oral Torah (Introduction to Mishneh Torah).

[xxx] Emergence, ad loc.

[xxxi] ibid.