Utopia is defined as follows: 1: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions; 2: an impractical scheme for social improvement; 3: an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. All three sum up what I read in this week’s parshah, Behar-Bechukotai. I think the dictionary definition perfectly sums up why I thought of this word.
The first definition within Utopia is easy to discern from what is stated in this week’s installment. Every seven years there is a Sabbatical year which leads to a cessation of work on the land and what has been harvested will be given to all, including beasts, for free; after seven sabbaticals there is to be a Jubilee year in the fiftieth year where again there is a cessation of all work on the land, all indentured servants are set free, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land that that have been sold revert to their original owners. There are additional laws governing the sale of lands, and the prohibitions against fraud and usury.
I submit that the other two definitions of Utopia also fit within what is written. This does amount to “an impractical scheme for social improvement.” I believe that human nature is such that without the ability to keep the results of your labor, it would be very difficult to have any real reason to want to exert yourself and improve on your condition.
It also seems to me that such a place is “imaginary and indefinitely remote”. The definition of communism comes to mind when I think of such a condition. It is as follows: “A theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.” The Soviet Union is a fading memory of Karl Marx’s vision of the ideal order of things. I would even submit that the Israeli concept of the Kibbutz which is defined as “a community settlement, usually agricultural, organized under collectivist principles” had its day but could not be sustained for Israel to thrive in today’s world.
A good part of the balance of the parshah also leads me to conclude that it is a Utopian society that cannot be achieved.
In summary it goes on to say that G-d promises that if the people of Israel will keep His commandments, they will enjoy material prosperity and dwell secure in their homeland. But He also delivers a harsh rebuke, warning of the exile, persecution and other evils that will befall them if they abandon their covenant with Him. It is what is stated in Fifth Aliyah at Leviticus 26:14-16 that I do not believe can be realized wherein the following is stated:
“But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments,
and if you despise My statutes and reject My ordinances, not performing any of My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant
then I too, will do the same to you; I will order upon you shock, consumption, fever, and diseases that cause hopeless longing and depression. You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it.”
It is the “all these commandments” and “not performing any of My commandments” that I do not think is attainable. If Moses couldn’t do it, what chance do any of us have?
I will say that all is not lost in that G-d does tell us that despite all that we might do wrong, he will not forget us as expressed in Leviticus 26:44:
“But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their G-d.”
I will also place one caveat to what I stated earlier about not sustaining a society where everyone shares in everything and will have things returned to them after a certain period of time. I am firm believer in “nothing is forever” and we are “living on borrowed time” from the moment we are born. This all comes together when in Leviticus 25:23, G-d states the following:
“The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.”
“Hazak, Hazak, v’Nithazek” it is now on to “Numbers”.
Saying I take offense to your characterization of the content of this week’s double parsha would be an overstatement. I, after all, am not being personally attacked. And yet, I resent the use of the word “utopia” in describing the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. You left out the most basic definition of utopia, which is “no place.” This aligns well with what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” This is not nowhere, though, or no place. This is the land of Israel. I would suggest that even without our land, the internalization of these teachings about the poor infused our life throughout the Exile.
My retort would be, consider the system we live under in the United States and globally. Is this system working better? Certainly for us it might be, but with so many poor people can’t we acknowledge that our system does not work, at least for some?
Fortunately, since the Jubilee and Sabbatical years are connected to an agricultural society, we have no fear of its enactment today. Nonetheless, such ideas like debt forgiveness may still be relevant in our present day. For example, some politicians are talking about canceling higher education debts. Considering how expensive higher education is, this idea has merit.
In addition to utopia, you mention Communism. I have to admit that Communism must have drawn some inspiration from these passages in our double parsha. At the same time, the Torah seems intent on affirming private property, which flies in the face of Communism.
I would encourage you to focus even more intently on the insights at the end of your letter. You write, “I am firm believer in ‘nothing is forever’ and we are ‘living on borrowed time’ from the moment we are born.” Ultimately, I think these insights are the basis for all that we read in this parsha about the Jubilee and Sabbatical years.
You can be as upset as you want about what I stated, but I stand by what I said and I believe history proves me correct.
