“Seek the Welfare of the City to Which I Have Exiled You…” Toward another Diaspora Manifesto

December 1, 2004
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Aryeh Cohen

I DON’T RECALL that there was a single, particular moment when the light when on and I realized that the Zionist narrative was also myth — unlike the moment when, perhaps belatedly, I first confronted the radical possibility that God did not exist. The latter moment I remember with stark clarity. Walking with a friend through Gan Ha-Pa’amon in Jerusalem, engrossed in one of our many long and intense conversations — he was spending a year in Israel at Hebrew University and was grieving the loss of his father, I had just started University after finishing the army and was mourning my friends who had died in Lebanon — it was a year infused with death and loss — a now long-forgotten remark brought me up short and frightened. I could actually feel what it would have been like to not believe in God. I still believed in God. I wouldn’t actually lose my faith till several Maimonidean years later, and then recover it in the neo-Hassidic cloisters of Somerville, Massachusetts.

Walking those same Baka streets almost two decades later — on a rare visit back since my descent in 1988 — I experienced an odd dissonance. I had a physical memory of the streets of Jerusalem and, at the same time, an inability to picture my way to any of the places that used to be so familiar. In the early jetlagged hours of dawn I found myself being led by pure instinct to the places of memory. It was the feeling one has when meeting one’s ex-lover. There is a combination of intense familiarity combined with a similar amount of distance and alienation. And then there is the pain, and the anger.

On a very hot summer day in 1978, standing on a parched and sandy drill field in the Armored Corps’ training camp, I pledged my troth to the State of Israel and its Armed Forces. That moment was the culmination of much of my childhood — growing up in an adamantly Religious Zionist home even as the Orthodox community was swept rightward. That day, the magical Zionism of my childhood, the boisterous Zionism of my adolescence, and the militant Zionism of my young adulthood were given the official stamp of approval.

Slightly more than four years later, in a very temporary reserve army camp, sometime soon after my unit returned from Lebanon, I returned the tokens of that approval. The commander of our tank unit placed a pile of Lebanon war service ribbons outside our tents and announced that anyone who wanted one should take one. The pile remained largely untouched.

Slowly, in fits and starts, dark nights of struggling, hours of conversation, the myth crumbled. Purity of arms fell away, then purity of intention, then integrity of purpose. Surprisingly, the last to go was the abiding belief that the State of Israel was and had to be the center of the Jewish universe. Sitting in a small, sometimes claustrophobic, davening room in a ramshackle New England clapboard house, I learned in my flesh that Torah doesn’t only come from Zion.

And so in the harsh reality of the ongoing morning-after of my decades-long Zionist affair, I took stock. American Judaism was not dying. Far from becoming a spiritual and intellectual wasteland drawing sustenance from Jerusalem, the Diaspora — especially the North American Diaspora — has flourished. There are both Jewish universities and universities with important Jewish Studies departments, in addition to a plethora of yeshivot and seminaries of all ideological stripes.

The American Jewish community stands in a long tradition of Diasporic communities — from Philo’s Alexandria before the turn of the millennium to Sura and Nehardea of sixth century Sassanian Persia, to Kairouan in tenth century North Africa, Toledo, Sarragossa and Gerona in the Spanish Golden Age, Spires, Worms, Dampierre and Ramerupt of eleventh to fourteenth century Franco-Germany, centuries of Jewish civilization in Vilna, Warsaw, Medzibezh and Lodz, Fes, Izmir and Baghdad, Berlin and Paris. The culture produced in these Jewish communities are not merely books on the shelf of Judaism, they are Judaism itself.

The fact of the State of Israel has, of course, nuanced and textured what it means to be a Diasporic Jewish community. The passion, the commitment, the sheer hard work, the wonder, the awe, the aura, the borrowed glory of the Zionist movement, and the founding of the State swept Diasporic Jews along with it to the point that the notion of another tradition, another way of thinking of themselves, was almost completely occluded. For hundreds of years the Jewish community saw itself as of the Diaspora until the messianic age of a distant future. Historically there had almost always been a Diasporic community — even during the Second Commonwealth.

And so here we are: probably the most learned, most affluent, most politically powerful Jewish community in the history of the world, and we are tied up in knots about who we are. The borders of accepted speech are assiduously patrolled by self-appointed guardians of the walls. (I have a file of hate mail, letter after letter of people comparing me to a kapo, and I am far from alone in this.) The public domain of our institutions and the popular Jewish press has been colonized by the most right wing element in our community. Israel is not a problem for me because my allies on the progressive left think it’s a problem. Israel is a problem because it claims to speak for the Jewish community, and the Jews who speak for it confound and subvert the Judaism that I love and teach — the Judaism that can contribute to creating a better and more just world.

We in the North American Diaspora are in a position to embrace a Torah that speaks to our deeper selves while at the same time commanding us to do justice in the world. The rabbinic tradition of social and economic justice can and should be read through the filter of Jeremiah’s charge to the newly exiled Jewish people in Babylon: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity shall you prosper.” (Jeremiah 29: 7). Rather than reacting to the enlightenment by cutting loose non-ritual Jewish law, we should be universalizing it — arguing that there is much to be gained from a serious engagement between Jewish conceptions of civil and criminal law and American society.

As the ultimate insider-outsiders, we are in a position to create alliances across the necessarily permeable intellectual and physical boundaries of our communities. While I wish those alliances were all for progressive ends, it is a sign of the vitality of our community that while the Progressive Jewish Alliance forms coalitions with Latino and Asian-Pacific human rights groups to eradicate sweatshops, the legal arm of Agudath Israel coalitions with conservative groups in favor of school vouchers.

Diaspora is necessarily a fragmented and fluid identity claiming a tradition that is homeless but sustaining. And so, on a winter night I pile my kids in the car and explain to them in Hebrew (the language in which I always speak to them) why we are going to support the grocery workers who are on strike. We talk about the obligation for economic justice and then we walk the picket line for an hour or so. Shachar and Oryah come home happy, though I must admit that it was mainly because they got shoko cham , hot cocoa.

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Dr. Aryeh Cohen, a member of the Sh'ma Advisory Board, is Chair of the Rabbinics Department at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism. He is also President of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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