Diaspora Jews need to be reminded that they are living in exile
By abandoning the feeling that Jews outside of Israel are in exile, we risk losing everything.
According to the Jewish sources, there is no worse fate than living in exile. Without the hope and the inspiration that a nation can be restored to its land, a people in exile will eventually die out. Only the Jewish people survived homelessness for almost twenty centuries, and we have done so in large part by cultivating the doctrine of exile.
As Jews, not a single day is allowed to pass without reminding ourselves that we are in exile; we pray daily for our ingathering. As comfortable as we may be personally, wherever we may be, we regularly remind ourselves that we are part of a nation that yearns to return home. Regardless of how loyal or grateful we may be to the host countries that provide us with refuge and sustenance, we are meant never to mistake those countries for home: this year in exile - next year in Jerusalem.
After two thousand years of praying for a return from the exile, a new generation of Jews - the Zionists - emerged late in the 19th century and decided to rebel against the accepted halakha. They worked to end the exile. Those Zionists recognized that if the Jewish people were going to rise above the degraded circumstances to which they had been led, they needed to demand the full benefits of modernity - including the human, civil and national rights that are essential to the progress of any people - while requiring full emancipation from the rabbinic leadership that opposed it. The Zionist founders of the State of Israel knew that Judaism, as the national culture of the Jewish people, was something that could not be lived naturally outside of its own land. The Zionists worked diligently to undo everything that signified our exile, and sacrificed much in order to end the exile once and for all.
When the State of Israel was created in 1948, our exile was meant to be over. The ingathering of the dispersed from around the world proceeded speedily and Jews poured back into our restored homeland. We were home again - or at least we could go home, if we wanted to do so. The redemption of the entire nation appeared close at hand.
However, over 60 years later the redemption has not yet been completed. Millions of Jews still have not returned to Israel. There are many reasons why this is true. Israel is still not at peace, and it can be daunting to leave peaceful lands for life in a country that is always under threat of war. Others worry about their ability to support themselves or their family if they were to return to the Jewish state. Not everybody is able to take advantage of this unique opportunity in history.
More importantly, however, not everybody wants to move to Israel. Many Jews today refuse to consider life outside of Israel as “exile.” Israelis, for example, often resent any ideological demand that potentially threatens to limit their freedom of choice regarding where to live - the era in which moving away from Israel was considered disloyal is long gone. Meanwhile, Diaspora Jews, especially in lands with little anti-Semitism, increasingly feel completely at home in their countries of residence among their non-Jewish neighbors, a fact that naturally attenuates their feeling of exile or the primacy of their bonds to the Jewish people.
However, by abandoning the feeling that Jews outside of Israel are in exile, we risk losing everything. Jews who no longer feel that they are in exile when living in a non-Jewish land are increasingly on a trajectory of assimilation in which they find that they identify more with the peoples of their host countries than with their own people throughout the world. Meanwhile, Jews who no longer feel the primacy of Zion over other Jewish communities in the world might not necessarily be willing to sacrifice as much on her behalf.
But trajectories are not destiny. They can and must be reversed. We must once again have the courage to remind Jews worldwide that if they choose to live outside of Israel, they risk exiling themselves from their own heritage and from sharing in their national destiny. Many cultures, religions and peoples share our universal values. None share our particular history. Only in Israel can we live not only according to our universal values but also immersed in our unique Jewish culture as it has been shaped by our own heritage.
And if anyone continues to believe, as they very well might, that they need to remain in exile, they must constantly remind themselves, on a daily basis, that the Jewish people is their extended family, that Israel is their home, and that though they may be in exile this year - next year, if possible, they pray to be in Israel.
Rabbi Jeff Cymet is the rabbi of Tiferet Shalom—The Masorti Congregation of Ramat Aviv. For many years, Rabbi Cymet was an international lawyer in Israel and in East Asia, and served as Legal Advisor to the Israeli Minister of Justice.