Landless Acknowledgement

On its website and programs, New York City’s Public Theater prominently features a “Land Acknowledgement” of the sort that is becoming increasingly common among academic, social, and artistic organizations:

The Public Theater stands in honor of the first inhabitants and our ancestors. We acknowledge the land on which The Public and its theaters stand–the original homeland of the Lenape people- and the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory. We honor the generations of stewards, and we pay our respects to the many diverse Indigenous peoples still connected to this land.

The statement openly addresses America’s colonial history, as well as those who resided here long before it. It is not filled with vitriol or self-loathing, so much as an honest assessment that the land on which we reside was not eternally ours.

Why, then, is it so rare to hear such acknowledgments in synagogues?

In part, this may be owing to the Jewish patterns of immigration and our sense of having integrated into American society only after the worst atrocities against Native Americans. In part, it may also owe to the Jewish people’s complicated relationship to land.

The Roman Empire brutally displaced us from our homeland two millennia ago, while our return to the modern State of Israel has only been partial, with most Jews still living with the blessings and tenuousness of Diaspora. As we speak, 43,000 Ukrainian Jews and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians with Jewish ancestry are facing down the possibility that they may become the proverbial “fugitive Aramean” that for so long has described how we understand our heritage and perspective. Many among them may in time make Aliyah or find a new home in another Jewish Diaspora.

We have a deep relationship to place, but not always in a physical sense. Yet such uncertainty about physical belonging does not constrain the Jewish people. It inspires us.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Pekudei, details the remarkable materials that the Israelites gave to the skilled artisans constructing the Tabernacle.

All the gold that was used for the work, in all the work of the sanctuary–the elevation offering of gold–came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight.
The silver of those of the community who were recorded came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels by the sanctuary weight: a half-shekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, 603,550 men…
The copper from the elevation offering came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels.

Such sums are testament to the goodness of community brought together in common cause and higher purpose. They are also evidence of our people’s remarkable accomplishments, even when enduring the hardship of their wanderings in the desert.

The Tabernacle has been added to magnificently in subsequent generations, not in a physical sense so much as in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual dimensions. Our sages derived remarkable wisdom and communal norms from the process of building the Tabernacle. These include the 18 commandments describing its construction; the 36 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat, which are based upon those required for building the Tabernacle; enduring notions of Jewish philanthropy and selfless support for the common good; an affirmation that aesthetics can enhance our worship and feeling of connection to the Divine; a belief that the right cause can unite us all. The Tabernacle became central to our belief that we could do remarkable things even as a people repeatedly forced into exile.

Even so, there is a reason that our people sought to reestablish a modern State of Israel and grieved each period of landlessness. While our people are not defined by geographic borders, we can relate deeply to the dispossession of other peoples. This moment presents a unique opportunity for solidarity, reclamation of history, and affirmation that landless people need not endure their travails alone.

We would do well to recognize the land upon which we stand, even as we recognize that being uprooted does not mean being undone.

For more on the Lenape history in New York, please consider this article.

Send this to a friend