Our Lives in Exile
Recently, while studying with a student, the concept of exile surfaced, and my student bristled when I nonchalantly commented that we live in a state of exile. The aftershocks of emancipation have been strong in the United States, and we have benefited and suffered. As Jewish Americans, we are afforded the luxury of acceptance and success, but, indisputably, by the simple fact that we live outside of the land of Israel — eretz ha-kodesh, the holy land — we live in exile.
Confounded and bothered, my student could not accept that her life was somehow incomplete. She insisted that we had chosen this existence, and exile was what happened to those living in Israel after the destruction of the Temple. Life in Babylonia was forced upon them. We have chosen a destiny — Diaspora Judaism.
I would guess her sentiments are prevalent among a strong majority of Jewish Americans. We feel we lack nothing living outside of the land – Israel is an important place to visit; to make pilgrimage to; to feel warmed by the security of its existence; to contribute time and money to; and to fight for, against those threatening its right to survive. But, Israel does not breed a more authentic Judaism than the Diaspora.
The perceived relaxed attitude we maintain about our exile status and the impact it has on our identity has recently been the subject of harsh words exchanged between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. The dual firestorm, initiated by A.B. Yehoshua, the noted Israeli writer, at a symposium held by the American Jewish Committee, has uncovered some surprising sentiments held by many in the Israeli intellectual elite. Essentially, Yehoshua’s charge is that Diaspora Judaism does not cover the “full spectrum” of the Jewish reality.
That may be so. But instead of lobbing another attack contesting Jewish identity on either side of the pond, I’d like to highlight what I consider a benefit of exile.
Apropos, our parashah this week centers on the land of Israel. We read of the sabbatical year when we are instructed to leave the land fallow. The seven-year cycle the land follows is parallel to our week. On the seventh year of each cycle, we are prohibited from working the land as it must also rest.
As we are told, the sabbatical year is designed to compel us to recognize that true possession of the land can never happen – the land will always be God’s, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). We are taught two important lessons here. First, as creator, God maintains custody and we are graciously allowed to lease the land. Second, and most notable, we are perpetually considered “strangers.” This state of flux is jarring. Even in our most comfortable and secure of homes — even in the land of Israel — we are outsiders.
As a people in exile, Diaspora Jews feel this “stranger” status acutely. The heartache of our outsider position, as a people separate and distinct, although no where near as prevalent as in our history, frequently rears its head. We face constant reminders through political battles, personal encounters, and sometimes through the guilt or shame that causes our faces to blush when reacting to statements from our brothers and sisters in our homeland.
Exile is humbling. It obliges us to consider others who live as strangers, as outsiders, and as refugees. We have a unique position as Jews living in the Diaspora — we are constantly reminded of our stranger status — sometimes by the societies in which we live, and sometimes by our own in our homeland. Whatever the catalyst, our outsider status is a lived reality. And, it is that lived reality that makes us more acutely aware of others.
The genocide systematically eliminating the people of Darfur has caused many of us to stand up and take notice. The American Jewish community has come out in full force with political action and vocal demonstrations, echoing those who have protested for generations. But today, it is not for Jews in the Soviet Union that we are marching for; it is not for support of the land of Israel under siege that we speak out. It is for a country most of us have never been to. It is in support of refugees most of us will never meet. It makes me proud to be a Jewish American.
People have questioned the Jewish community’s conscience. What inspires our role in this conflict? The answer to this question came in the form of signs and speeches — when we said “Never again” we meant it not only for Jews.
Our parashah this week, though, teaches us that our personal experience with genocide need not be the only motivating factor for our presence and voice. The sabbatical year teaches us that we were strangers, and we will eternally be strangers. Diaspora Judaism in particular highlights our stranger status, and emphasizes our motivation to stand up and make our presence known. Although others may spin it as a condemning sentence, our life in exile allows us to particularly empathize with and fight for those who walk a similar path.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.