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How old is the Diaspora and how legitimate is it for Jews to live outside the Land of Israel? These questions have arisen again due to A.B. Yehoshua's recent speech, in which he raised the hackles of leaders of American Jewry by intimating if not that the Diaspora should be eliminated, then that it was far inferior to living in Israel.
Paradoxically, the Diaspora is older than the settlement in the Land of Israel. When the tribes of Reuven and Gad ask Moses for permission to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan River because that land is good for cattle, Moses replies, "Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them?" (Numbers 32:7). It seems quite clear that Moses - unlike Betar - does not consider the other side of the Jordan to be part of the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan. If they stay there they will be establishing a settlement in the Diaspora - hutz la'aretz. Moses permits them to do so - if they will take the lead in bringing the rest of the people into the land of Canaan.
The problems of Diaspora life are made even clearer in the passage in Joshua 22:10-30 where we learn that later, these tribes built an altar to the Lord in their territory, an altar which the other tribes considered to be a sacrilege, since no altar was to be erected outside the holy land.
They explained, however, that the altar was not for sacrifice but only for show. They were afraid that their children would be told they have no part in the Lord. The altar would serve as a witness of the ties between those inside the land and those outside of it. They are all part of one community, one people.
DURING THE days of the Second Temple, the vast majority of Jews continued to live in Babylonia. The Levites might have had difficulty singing their songs there, but eventually most people managed to make a living and settled down comfortably. Large and flourishing communities were established in Egypt, Rome and throughout the Mediterranean basin.
What is most striking is that there does not seem to have been any particularly bad feelings between the motherland and the Diaspora communities. The pilgrims came regularly to the Temple on the holy days and delegations of Jews from Judea went elsewhere is search of help, financial or political. The situation at that time was a harmonious one, with the community in the Land accepting as a given the fact that not all Jews would live there. What was important was that there were strong ties between them and that Jews, wherever they were, felt an obligation toward the community in Judea.
THE IDEA of shelilat hagalut of early Zionism, calling for the negation of Jewish communities outside the Land, or assuming that with the establishment of a state those communities would simply wither away, seems to have withered away itself, while the Diaspora communities remain.
Negation is an idea whose time has passed. In the first place, it is not realistic. A total ingathering will not happen in this normal world. On the contrary, Israel itself has been the source of the creation of enormous new Diaspora communities of yordim.
Rather than wasting time talking about the elimination of the Diaspora, real Zionists should stress two things: 1) the duty of Jews everywhere to support the existence of the State of Israel and 2) the uniqueness of Jewish life in the State.
Judaism may not command every Jew to live in Israel, but it does make it very clear that there must be a community of Jews in the Land of Israel and that there they can establish a way of life outlined in the Torah.
A.B. Yehoshua is correct that there is a vast difference between the two, and all Jews should at least be aware that there are alternatives. A Jew today is fortunate in having a choice. He or she can live in the Diaspora freely as a Jew - at least in the major Diaspora communities - in which case he is living as part of a minority in a majority culture and his Jewishness is therefore confined to only one part of life. Or he or she can live in Israel, becoming part of the majority, where Jewishness can be an all-encompassing part of one's life.
If we are concerned about aliya, the best thing we can do is make Israel as good a society as possible, deepen the roots of the Jewish tradition here and remove religious coercion. Don't tell Jews elsewhere how bad their lives are - they won't believe it. Rather, show them the beauty of life in Israel. Let them experience it for themselves and let them choose. They will in any case.
The writer is interim rabbi of the New London Synagogue in St John's Wood and head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.