My Thesis Experience in the Diaspora

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Ever since my my pre-college gap year with Nativ (a program of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), I have been interested in the question of the Land of Israel’s place in Jewish literature. I grew up a product of the Conservative Movement and Young Judaea camps, which meant that connection to Israel was always a part of my American life. However, it was only during my gap year that I realized how this connection might come into conflict with my own residence in the United States. I lived in Israel and met religious Israelis who would almost invariably ask me when I am making aliyah, seemingly unable to fathom the idea that I, as a Jew, might want to live in the diaspora. I began thinking about the early Zionist thought I was taught that denigrated life in the diaspora, the frequency with which our liturgy focuses on the return to Zion, and the fact that the Land of Israel features prominently in the Bible as God’s promised land to the Jewish people. Naturally, I realized the concern that was in the mind of these religious Israelis: would it not take a heavy amount of cognitive dissonance to pray for the ingathering of the exiles remaining abroad with no intention of aliyah? 

It is at this tension point that my thesis was born. I knew that much of Jewish history occurred in the diaspora, including the formation of one of the foundational rabbinic documents, the Babylonian Talmud. My thesis was then a quest to determine: how did the Rabbis of this influential work believe their lives to be shaped by the diaspora? How did they legitimize their lives abroad? And, being abroad, what did they think about the Land of Israel? It was Dr. Marjorie Lehman who introduced me to the text that became the main exhibit for this thesis: BT Ketubbot 110b-112b, a case wherein the Babylonian rabbis respond to a claim from earlier Palestinian rabbis that all Jews must live in the Land of Israel. In my thesis, I explore this text extensively to discover the diasporic identity of the Babylonian Rabbis. My goal, from an academic standpoint, is merely to illuminate their feelings on this issue. However, my personal hope is that this thesis will help those struggling over their diaspora identity to see themselves in the project of these sages.

Jeremy Kohler (JP ’22)