A Jewish Imperative to live in the Diaspora?
Fri, 10/15/2010
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

Living in caravans in a small settlement town during my years learning in Israel, my dream was always to settle the land. As a religious Zionist, I feel that living in Israel is a tremendous and miraculous opportunity, and all Jews can and must consider making this life transition as we are all very familiar with the halakhic obligation of yishuv ha’aretz, the religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel. I would like to suggest, however, that in addition to this well-known imperative, there is also a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora.

The Rambam, following the Babylonian Talmud, allows for limited exceptions to the mitzvah to reside in the Land, including studying or teaching Torah, searching for a marriage partner, living in safety, or in the case of economic hardship. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, suggests that there is no prohibition against leaving Israel at all, even if one is already living there.

In fact, some of the great 20th century authorities have argued that one is not obligated to reside in Israel today: Rav Yehudah Amitalu, the late Rosh Yeshiva and Israeli leader, once said, “In America there are many great Torah scholars, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe and others. Is it possible that not one of them knows the halakhah?”

While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice; to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d’être.

It is in the Diaspora where we can fulfill the Torah’s charge to combat global poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found. While Israel has been known to do inspiring humanitarian work, a nation-state’s primary concern must be the welfare and security of its own citizens. We must be concerned with Israel’s security as well but our responsibility is also broader. I’ve met thousands of other young Jewish leaders who have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with identities as global citizens.

Second, though Jewish thought can and should remain distinct from that of other cultures, and obviously, other religions, the Jewish intellectual tradition has always benefitted, and continues to benefit, from development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies. Taking a cue from Muslim scholars like Al Farabi and Avicenna, Rambam integrated Jewish thought and Greek philosophy without the need to sacrifice our halakhah or our identity. Today in America, as in the “Golden Age” of medieval Spain and the Talmudic academies of Babylonia, there is a great concentration of stellar Jewish academic programs and yeshivot.

Rabbi Nehorai goes so far as to suggest, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues that will cause it to remain with you” (Pirkei Avot 4:18). This should raise Diaspora self esteem as one must reside where they can develop their best intellectual and spiritual achievements.

Diaspora Jews are not watching the game from the Israel sidelines. Some of the most significant Jewish contributions have and will continue to be made in the Diaspora, where Jews can play a leading role in fighting injustice, alleviating poverty, advocating for Israel and Jewish interests, and learning from people of other faiths. While the modern State of Israel is one of the greatest blessings the Jews have received – and it cannot be neglected – we must also be sure to actualize all of the values of our Jewish tradition.

Aliyah to Israel is on the rise. 17,880 immigrants arrived in Israel in 5770 as compared to 15,180 in 5769 – an increase of 18%. There is no need for the demographic prophecies of gloom that if we don’t make immediate aliyah, Israel will fumble and that the Diaspora provides no hope for the Jewish future. Neither argument paints an accurate picture nor do they demonstrate the faith to survive that has driven Jews for millennia.

Many have argued for Shelilat ha’golah, the idea that one cannot sustain a Jewish life outside of Israel. One should be cautious of those who suggest that one can only live fully as a Jew in Israel. While there are particularistic mitzvot that can only be performed in Israel, there are also universalistic mitzvot that can only properly be achieved with the cooperation of Jews in the Diaspora. Ultimately, after considering the needs of one’s own family, one should not feel shame for choosing to reside in London, Kiev, or Chicago, but rather should proudly accept the responsibilities of supporting Israel while serving as a global ambassador for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.
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Now I feel all guilty for having made the entirely selfish decision to make Aliyah.

I think one should always be wary when the pure idealism of one’s youth is displaced by the more ‘sophisticated’ reasoning of later years. Age has clever ways of making a virtue out of necessity. To claim a Jewish imperative to reside in the Diaspora seems to me an especially bold and troubling example of this. You write that the land of Israel is ‘the destiny of the Jewish people’ perhaps because, as a serious student of Torah, you can’t ignore this message made clear in innumerable texts. Shmuly, in my eyes, you are the activist, par excellence. If the Land of Israel is, as you write, ‘the destiny of the Jewish people’, what is your role in that destiny? You seem to believe ‘let it come, but let me not witness it’ (cf. Sanhedrin 98b), as a full embrace of this destiny would entail sacrificing values you’ve taken as central to Judaism. For the most part, these are values to which I fully ascribe as well. No one will deny the normative power of the verse ‘Justice! Justice shall you pursue”. But neither should one ignore that the verse continues ‘so that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Devarim 16:20). In context, that powerful verse addresses our responsibility to create a judicial system in the land of Israel which metes out ‘just laws’, and which is impervious to bribery and corruption. Unfortunately, we yet have a long way to go to realize this ideal, and it’s the creativity, innovation and fresh energy of people like you which will lead the way there. Tell me- is our local Israeli poverty and injustice less worthy a cause than the poverty and injustice in America, where the majority of your work is focused, or the povery or injustice anywhere else in the world? Yes, we have a mission to be an ohr lagoyim. But, as you mention, that is a mission we commit to, and best fulfill, as a nation. Not the scattered actions of individuals, but the concerted, directed actions of a nation-state are what will provide the model for other nations to emulate. When an individual Jew sets out to be a global warrior against injustice, that can be called “inspiring humanitarian work” which reflects well mostly on that individual. A certain glow may be cast on the Jewish people as well, if Jewish sources and values are credited as the inspiration for the individual’s work. But when the State of Israel decides to spend its resources, the dollars from its budget, taxes collected from its citizens, to send aid even to nations which have a belligerent attitude toward Israel- that’s a lesson for the nations of an entirely different magnitude. That’s a model of a nation guided by religious and ethical principles. That’s what it means to be a light unto the nations. Again, while we can certainly point to actions of the State which live up to that ideal, we can also see that there is ample room for improvement, and a real need for the activists and idealists who will push for that improvement. There is no question that the Jewish communities of the Diaspora over the last 2,000 years have made critical contributions to Judaism and to the world, contributions which sustained us, and continue to sustain us. For most of that period of time, the Jewish people also lived with, and was sustained by, the unquestioned assumption that exile is not ideal nor is it eternal, and that there would come a time when we would finally return to Israel. Only when that dream started to turn into a reality did ‘prisoners of hope’ (cf. Zecharia 9:12) begin to compose scores of justifications, rationalizations and explanations why we need not, could not, or ought not return- shelilat hageulah, denying the return we had been waiting for all along. Now we have returned, but our position is far from secure. While you may be comforted by an 18% increase in aliyah, I look at the 50% of Israeli first grade classes which are in educational tracks which are not supportive of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state, and I’m terrified for the future of “one of the greatest blessings the Jews have received.” To preach, in essence, ‘Israel is doing just fine, and we have other important things to do and to learn here’ seems to me factually wrong and dangerous. The way of the world is that when you take a gift for granted, you tend to lose it. The gift of the State of Israel, the miraculous opportunity we’ve been given to build a state which is an ohr lagoyim, is a work in progress. It’s our work in progress. Unlike global activism, we don’t share responsibility for it with humanity as a whole. If we don’t do it, who will? And if not now, when?
"The establishment of the state of Israel is the most profound modification of the galut which has occurred, but it is not the end of the galut: in the religious sense, and perhaps not only in the religious sense, the state of Israel is a part of the galut." - Leo Strauss We are all, or most of us, in exile from metaphysical Zion - no matter if you live in Jerusalem or Siberia.

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