Passive vs. Active Immigration

In 13th-century mysticism, two streams of thought emerged regarding the Land of Israel.

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"Nowadays the Jews are already released from the obligation [to dwell in] the Land of Israel. Their suffering--out of the love of God--the [vicissitudes of] the dispersion, and their afflictions and subjugation are like an atoning altar for them, as it is written (Psalms 44:23), 'Yea, for Thy sake are we killed all the day long.'"

This rather non-activist attitude is reflected also in R. Ezra's Commentary to the Song of Songs, where he asserts that in the Messianic time the people of Israel "will go to the Land of Israel with the permission and help of the gentile Kings." As R. Ezra explains, "Not by [the power of] their bows and their swords will you inherit the Land, and not by horses or chariots, but by the will of God, who will cause the fall of the nations and will humiliate them before you."

Religious Obligation

This passive orientation toward the return of the Jews to their Land contrasts sharply with the extremely activist, even militant, position of R. Ezra's younger contemporary--the renowned R. Moses ben Nahman (Nah­manides). A distinguished kabbalist, he subscribes to the perception of the Land of Israel as corresponding to a supernal divine power and being directly influenced by it. But regarding the practical consequences of this theory, his attitude is diametrically opposed to R. Ezra's.

Dwelling in the Land of Israel becomes for him not only a religious obligation but the single way to attain perfect Jewish life. The performance of the commandments in the Diaspora is, in Nahmanides' view, a mere preparation intended to enable their true performance in the Land of Israel. Moreover, the Promised Land being the only proper forum for a full reli­gious life, the Jews must live in their own Land even if this aim can be achieved only by fierce wars with its gentile conquerors. Nahmanides considers this fight as one of the daily religious obligations incumbent upon every Jew and not a matter to be postponed until the Messianic era.

Since R. Ezra and Nahmanides were contemporaries--and possibly also colleagues--the basic differences between their attitudes toward the Land of Israel may be the result of an inner controversy in kabbalistic circles in Catalonia. Since R. Ezra's views were formulated before the bulk of Nahmanides' works, the latter's views are, at least partially, a reaction to R. Ezra's position.

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Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the foremost contemporary experts on kabbalah.