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.


Eyal Ben-Eliyahu, Author

Identity and Territory relates to the conceptualization of space in the land of Israel and the land’s status in the minds of a variety of late antique writers and groups from both inside the land and outside of it. As the book’s introduction attests, the everyday existence of the writers was one of the factors that lay behind the investigation.

The research relied on a broad theoretical platform from the field of humanistic geography, which views space as an entity that is charged with memory, meaning, and everyday existence. This perception is as true for the people of antiquity as it is for the new world. It is even true of life in modern-day New York, as attested by Michael De Certeau. De Certeau posits that an individual’s cognitive map of the city is created out of that individual’s daily life, and that the paths he or she traverses create the space relevant to that individual, in contrast to a general map of the city or an inclusive city panorama (The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Randel [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984]).

The book Identity and Territory: Jewish Perception of Space in Antiquity, as its title indicates, focuses on the perception of space and its relationship with identity; the perception of space shapes not only the way in which territory is perceived but also the way in which territory influences identity. The book does not contain, as David Kraemer suggests, a “catalogue of…boundaries.” Kraemer does not take note of the book’s structure; he overlooks the volume’s aims and theoretical underpinnings, as well as the book’s primary claims, which stem from the theoretical foundations as they are explained in the introduction. In my response, I will survey the book; the survey should provide the reader with an answer to Kraemer’s questions. Readers may prefer to simply read the book, in which many of the questions raised are answered.

The book’s theoretical introduction explains the composition’s purpose: the exploration and analysis of the perceptions held by different writers and streams in ancient Judaism. Some of the book’s chapters address the mental maps of different writers. These are no real maps, but rather reflections of consciousness that rest on experience, private and collective memory, demographics, and scriptural sources. The explorations in the different chapters are based on the theoretical discussion.

In the first chapter, the name-change of the territory and political entity from Judah to Israel is discussed, and a correlation is seen with the ethnos’s name-change from Israel to Judah/Jewish and from Judah/Jewish to Israel, ranging from biblical times until late antiquity.

The second chapter discusses the way in which the land and its borders are presented in a variety of Second Temple–era Jewish compositions, beginning with the Persian period and ending with Josephus, who wrote in the late first century CE. Among other things, it includes an analysis of the mental map found at the foundation of the book of Judith. The analysis is based on a literary examination of the structure of the composition and a characterization of the geographical references in it. The analysis of the writer’s mental map stems, inter alia, from a parallel drawn between reality and the way in which the writer chose to present the land, which serves to impart the writer’s intent. The claim that the book of Judith is occupied with “piety and obedience to the way of God” in no way negates a study of the writer’s mental map and geographical references. The claim that the territorial issue is not one of the subjects that occupied the writer of the book of Judith only illuminates the reviewer’s lack of understanding that the structuring of the setting is part of the writer’s orientation; he likewise lacks an understanding of the relationship between the writer’s mental map and the reality in his day. Thus a study of the map reflected in compositions such as Enoch or Judith is not dependent on the question of whether the events described took place or not; it relates to the character of the mental map in the writer’s consciousness. The same can be said for then other compositions discussed in the chapter, including Jubilees, Genesis Apocryphon, and those of Josephus. 

The third chapter discusses a process of distancing from the physical land that is evident among a variety of writers in the Second Temple era as well as in Christianity’s Pauline movement, presenting these writers as contrasting with the writers who were discussed in the second chapter. It opens with the words: “The previous chapter discussed the central place of territory in the identity of Jewish writers in the Second Temple period”; it distinguishes between the earlier writers and the Second Temple–era and Pauline writers, for whom the land was not necessarily a central concept.

The fourth chapter, “Land of the Sages,” discusses the land and its commandments, a central subject within tannaitic literature. The chapter presents the way in which the demographic dimension and the contiguity of Jewish settlement played a central role in the way in which the sages viewed domain. This principle is grounded in a series of halakhot and principles found in rabbinic literature: the expansion of the space in which commandments tied to the land must be kept by expanding settlement; the approach to the space of impurity of other nations by safeguarding contiguity of Jewish settlement.

The fifth and final chapter discusses the place of sacred places in rabbinic thought. The central claim is that the sages were confronted with a natural human tendency to sanctify spaces that had special natural features or a biblical legacy. An examination of a series of references to the Mount of Olives in rabbinic literature uncovers a trend of severing land from heaven in relation to the Mount of Olives; this contrasts with the Christian claim according to which Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives, much as Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah ascended. The homily that severs land from heaven in reference to the Divine Presence on the Mount of Olives, Moses on Mount Sinai, and Elijah (b. Sukkah 5a) contends with a transfiguration scene that took place, according to ancient Christian tradition, on the Mount of Olives; in the scene, Jesus points to Moses and Elijah as if saying that as Moses and Elijah ascended to heaven, and as the Divine Presence descended to the Mount of Olives, he, too, would ascend from the Mount of Olives. The homily, as noted, severs land and heaven from the Mount of Olives and Mount Sinai, and severs Elijah from ascending to heaven. I further suggest that the avoidance of mentioning the places in which Jesus performed miracles according to Christian tradition can be explained using the principle expressly written in Tosefta ‘Abodah Zarah 6: “One is forbidden to even mention the names of places of worship used for idolatry.” This principle leads to a stated halakhah related to place names: “All places named in praise of idolatry are named for…that which they call the face of the King” you shell shall call the “Face of the Dog. ” (Tosefta ‘Abod. Zar. 7:3).

Josephus, we see, mentions far fewer place names than does rabbinic literature, yet somehow includes names of places in which Jesus performed miracles, as there is no reason to avoid them. In contrast, rabbinic literature does not refer to places such as Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Kursi, and, it appears, Bethsaida. This, to my mind, is intentional and certainly not coincidental; it accords with the divergence between the rabbis’ various perceptions of space and Christianity’s view, in which the land was perceived as a whole of sacred spaces, not bounded by a border, at least from the time of Constantine.

Identity and Territory is a study that in an outgrowth of a daily life and activity in the vistas of memory and the real spaces of the land of Israel. Its focus is on the perceptions of space that grew out of the experience and existence of Jewish writers in the land in the diaspora in antiquity as reflected in their writings.


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