Learning a Concept: The Meaning of Exile
We have already mentioned that one of the central ideas in Zionism is that of galut. In much Zionist thought, galut is twinned with the concept that is seen as representing its opposite, namely that of geulah, redemption. These opposing concepts were drawn from the traditional religious Jewish worldview. Though many Zionist thinkers were secular, they retained these concepts which became cornerstones of their thinking.
Let us examine a number of aspects of the idea, both in traditional sources and in modern Zionist ideology. We will then be able to see to what extent it is relevant to us today in our lives in Diaspora communities.
The clearest statement on the situation of the Jews in galut (although the word itself is not mentioned) is found in the book of Vayikra. After a series of rules and laws that the Israelites are enjoined to follow, we read the following threat:
If …you still do not listen to me and continue to be hostile to me, then in my anger I will be hostile towards you and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over…
I will lay waste the land so that your enemies who live there will be astonished. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste and your cities will lie in ruins… As for those of you that remain [alive], I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a shaken leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, even though no-one is pursuing them… So you will not be able to stand before your enemies. You will be lost among the nations. The land of your enemies will devour you. Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins.
Vayikra Ch. 26. vv. 27-39
This frightening vision of galut would haunt the Jewish psyche throughout the generations. For example, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, stated that:
The passage [and I will scatter you among the nations] is terrible in its content. When the citizens of one country are exiled, they are sent to the same distant spot: they are able to comfort each other with their own presence. Whereas Israel is scattered like chaff, with no one piece coming into contact with the others.
Rashi on verse 33
In the Babylonian Talmud we read the following comment on verse 38:
“You will be lost among the nations”...And Rav said “I am frightened by this phrase.” Rav Pappa suggested, “Perhaps it is like an article that gets lost but that is requested by its owner.”
Talmud Babli. Tr. Makot 24
The great Zionist leader Berl Katznelson considered this comment in an autobiographical reflection:
Up until the time that I "got a divorce" from the galut, one sentence, as bitter as death, filled me with dread. “And you will be lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will devour you” And it was Rav [name?] who said “I am frightened by this phrase.” Has this sentence not followed us all the days of the exile? Doesn’t this curse of rebuke exist still in our own days?
A modern Conservative commentary understood the whole process as follows:
As the Promised Land was the reward for upholding the covenant, the loss of the Land will be the ultimate punishment for neglecting the covenant. As living in the presence of God as a distinctive people was the reward for following in God’s ways, so exile and living far from God’s sanctuary, becoming a number of unconnected individuals instead of a special people, will be the worst punishment imaginable.
Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentaryn vv.32-3
Galut came to be understood as both the physical reality of a people outside of its country, in lands that were often anything but welcoming, and as a psychological state of alienation from self - the inability of a people in a defensive posture towards its host society to express the real essence of their lives. Part of galut was seen to be the physical state of a people that was not in its own land, a situation of continued insecurity interrupted in some places by generations of temporary security. Galut was not just a physical situation, however: it came to be seen far more as a state of mind, a collective trauma that the whole people suffered. In this state of mind, it was clear that the Jews lived their life very often with one eye turned towards the outer society, checking the reactions of the outer world, and responding to the decisions of that outer world. This was not a people who were independent, even if they were invariably free to pursue their own religion and way of life.
David Ben Gurion reflected on this in the mid-1940s:
We must master our fate; we must take destiny into our own hands! This is the doctrine of the [Zionist] revolution. No surrender to the galut but rather an end to it.
Galut means dependence - material, political, spiritual, cultural and intellectual dependence - because we are aliens, a minority, bereft of a homeland... Our task is to break radically with this dependence and to become masters of our own fate - in a word, to achieve independence. To have survived in the galut despite all odds is not enough; we must create, by our own efforts, the necessary conditions for our future survival as a free and independent people.
David Ben Gurion
How many - if any - of these concepts are still alive in the free communities of the modern era? At first glance, we may be inclined - with Jacob Neusner - to reject the suggestion that there is any connection between these concepts of galut and the reality of ‘free’ Jewry today. A little deeper reflection will, however, give pause for thought.
On the physical front, the beginning of the twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of anti-Semitic attacks on a scale not seen for generations, in countries that hoped that such occurrences belonged to the long-distant past. Many European Jews, in France, Britain and Belgium to name but three countries, are scared both of physical attack and of their position in society.
Even on the psychological side, the situation can be seen to be more complex than has often been supposed. The American rabbi and intellectual, Arthur Hertzberg, a shrewd appraiser of the Jewish scene in that country, made the following observation in an essay in 1964. We quote it at length because it presents such a contrast to the words of Jacob Neusner, twenty years later:
Whether (American) Jews can and ought to assimilate, or whether they are in exile, cannot be considered in terms only of Jewish will and Jewish needs. We are inevitably involved in an estimate of what is America and in some projection of the probable future of American culture and society. Clearly the Jews who remain in Yemen are in exile… Certainly the American situation is different from [such a case] - but what is the American situation?…
There can be no denying the proposition that American society, for all its secularization, is not neutral. It is Christian. For all the matters that are crucial to the actual experience of the individual Jew, as a Jew, within America, the tempo of life as such has inevitably to favor Christianity and to act against Judaism.
We are by now so accustomed to this mode of living that is usually does not even occur to us to identify it for what it inevitably is, an experience of alienation. The day of rest is Sunday. No matter how successful we may be in getting some legal redress for Sabbath-observing Jews, as a matter of social experience the Jewish Sabbath costs every individual Jew who is mindful of it an act of will. The majority of Jewry has abandoned the Sabbath under pressure of its inconvenience in a society that is attuned against it. What is this if not a phenomenon of exile? Nor is this an economic compulsion, rooted in the need of Jews to make a living. From the very beginning of public school, field trips, parties, dances and football games all take place on Saturday as the most convenient time. The Jewish child either participates or abstains; in either case he experiences his radical otherness. For that matter much of the weight, or lack of weight, that is being given to Jewish holidays is related to the pressure of a majority culture. A prime example is, of course, Hanukkah, which has now become that which it was never intended to be, the Jewish equivalent of Christmas…
But do the otherness of Jewish behavior in America and the feeling of emotional alienation really amount to exile? That depends, of course, on the definition that one gives to that term. In the classic Jewish tradition, exile meant, in the first instance, the notion that the Jew was outside both society and history, he was waiting for return to his own land. Meanwhile he suffered the pain of living in a hostile environment. But even in the medieval period that did not mean only pogroms. It meant also being [prevented] from achieving one’s own full identity. The radical change in our time is that environment is doing away with Jewish individuality not by attack but by openness. Hence the individual Jew, biologically, is no longer in exile in democracy; it is his Judaism, even his Jewishness, that is in exile.
We leave the issue open. Are modern Jews in democratic countries enjoying unquestionably the virtues and blessings of democracy, as against the traditional ideas of galut as most of them would think? To put it another way, do modern Jews live in the Diaspora or in the galut?