Do Not Walk In Their Ways

by Willemina Davidson, for All That’s Left

This Chanukah, All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, is publishing a series of eight essays — one for each day of Chanukah — from left-wing rabbis, rabbinical students, and Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on the Festival of Lights in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a shiur on the meaning of Vayikra 18:3 and 20:23, both of which command us not to follow in the ways of non-Jews in the as-of-yet unsettled land of Canaan. As the teacher explained, traditional interpretations of these pieces of Torah, which understand them as forbidding any co-existence with non-Jews, make the most sense in societies with a non-Jewish majority. While establishing the State of Israel in 1948, the Zionist leadership and army carried out a program of ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba where over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by or fled from Zionist forces. As a result, many Israelis can go quite some time without meaningfully interacting with non-Jews. So, the guiding question of the shiur was, “What does this teaching mean in the context of the State of Israel?” But, you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with Channuka? 

To answer this question, we need to jump forward in the Torah to Devarim 17:14, which says: 

When you come to the land which G-d has given to you, and you take possession of it and dwell in it and say, “Let’s place a king over us like all the nations that surround us”…

There are two primary readings of this p’suk. The interpretation that stands out to me is that the Torah is describing the inevitable urge to be like other nations and that the commandments concerning a future monarchy are conditional on the people wanting a monarch. Hashem’s feelings about a potential monarchy are hinted at in I Sh’muel. In the eighth perek, the people demanded a king to be like all the other nations. Sh’muel opposes this development and seeks advice from Hashem on what to do. It says:

And G-d said to Sh’muel, “Listen to the voice of the people, to all that they are saying to you because it’s not you that they rejected, for it is me that they have rejected to be king over them. This is like all of the actions that they have taken since the day I took them out of Egypt until this day. They have left me and worshiped other gods, and so they are acting similarly towards you.

G-d replies by encouraging Sh’muel to listen to the people in spite of their feelings of rejection. Despite listening to the requests of the Israelites, the linking of the adoption of the monarchy to avodah zarah, idol worship, shows that this is not a desirable development, even if inevitable. The monarchy is a stumbling block that leads to sin. G-d would prefer to be our divine monarch instead of appointing a human one to prevent such a stumbling block, but Hashem chooses not to fight the Israelites on this point.

The consolidation of Jewish power into one person allowed a lot to happen, including the building of the First Temple. However, the seemingly inevitable royal sanction of avodah zara reaches a point of no return under King Manasseh. Manasseh’s sins were so severe that when King Josiah introduced religious reforms to bring the people back to G-d, the divine decree to destroy the Kingdom of Judah remained. The divine response to Manasseh’s sins was the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. 

When we finally returned to our land, we rebuilt the Temple as the subjects of another empire and wrote texts recording the failures of our previous monarchy. Over the next few hundred years, the land of Israel passed through Persian and Greek control, eventually landing under the Seleucid Empire. The Empire contributed to an increase in Hellenizing trends in Judean society and, according to the story, it also sought to end Jewish religious life, demonstrated by the erection of a statue of Zeus on the Temple Mount. It is at this point that the story of Channuka and its fight for Jewish religious, cultural and political autonomy takes place. 

A central aspect of the story of Channuka is assimilation, both from internal and external forces. Hellenizing Jews, in support of the Seleucid Empire, and Jews opposed to Hellenization, the Hasmoneans and their followers, faced off for control of the land and the Hasmoneans won. While this was partially a fight for political autonomy in the form of an independent monarchy, this type of self-rule was only obtained after 30 years of Seleucid vassalage, lasted roughly 47 years, and was followed quickly by vassalage under various other empires. After the fall of the Hasmoneans, Herod established his kingdom. Herod then split his kingdom into three, with a portion for each of his sons to rule. Herodian rule ended when the Roman emperor dismissed Herod’s sons, and turned the region into the Roman province of Judea.

When the people of Judea grew tired of the oppressive Roman rule, there was a failed revolt to re-establish Jewish control of the land, and the Second Temple was destroyed as a punishment. Thankfully, the Mishnah, Gemara, and the rest of Jewish literature grew out of that tragedy. In addition to the textual tradition, systems of self-governance that didn’t rely on any monarch or empire also developed. This self-governance famously reached a climax for Eastern Europe in the Council of Four Lands.

However, due to widespread and violent anti-semitism, the urge to politically assimilate re-emerged in our time as Zionism. Previously, our people had looked around and seen monarchies, but now they looked around and saw nation-states, often defined ethnically. So, our people strove for our own colonial project to create a safe Jewish ethnostate in Palestine, especially after the tragedy of the Holocaust. The desire to be like other nations resulted in the original sin of Israel: the Nakba. We are still feeling the effects of the Nakba in Palestine, including the ongoing War on Gaza, where many fear another program of ethnic cleansing is taking place under the guise of eradicating Hamas.

Since this war began, I’ve felt the urge to scream two p’sukim from the Sh’ma every time I recite them:

“Keep watch over yourselves lest your hearts be persuaded and you turn away, worship other gods, and bow down to them. And G-d will be angry with you and close up the heavens and there will be no dew, and the earth will not give forth its fruit and you will be quickly expelled from the good land which G-d has given to y’all” (Devarim 11:16-17).

We must give up the idea of having an exclusive nation-state predicated upon colonialism and ethnonationalism. We must learn from the past to teach us how to proceed, and we must resist the urge to follow the nations’ ways and worship the gods of nationalism and capitalism. Instead, we must be a model for another way. We can still change our course. We can still make teshuva. We don’t need to be expelled from the land. We just need to try something different, and what that will look like is wide open for Palestinians and Israelis to figure out together.

Willemina Davidson (they/them) is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and in their final year of the Pardes Educators Program. Willemina lives in Jerusalem, where they help organize Ya’aseh Mishpat, a coalition of yeshiva students opposed to the occupation.

All That’s Left is a collective unequivocally opposed to the Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.

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