After reading his premature obituary in the New York Journal, American author Mark Twain once famously responded by saying, “the report of my death was an exaggeration.”
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I believe the same can be said now for the state of Jewish life in the Diaspora.
When the first Jews were forced to live in the Diaspora even before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., we justifiably feared the worst. The term "shlilat hagola," the negation of the Diaspora, developed to reflect this fear that living outside the Promised Land was an infeasible, unsustainable model for Jewish living.
Due to our initial “casting out” and the utter destruction of Jerusalem, as well as the hard times Jews historically experienced, a myth developed that living in the Diaspora, even centuries later, has continued to remain a punishment. Our own siddur, our prayer book, reflects this hopeless impending doom of Diaspora life; during the three pilgrimage festivals we recite the words, "umipnei hata'einu," – "But on account of our sins we were exiled from our land.”
Often reacting to the existential struggles of Jews at the turn of the twentieth century, early Zionist thinkers were quick to seize on this zeitgeist to negate Diaspora Jewish life in their writing. In its 1882 manifesto, the proto-Zionist organization Bilu wrote about the futility of Jewish life in exile in contrast to the Israel they aspired to build: “Your state in the West is hopeless: the star of your future is gleaming in the East.” More recently, Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua has famously come out against the possibility of living a full Jewish life in the Diaspora, calling American Jews “partial Jews.”
In his new book "At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews," Alan Wolfe argues the opposite. Wolfe makes the case that, for the first time in Jewish history, Jews in the Diaspora today are leading successful, meaningful, secure and culturally rich lives in states where they are a minority. Not only do I agree with him – and do I think that this has been the case for some time now – but I also believe this modern reality calls for rethinking Judaism’s theological stance on negating Diaspora Jewish life.
Today, with Jews having the option to make aliyah to the State of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora are doing so by choice. We can be committed Zionists and still live here. Unlike our ancestors, we are not living here because we have nowhere else to go.
Undeniably, those of us who are committed to Jewish life recognize that living in the Diaspora means choosing to live with a host of challenges. Most significantly, we live with the constant pressure of trying to balance the degree to which we assimilate into the majority culture and commit to living Jewish lives.
Yet instead of vanquishing us, this very challenge of living in a free society has historically inspired us to innovate. Our challenges have made us resilient, creative and generative when it comes to engaging each generation of Jews. In response to the challenges posed by Jewish suburbanization in the post-war period, in 1950 conservative rabbis passed a responsa permitting driving on Shabbat to synagogue. Similarly, in response to the strong moral argument brought forth by second wave feminism, in 1985 the conservative movement began to ordain female rabbis.
All of these were responsa that without question relied on Jewish legal precedent, yet one cannot escape that in a historical context these were innovations brought forth by the blessings of a free society.
Reflecting on my own upbringing, I see just how much I am a product of innovative Jewish institutions intended to meet challenges posed by assimilation. I played sports at my local Jewish Community Center, at which games were not held on Shabbat. I attended a Solomon Schechter Day School, a non-yeshiva approach to Jewish education that gave me both a solid Jewish and secular education that prepared me well for college (many Orthodox yeshivot also now follow this approach). Summers at Camp Ramah were not only a lot of fun, but were where I experienced a real Shabbat community. In high school, like other fortunate teenagers my age, I traveled the country. On my travel program with United Synagogue Youth, I discovered passionate everyday Jewish living as I attended regular services and made close Jewish friends.
But there is a price that comes with living in a free society: people have more options. If the Jewish Diaspora wants to continue thriving and surviving, it must harness our ability to innovate in order to overcome these challenges. Jewish day schools, competing with the fanciest private schools, must offer innovative curricula, top notch facilities and sports programs; Jewish camps, competing with non-Jewish ones, must offer specialty programs that have multiple entry points for Jewish children to engage; and synagogues facing declining memberships must continue experimenting with creative ways to enhance the worship experience in an effort to retain congregants who opt to spend their time and resources on non-Jewish activities.
Today, these processes are well under way. That is why today, the “reports of our death have been an exaggeration.” Living in the Diaspora, it is our very freedom that has created our challenges. However, far from shlilat hagolah, it is also that same freedom that enables us to innovate and find creative solutions to the challenges we face.
Like many Diaspora leaders in my generation, I look forward to the challenge.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J.