Are Jews outside Israel seen as part of the galut/exile, Diaspora, or a separate Peoplehood? In other words, how much emphasis is placed on Israel in defining Jews living outside it? Do you see the non-Israeli Jews and Israel as contributing to one another, independent from one another, or is Israel the center or focus?
The question of how Jews outside of Israel relate to the people and place of the Holy Land is a significant subject, particularly in American Jewish literature. And the response of American Jews to Israel has changed throughout history. The Reform movement, originally not part of the Zionist movement, now has a seminary branch and headquarters in Israel. The Reconstructionist movement, my denomination, has always been a denomination committed to Zionism and to the State of Israel, but has also struggled with a modern nation where things are not always black and white.
In general, I believe most Jews think of Israel as a focal point of Jewish life, but not the sole focus of the Jewish experience. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (z”l) believed that Jews needed to live fully in the multiple civilizations to which they belonged. I am fully Jewish, and also fully American. To me, Israel is certainly a focal point of my prayer life as well as my volunteer efforts. There are many foci of my religious life; my family, my country, those who are suffering. To narrow down to one seems too limiting.
The Jews are one nation – not many. Part of the magic of our civilization is the ability to remain connected even with our incredible diversity. We certainly contribute to one another, in both physical and metaphysical ways. Our story is one shared journey. Remember that, no matter where we live or come from, our stories all return to the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Sea, and the giving of Torah at Sinai. Whether real or myth, those foundational stories bind us together in a shared memory. With that history, one part of our community can never become the sole focus of the rest. That is part of the beauty of our tradition.
Are Jews outside Israel seen as part of the Galut/Exile, Diaspora, or a separate Peoplehood? In other words, how much emphasis is placed on Israel in defining Jews living outside it? Do you see the non-Israeli Jews and Israel as contributing to one another, independent from one another, or is Israel the center or focus?
Jews who are sensitive to the Bible, Rabbinic thought and traditional liturgy cannot help but recognize that those who live outside of Israel, no matter how secure, comfortable and culturally Jewish they may be, are residents of the “Diaspora”, i.e., an area that is clearly in contradistinction to the objectively defined Jewish homeland.
From the biblical perspective, the destiny of the Jewish people is synonymous with their living in the land that God has Given them, the land of Israel. This was the goal of the Exodus from Egypt, and it is reiterated countless times throughout TaNaCh (the twenty-four books of the Jewish biblical canon). Exile from the land of Israel is threatened at various junctures, particularly in the book of Devarim, should the Jews prove unworthy of God’s Concern by ignoring His Commandments. Yet even when they are first threatened with becoming stateless, and then when the threat turns into a reality, exile is always presented as a relatively temporary condition that can be reversed via repentance and a return to God’s Ways.
Rabbinic literature draws many distinctions between the Israeli and Diaspora communities in terms of the number of days of Yom Tov to be observed; the status of certain Commandments deemed “dependent upon the land of Israel”, e.g., tithes, pilgrimages on Festivals, and many agricultural rules and regulations; and the center of authority for determining legal status like conferring ordination and adjudicating certain types of legal disputes. The Talmud also discusses how marriages can be adversely affected when one party wishes to live in Israel while the other does not; whether or not returning to live in the land of Israel must be preceded by some Divine Indicator; and can “holiness of place” reside anywhere outside of the land.
Prayerbook liturgy, at least originally, contains differences regarding unique insertions in the prayers for those living inside and outside of Israel; numerous declarations of our earnest desire to return to live in the land and worship in the rebuilt Temple; and variations in blessings of thanksgiving for foods and drinks grown inside or outside the land of Israel.
Consequently, from a traditional religious as opposed to merely cultural perspective, the distinction between Israel and the Diaspora remains definitive, with Israel being considered the eternal epicenter of Jewish spiritual existence.
Nevertheless, that certainly does not mean that the distinct communities in Israel and the rest of the world, as long as identifying-Jews remain outside of the Jewish homeland, should not feel responsible for one another and capable of enriching and being enriched by one another. Biological and cultural hybrid vigor contributes to the survival of the Jewish people, and special aspects of Jewish life can develop in all sorts of environments. A symbiosis by which Jews all over the world interact with one another, assist each other’s communities to achieve mutual goals, defend one another’s spiritual, physical and financial well-being, and feel at one with all Jews regardless of where they happen to presently be living is certainly a Jewish value reflected in the Rabbinic comment, (Shavuot 39a) “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh” (all of Israel serve as guarantors for /are intertwined with each other).
 Since different Jewish denominations have evolved particularly since the Emancipation, and each has self-consciously developed their own prayer liturgy, marked differences can be observed among the various Siddurim in terms of the importance of and expressions of longing to return to live in the land of Israel.
The various wordings and subsections of the question contain several nuances, each of which is worthy of attention:
It bears high emphasis that all Jews are the members of one people. Wherever Jews live, they are united by kinship as well as creed. National identities in the countries of the Dispersion, while often significant to the cultural and political nuances of the Jewish experiences there, are in no sense a denial of the overarching—some would say, the mystical!—unity of the Jewish people.
