“And Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah by Mamre, which is Hebron” Genesis 23:19
This Shabbat will see religious Jews from all over the world gathering in the ancient capital city of Hebron for what has become one of the most joyful pilgrimages of the national calendar. They are celebrating the events of this week’s parashah in which Abraham makes the first ever Jewish purchase of real estate in the Holy Land — the first tentative step to turning it into the Jewish homeland.
Of course, Orthodox Judaism is not renowned for innovation in religious practice and it seems that one might reasonably ask whether this carnival weekend has bona fide roots in Jewish tradition.
More sceptical approaches to Jewish pilgrimage can be found in several rabbinic texts but they are nowhere drawn together as vigorously as in the writings of the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz. He notes the particular case of the provenance of Machpelah, where we rely on an Islamic tradition of a Herodian building built almost 2,000 years after Abraham’s original purchase of the land. Incredulous that the current complex of Byzantine and Muslim buildings actually conceals the tombs of our patriarchs, Leibowitz famously described the site as the Cave of the Sheikhs.
It was not just the Hebron pilgrimage which attracted Leibowitz’s disdain but the very idea of holy land itself is treated to an intellectual mauling in various of his writings. Always reliant on prior authorities, he casts serious doubts on the intrinsic holiness of objects. Mitzvot, good deeds, are holy but never things and especially not land. This message will not be in the hearts of the Hebron pilgrims this Shabbat. Leibowitz would argue that life in this ancient town would be far easier if it were.