Identity and Territory

Jewish Perceptions of Space in Antiquity

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Eyal Ben-Eliyahu
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Eyal Ben-Eliyahu’s Identity and Territory: Jewish Perception of Space in Antiquity, is, for the most part, a workmanlike catalogue of the boundaries of the Land of Israel in Jewish literatures of late antiquity. It is characterized by both the strengths and regrettable weaknesses of such a catalogue, and in the end offers the reader little insight beyond the catalogue itself.

The book is arranged chronologically. After an introduction, it commences with accounts of the boundaries of the land in second Temple Jewish literature, Christian writings, and rabbinic literature. Each document is briefly described to orient the reader and provide minimal context, following which Ben-Eliyahu recounts what he has found pertaining to the relationship of the work to the land and its boundaries. There is little by way of a thesis in the author’s review, and the critical theory to which he alludes in his introduction plays little role in the main part of the book.

This is not to say that Ben-Eliyahu doesn’t offer interpretations of what he finds. But his interpretations are more asserted than they are argued, and the author rarely persuades me, at least, of the validity of his interpretation as opposed to others. Overall, I am left with the message that since the land and its boundaries are of paramount concern to Ben-Eliyahu, they must be of concern to the authors of antiquity as well.

Let me offer two examples of how the author’s overriding interest in territory and boundaries affects his discussions. One of the second Temple documents he examines is Judith. As a book written to resemble the Bible’s historical books, the narrative takes place in a territory that is clearly the biblical land.

Moreover, its story relates to the control of that land. One can, as Ben-Eliyahu does, scour the narrative for references to place that in the end yield a picture of the land. But most readers of Judith would hardly identify territory as one of the book’s central concerns, rather than, say, piety and obedience to the way of God.

More importantly, Judith signals to its readers that it is, to some degree, an absurdist fiction, with knowing distortions of space and geography being a main way it communicates this. Yet nowhere in his discussion does Ben-Eliyahu mention this, nor the way it might affect the book’s overall representations of territory. In my mind, Judith undermines any straightforward reading of its purported geography, making it impossible to use in the way Ben-Eliyahu wishes.

In his discussions of other works of this period, Ben-Eliyahu identifies scattered references that offer an idea of the boundaries of the land. But these references might be truly few in any given work, hardly central to the concerns of the work as a whole. Yet in the first sentence of his third chapter, the author writes “the previous chapter discussed the central place of territory in the identity of Jewish writers of the Second Temple period” (59).

This “centrality” was nowhere demonstrated, merely asserted, and it is a dubious claim for most of the works discussed. The same is true with respect to the rabbis of later centuries, including Palestinian rabbis whose opinions are recorded in Tannaitic literature. These sages do discuss the boundaries of the land, but only in isolated instances. Even an experienced student of the literature would need direction to find such discussions, showing how secondary they are to the interests of the corpus as a whole.

Another example of how the author’s interests misdirect his discussion is his argument concerning alleged rabbinic repression of reference to Christian holy sites. According to Ben-Eliyahu, though Tannaitic literature mentions many Galilean locations, it doesn’t mention sites deemed holy by Christians.

Josephus, by contrast, mentions many of them in his writings. Ben-Eliyahu reads the rabbis’ omission as a conscious choice, their reaction to the developing Christian map of the holy land.

Yet, as Ben-Eliyahu writes (148), Tannaitic literature was edited at least a century before the sanctification of the sites by Christians. Hence, he argues, “there was no reason . . . for Tannaitic literature to have avoided naming them.” To solve this “problem,” Ben-Eliyahu offers two far-fetched solutions, despite the fact that he has identified the most likely explanation of the silence—that no one, not even Christians, yet cared much about these sites. For Ben-Eliyahu, place must be the focus even when it is unmentioned, blinding him to the most obvious solution to his (non-)problem.

The author’s focus on place also leads him to misread sources he interprets. In the same discussion, he reads a text from the Tosefta as saying that “one is forbidden to even mention the names of places of worship used for idolatry” (147), despite the fact that the source says absolutely nothing about place as such.

Later, he reads an isolated Talmudic teaching claiming that God didn’t actually descend onto Mount Sinai as an “attempt to disengage the axis between earth and heaven” 151.

Yet the teaching admits that God’s presence hovered a mere ten handbreadths above the mount—hardly a meaningful severance of the axis between the upper and lower realms.

In the end, the influence of contemporary Israeli Zionism on this book is clear. The competition for boundaries and territories underlies this book’s focus, generally implicitly but occasionally more explicitly. So, we learn that “the expansion of Jewish settlement brings with it an increase in the area in which people [= Jews] are obligated to observe” (105).  commandments. Settlements and expansion are a driving concern.

It is the author’s Zionist impulse that (problematically) leads him to equate “the shift to universalism from territorialism” (61) with “Hellenism.” As the author writes, “these questions are very much a part of the internal and external dialogue that still takes place about Israel” (158). What his own focus causes him to misunderstand is that they were not as central to the authors of old as they are to him today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud & Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eyal Ben-Eliyahu is Professor of Jewish History at the University of Haifa.


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