In the early nineteenth century, when Jews were first vying for citizenship in the countries of western and central Europe, some leaders of the youthful Reform movement consciously negated the national dimension of Jewish identity, along with its Zionist implications. For example, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 declared, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But even within Reform Judaism, the awareness of the inescapable national—as well as religious—unity and identity of the Jewish people reasserted itself. The Columbus Platform of the Reform movement, in 1937, amended the previous century’s sentiments significantly. “Israel: Judaism is the soul of which Israel is the body. Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by the heritage of faith… In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland…”
Today, with the Jewish society of Israel well into its second century of modern existence, we sometimes behold differences of emphasis between Israeli Jews and those living in the Diaspora. Moreover, some expressions of Jewish nationalism emanating from Israel have been disparaging of the non-Israeli experience. Nonetheless, the strong preponderance of opinion, both among Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora, reaffirms the worldwide unity of the Jewish people.
As I understand the second part of the question, it seeks to understand the degree of importance of Israel in Diasporic Jewish self-understanding. Do Jews living outside of Israel regard the modern Jewish State of Israel as importance in their Jewish identity, and if so, to what degree?
Here we see some differences of degree, but not an essential difference of kind, and I will focus on developments within the Masorti/ Conservative movement. In the first decades after the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, Jewish education focused heavily on the Zionist accomplishment, reclaiming the wastelands of the Holy Land and fashioning a brave and, in many ways, an idealistic society, despite overwhelming, often deadly, opposition from its Arab neighbors and the indifference of too much of the world. The existential threat that hung over Israel prior to 1967, coupled with the newness of the state, contributed to the sense among Diasporic Conservative Jews that supporting Israel was a significant component in what it meant for our adherents to be Jewish. A generation born after 1967, and especially after the 1979 Peace treaty with Egypt, has not lived the same experiences as its elders, and hence the visceral sense of concern for Israel’s very existence is less among younger Jews--- perhaps unwisely, given the march to power of Islamic fundamentalism, beginning with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and continuing at an accelerated pace in the past two years. The specter of a nuclear- armed Iran ought to arouse the highest level of concern for Israel among Jews, wherever they live.
The documented, lower level of concern for Israel on the part of younger, non-Orthodox Jews today, as compared to the past, ought to be a challenge for Jewish educators and community leaders throughout the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal streams of Judaism--- but it ought not be accepted as a norm of Jewish life. On the contrary, it is an aberration. Certainly, the leadership and spokespeople of the Masorti/Conservative movement is committed to reaffirming the centrality of Israel in contemporary Jewish life, even while affirming the free choice of Jews to live where they choose and work for the betterment of their local societies.
In the third section of the question, I would affirm the first and last options, rather than the second: Diasporic and Israeli Jews do have much to contribute to each other, and that is consistent with the State of Israel and its society being at the center of Jewish focus.
For nearly two thousand years, Judaism developed as a minority community, often beleaguered and oppressed. Our religion has had ample experience in developing responses to powerlessness or to adverse power imbalances. Since the establishment of modern Israel, and especially since the expansion of Israel in 1967, Judaism has been faced with new dilemmas, arising from the responsible exercise of power in a still-hostile environment. Israeli and Diasporic Jews have much to say to each other about that new fact of Jewish life.
Again, the Diasporic experience of close, daily living in pluralistic societies can be an important resource for Israeli Jews, as they seek to handle the dynamics of pluralism from the relatively new perspective of being the majority culture. Conversely, the Israeli experience of Jewish national independence has had, and ought to continue to have, a powerful influence on the renewal of Jewish self-confidence in post-Holocaust Diasporic societies.
In sum, Judaism develops in tandem with Jewish historical experience. The varying foci of Jewish live in Israel and in the Diaspora represent a richer historical experience than either group could experience in isolation, and therefore, the best outcome for a 21st century Judaism that can give religious guidance to contemporary Jews is for a continuation and, indeed, a deepening, of the influence that Jews around the world have on each other.
I love this question and want to thank you for asking it. On the simplest level and regardless of where we live, I believe we are one people. Yes, we are diverse. We don’t agree on everything and sometimes we can be contentious with each other. However, all of that comes from being part of a large extended family.
As a people and also as individuals, our spiritual relationship with G-d is defined by the Covenant first given to Abram. One of the key elements of that Covenant is the promise of land. In Genesis 15:18 we read, “On that day G-d made a covenant with Abram, saying ‘To your offspring I assign this land …’” The Covenantal promise of land was repeated to Jacob in Genesis 28:13 and features prominently in the last four books of the Torah. Our primary defining narrative is the story of the Exodus, our journey from Egyptian bondage to the Promised Land, that place where we will finally be able to build our communities around Torah. Later on, the Prophets wrote about how we settled in the land, lost the land, and eventually returned, and in the Psalms, our longing for return as we languished by the rivers of Babylon is enshrined with the words, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither …” (Ps. 137:5). For nearly two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, we lived in galut (exile), but turned to face Jerusalem three times daily to pray for return (and we still face Jerusalem today). We are blessed because our dream of return finally came true in 1948 with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Our history has been a recurring cycle of exile and return.
I don’t believe most of us live in galut anymore. Many Western Jews choose to remain where they are rather than making aliyah (which is another interesting word we use when it comes to the place of Israel in our worldview). I consider myself to be a Diaspora Jew, not a Jew living in exile. As for the emphasis we place on Israel, it is a part of who we are. I think we need to acknowledge and embrace our connections with Israel rather than attempt to downplay them. Travel to Israel presents us with a powerful reality-check and helps to strengthen the connections between Diaspora Jews and Israel. My first trip to Israel was truly life-changing, and today I consider facilitating and leading tours to Israel one of my most important tasks as a rabbi. Finally, I think Israeli and Diaspora Jews should and in fact do contribute to one another.
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