Elie Jesner is a proud diaspora Jew. He is angry with those who presume to teach him what being Jewish should mean to him and tell Jews to come to live in Israel. “The idea that there is a singular geographic region, or even a community, which gives us a final sense of home, is misguided and dangerous,” he writes in a Haaretz op-ed (accessible to subscribers). I have great respect for Elie, he is a scholar and a mensch, but in this case, I think he is wrong.
David Ben Gurion was one of the greatest leaders of the Zionist movement. His aliya from Poland was tough. It was followed by years of disease, famine and food shortages. When he went to the doctor to be treated for Malaria, he was promptly informed that he also suffered from malnutrition. Yet, despite the agonies, Ben Gurion remained a staunch and uncompromising advocate of aliya. In February 1909, he wrote to his father; “Settling the land – that is the only real Zionism; the rest is just self-delusion, idle chatter and time wasting”. His words were harsh. There are many Jews who work with dedication to support the Jewish State, but are unable to uproot themselves and make aliya. Everyone must be free to choose where they want to live, I respect that. But nothing can turn diaspora life into a Jewish ideal.
It is simply not true to suggest that Jewish tradition equates life in the Diaspora with a life lived in Israel. Yes, Jews have lived in the diaspora for centuries, but this was always considered a life in exile. Even in the greatest diaspora communities, Jews built their synagogues to face Jerusalem and directed their prayers towards the holy city. Three times each day, they beseeched God for restoration to our land and at every Passover Seder they sang “Next Year in Jerusalem”.
It is hard to beat the rulings of Maimonides that just by walking four cubits in Israel; we merit a place in the World to Come. (Hilchot Melachim 5: 11) But his position is trumped by Nachmanides who ruled that any religious observance in the Diaspora was only practice for when the commandments can be properly fulfilled in the Land of Israel. (Ramban commentary on Vayikra 18: 25)
Elie claims support from Megillat Esther quoting arguments from a Professor Aaron Koller that “the text may have been written as a statement of counter-ideology to the nationalist and ethnocentric vision of Judaism being preached by Ezra. Mordechai, the hero in the story, represents a different ideal that of the acculturated Jew, accepted by Persian society, enriched by his surrounding culture, strengthened by his heritage, and through his leverage in the empire able to exert broad influence across the global politics.”
This may be Professor Koller’s conclusion, but it was certainly not shared by the rabbis. Far from seeing the Shushan community as ‘acculturated and enriched by the surrounding culture’, they saw it as assimilated and decadent. Asked what the Jews of that time had done to deserve a decree of extermination, they suggested that it was a Divine punishment for rushing to feast at the drunken banquets of a foolish, debauched and murderous king. (Talmud, Megilla 12a)
When asked why, the festival of Purim is not celebrated with the recital of Hallel – Psalms of Praise to God, they argued that it is because the miracles took place outside the Holy Land and therefore unworthy of that spiritual honor. A second reason they gave is because “we are still slaves to Ahashverosh”, meaning that life in the Diaspora remains precarious, we live at the whim of leaders whose sympathies to the Jewish people can easily waver. (Talmud Arachin 10b)
Mordechai and Esther were great Jewish heroes who saved us from genocide, but living in the diaspora, they were forever swimming against the tide. There is little that is glorious about Mordechai’s “broad influence across the global politics”. On the contrary, even after King Ahashverosh recognized the evil of Haman and the folly of his anti-Semitism, the Jewish community still had to beg for the right to self-defense and standalone against the anti-Semites. Mordechai may have dedicated himself to ambassadorial work; fighting for Jewish rights amongst a murderous, hostile population, but all this came at the expense of his own spiritual pursuits and for this he was criticized by the rabbis.
Purim is the festival of the Diaspora. It marks a time when Jews lived fragile lives in a foreign land. Forever struggling to maintain their Jewish lives and ingratiate themselves with their peers; never quite succeeding.
Just a few weeks later, we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut marking the establishment of a country where we see our children transformed into proud Israelis, speaking flawless Hebrew, following a Jewish calendar and building a Jewish vision secure in the knowledge that they will be the ones to defend their people and their homeland.