Diaspora Judaism needs a fresh identity

Diaspora Judaism needs a fresh identity

With the State of Israel just having turned 66, I’m thinking a lot about Jewish life in the Diaspora. The birthday of the Jewish state forces an existential question on us Diaspora Jews: What is our compelling mission and purpose for Judaism outside of the land of Israel? Top Jewish thinkers and theologians have offered a dazzling range of meanings for Jewish life in Israel. The meaning of Jewish life in the Diaspora deserves the same attention.

In 1949, Ben-Gurion asked American-Jewish parents to send their children to make aliya. The request sparked a major kerfuffle among American-Jewish leaders, based on their fear that American Jews would be accused of the serious charge of dual loyalty. American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein went to Jerusalem in 1951 to discuss the crisis. At a carefully orchestrated luncheon at the King David Hotel, Ben-Gurion and Blaustein created what became known as the “Blaustein-Ben-Gurion” agreement. Israel would not have a political claim on Diaspora Jews, but could count on getting material support from them. This framework has dominated the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in the United States ever since.

We desperately need new frameworks for Israel-Diapora relations. To get there, Diaspora Judaism needs to refresh its own identity.

Earlier this year, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem organized a panel about what Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel can learn from each other. During the question-and-answer period, an audience member commented, “We’re both jealous of each other: Israelis are jealous of the comfortable life that American Jews have. Americans are jealous of the depth of history in Israel, the air of the people, the different kind of attitude.” However true that claim may be, successful relationships are built not on envy but on a healthy dose of self-awareness. When American Jews are seen — by ourselves and by Israeli Jews — primarily as lobbyists and fund-raisers for the Jews of Israel, the Jewish people suffer.

 Millennia ago, Jews also grappled with this relationship. Philo of Alexandria, in the first century, wrote in Flaccus that “no one country can contain the whole Jewish nation, by reason of its populousness.” He suggested that Diaspora Jews have a motherland in the holy city of Jerusalem and a fatherland in their home country. Soon after Philo wrote those words, Shimon bar Yochai taught that the Jewish people is like a palace built on top of two ships floating in the ocean. In his metaphor, one ship is the land of Israel, the other is the Diaspora, and the Jewish people are the palace floating on top of the two ships. Without both flotation devices — Israel and the Diaspora — bar Yochai explained, the palace of the Jewish people would sink into the depths of history.

Luckily, Zionist thought appears to have moved past the days of shelilat hagola, or negation of the Diaspora. But will today’s Jewish thinkers be as creative and bold as Philo and bar Yochai? Can we articulate a compelling mission for Diaspora Judaism that includes but goes beyond instrumentalism in supporting the State of Israel?

The Torah was received in the Diaspora. Most of Jewish history was lived out in the Diaspora. Diaspora Judaism deserves a foundational, equal place in the self-identity of the Jewish people, right alongside the Jewish state. We should discover and practice what it means to live out God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to all the families on the earth (Genesis 12).

Surely part of Diaspora Judaism’s mission is to strengthen the State of Israel. But let not Diaspora Jews be blinded by that mission. We are so privileged to live in a time when Diaspora Judaism is big enough, strong enough, and diverse enough to do much more. And the more clearly we articulate a compelling understanding of why we choose to live our Jewish lives out in the larger world, the stronger the Jewish people will be. For me, a mission for Diaspora Judaism would be inspired by the words of Isaiah 49: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the offspring of Israel. I will also make you a light unto the nations (or lagoyim), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The Jewish task of being a light unto the nations takes on special immediacy for Jews living in the Diaspora. We can strive to bring the wisdom and experience of Jewish tradition and history to the world’s most pressing challenges.

The 20th-century thinker Simon Rawidowicz taught that the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora are the two foci of a single ellipse: equal and critical gravitational centers that shape and define the Jewish people. Let Diaspora Jews not only celebrate the achievements of the State of Israel, but also reflect on their own mission as an equal part of the Jewish people.

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