What Does the Talmud Have to Say About Politics?

Indulge me as I try out an experiment.  I am going to take a rather fresh look at the Israel-Palestine conflict, without any idea what will come of it.  The fresh take is guaranteed because I will be attempting to derive a lesson about the conflict from a passage of Talmud, a document written almost 1,500 years before the modern State of Israel.

The passage in question is the first Mishna in the tractate of Bava Metzia, which states:

Two are grasping a garment; this one says ‘I found it’ and that one says ‘I found it’.  [Case One] This one says ‘it is all mine’ and that one says ‘it is all mine’.  This one shall swear [invoking god’s name] that he has no less than half of it, and that one shall swear that he has no less than half of it; and they shall split it.  [Case Two] This one says ‘it is all mine’ and that one says ‘half of it is mine’, the one that said ‘it is all mine’ shall swear that he has no less than three-quarters and the one that said ‘half of it is mine’ shall swear that he has no less than one-quarter; then this one will take three-quarters and that one will take one-quarter. (my translation)

There is a lot to talk about in this Mishna — so much so that, in addition to a couple of variants on the cases presented above, the Gemarah spends 19 double-sided pages discussing various details and ramifications.  However, none of those include what the Mishna tells us about the dispute that has been ongoing being Israel and Palestine over ownership and sovereignty over certain areas of land for decades, if not since before the creation of the State of Israel.  That is where I want to begin.

First off, this analysis only works based on the analogy of the garment (tallit) to the land under dispute between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.  Given this analogy, the first question to be asked is: does the current situation most closely resemble the first case of the Mishna, or the second?  In other words, are Israel and the Palestinians both claiming all of the land, or is one claiming all, while the other claims half (or some other non-whole portion)?  All of a sudden, the Mishna is speaking the language of any modern political commentary on the Middle East conflict.

It would be fascinating to take each and every applicable commentary on the Mishna recorded in the subsequent years as part of this canonical Jewish text and consider its relevance to the modern conflict, but it would also take a lifetime.  Instead, I will consider two examples, before offering some thoughts on the endeavour.  First, the most famous of Jewish commentators, Rashi, comments on the opening words of the Mishna, “Two are grasping” as follows:

Specifically ‘grasping’ [i.e. the wording is precise], so that both of them have a chazaka in it [a Jewish legal term implying a legal claim to an object], and one does not have more [of a claim] than the other.  As if it were in the hands of one of them, it would be [a case of] hamotzi mechaveiro alav hara’aya [a legal concept which means that the claimant must provide proof that the object is his, an early predecessor of ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’], and he [the one who is not holding the garment] us not trusted to claim an oath. (my translation)

While this comment is saddled with Jewish legalese, the main point Rashi makes is that each claimant must not only verbally express that he has an equal claim, but physically do so as well.  Further, the hypothetical case that is brought up, showing that, if only one of them has a physical grasp of the garment, that there is no place for oaths as more formal and unbiased forms of proof are necessary, provides an interesting consideration when the analogy is again turned to the modern conflict over land.  In the Israel-Palestine case, we know through history — a type of witness — that the land was ‘grasped’ by one and only one party to the dispute in the not-too-distant past.  What effect does that have on the current status of the land?

Another aspect of the discussion taken up in the subsequent commentaries to this Mishna is one made by the Gemarah several pages later, pertaining to the specific physical details of the case.  The question is: how exactly are the two parties grasping the garment?  Are they each literally holding half, is one grasping more material than the other?  The Gemarah concludes that, while each is actually only grasping the edge of the garment, Jewish law considers each party’s claim to extend to half (or, in the relevant case, to all) of the garment.

Applying this addendum to the modern issue of land, while Jewish law may consider grasping the fringes of the object to be equal to grasping it all (or one’s half), at least symbolically it seems like there is a significant difference.  It is harder to make a case for oneself before a court when one is only barely holding on to the object one is arguing is rightfully theirs.  On the other hand, if both parties did indeed come in holding the entire half of the garment they were claiming, the visual confirmation that it is the current status quo would no doubt help the court in ruling that they split it.  In the political debate today, many speak of ‘facts on the ground’ when referring to settlements being built by Israel in contested land.  By this it is meant something similar to having one’s grasp on an entire half as opposed to fringes of a garment.  By establishing a noticeable Israeli presence in a settlement, the ‘court’ deciding at some future point which party will be given the land will undoubtably be swayed towards considering the trauma that uprooting many families that have created these ‘facts on the ground’ would cause.

Just looking at one source and two short commentaries on it, it is clear that the Talmud — and, by extension I would argue, the whole of the Jewish canon — has much to teach us, even if many of the actual cases and rituals described in it no longer apply in a literal sense to the society we live in.  I hope that this type of analysis is not the exception, but rather continues to be explored, and I invite discussion on the merits of adding the voice of a centuries-old text to the hot-button political discussions of modern times.


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