If you look at the period from when Abraham fist settled in the Land of Israel (1700 BCE) to the destruction of the Second Temple there is a span of about 1,700 year. If we look at it from Moses and the Exodus (1300 BCE), it is about 1,400 years. It was not until 1020 BCE that there is a Jewish Monarch in King Saul; in 1000 BCE King David makes Jerusalem the capital; 960 BCE the First Temple is built by King Solomon; by 930 BCE the kingdom is divided between Judah and Israel; by 720 BCE Israel is crushed by the Assyrians and 10 tribes are exiled (Ten Lost Tribes); by 586 BCE Judah is conquered by Babylonia and Jerusalem and the First Temple are destroyed, most Jews are exiled; in 538 BCE many Jews return from Babylonia and in 515 BCE the Second Temple is completed; by 332 BCE the Land is conquered by Alexander the Great and there is Hellenistic rule; not until 166-160 BCE do we have the Maccabean revolt and restrictions on the practice of Judaism are lifted and the desecration of the Temple is removed; from 142-129 BCE, there is Jewish autonomy under the Maccabean (Hasmonean) rule; and from 129 BCE to 63 BCE there is Jewish independence under Hasmonean monarchy; by 63 BCE Jerusalem is captured by the Roman general Pompey; between 63-4 BCE Herod, the Roman vassal king, rules the Land of Israel and the Temple is refurbished; in 66 CE there is Jewish revolt against the Romans; by 70 CE the Second Temple is destroyed; by 73 CE there is the last stand of the Jews at Masada; between 132-135 CE there is the Bar Kokhba uprising against Rome.
Starting with the Romans, (63 BCE -313 CE) there is foreign domination in the land of Israel which then includes Byzantine rule (313-636 CE), Arab rule (636-1099 CE) during which time the Dome of the Rock is built on the site of the First and Second Temples; Crusader domination (1099-1291 CE); then Mamluk rule (1291-1516 CE); then Ottoman rule (1517-1917 CE); then British rule (1918-1948 CE); then on May 14, 1948 there is the end of the British mandate and the State of Israel is proclaimed.
So as I see it, there is on and off Jewish rule of Jerusalem for either 1,700 years from Abraham or 1,400 years from Moses followed by roughly 1,900 years of exile. While the Jews were in charge of the Holy Land, I believe their transgressions led to a sporadic rule at best and for 1,900 years no rule, which I attribute to not living up to what G-d wants us to do which is to obey every rule laid out in the Torah or suffer the consequences. I submit this is virtually impossible and thus what we have during our stays in the Land of Israel is a "Utopia" that cannot be sustained over a long period of time.
I further submit, Adam and Eve lived in a Utopian land known as the Garden of Eden and only had to obey one rule and could not do it.
This is one of the best chronological accounts of Jewish history I have read. I want to keep it for reference. To your point, though. Jews have lived outside the land longer then they have lived inside it, but now you’ve expanded your definition of utopia to not just include the laws of the jubilee and sabbatical year. You say that all of Jewish existence in the land of Israel is utopia, and this I don’t understand. I would describe it as miraculous, and I expect the third commonwealth to exist for as long as human civilization does.
The Garden of Eden was paradise, not utopia. Perhaps we can unpack the difference between the two together. Had Adam and Eve not eaten the apple, we would never have entered the world. G-d was trying to protect us from ourselves, but ultimately what Adam and Eve did in seeking knowledge was the right decision.
With all due respect, I do not think you are getting my point. To me, in order to reach a "Utopian society" the people within it have to sacrifice individual wants for the good of all. Sabbatical years and the Jubilee are perfect examples of giving back personal gains in order for all to benefit. I am not saying this is bad, I am just saying that there is something within human nature that does not allow one to be that altruistic.
However, I will concede that the Garden of Eden was a paradise that is an ideal place that is free from disease and death. Although a synonym for paradise is utopia, in the case of Adam and Eve they did not have to do anything to create their paradise, all they had to do was obey one rule and could not do it. How can we obey all the "rules" as contained in the Torah? I submit that it is an ideal that cannot be attained.
As to your last comment, although I might agree that seeking knowledge is a good thing, it is contrary to the popular expression "ignorance is bliss". Before they took the bites of the apple, Adam and Eve had no idea they were in a "perfect" situation. If you want to have any comfort to seeking a paradise, I submit that we we will have to wait until the "borrowed time" we have is up and we hopefully wind up in Heaven.
I see how you are connecting the injunction to obey “all” the commandments to the creation of paradise or utopia. Because we cannot obey them all, we will never achieve utopia or paradise. Why then are these utopian ideas – jubilee and sabbatical year – in the Torah?
Knowledge certainly complicates one’s life, but the notion that ignorance is bliss is at odds with Socrates’ understanding of the nature of happiness and its relationship to knowledge.
Heaven, paradise, and utopia. They all kind of fall into the same category in that none of them is here and now. Each is its own distinct place. I’d be interested in hearing you parse the differences.