Urbanization and Land Use: A Biblical Model

The design of the Levites? urban settlements featured open spaces and regional integration.

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A key component of this plan is the prohibition of rezoning. Maimonides in his Laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee (13:4-5), based on the [Babylonian] Talmud (Arachin 33b), rules that it is forbidden to build in these open spaces, to expand the city at the expense of pastureland or fields. Moreover, he states categorically that Levitical cities are not a special case: this applies equally to all other cities in Israel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), founder and prime expositor of modern Orthodoxy, living in a time of great urban expansion, commenting on this ruling, writes with great fervor of the responsibility of one generation to another concerning the land. On Leviticus 25:34, which states that a Levitical city and surrounding area “is a possession unto them forever”, he writes: “Precisely because it [the city with its open spaces] has been given to them for all the generations, no generation is permitted to change it as it sees fit. The present generation is not the sole ruler over it, but the future generations are equal in their rights, and each is required to bequeath it to future generations in the same state in which they received it.”

Hirsch explained the rationale: “It appears that these laws are designed to maintain an urban population with a connection to agriculture… [They] served to prevent cities from growing into metropolises cut off from the fields [from their agrarian roots].” One of the great crises in Israeli land use today, the wholesale conversion of open spaces and the agricultural sector to villas and strip malls, would be severely curtailed under this traditional approach. Hirsch also emphasizes the social benefits of this integration, stating that it would “foster an urban intelligentsia connected to the morality and simplicity of the rural sector.”

Expanding the Limits of City and Home

A century after Hirsch, the influential contemporary urban historian and theoretician, Lewis Mumford, wrote extensively of the importance of the regional setting of the city. “The hope of the city,” he argued, “lies outside itself.” The minimal unit of urban living is much larger than the built area; a city can’t be built, conceived, or occupied apart from its ecological region. Mumford echoes Hirsch’s endorsement of synthesis in his support of attempts to “build up a more exhilarating kind of environment—not as a temporary haven of refuge but as a permanent seat of life and culture, urban in its advantages, permanently rural in its situation.”

This approach expands one’s personal and collective sense of home, and therefore responsibility, far beyond the usual city limits. Ironically, the contemporary suburban model which has come to dominate the countryside is practically a privatized parody of the Levitical locale: a house with a lawn instead of a town and its surrounding commons. We all need ‘space in our place’, but when we try to fill that need in atomized units, we end up with sprawl, and alienation from each other and our environment. Wise planning should re-embed the urban in the rural and the natural, with open spaces, green corridors, and a healthy agricultural sector thus strengthening communal ties, and preserving the world for ourselves, each other and future generations.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.