How can Jews be ‘Orthodox’ without living in Israel?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-11

I just experienced a classic American Jewish cultural phenomenon – the deluxe, kosher-for-Passover hotel. For eight days, a New Jersey hotel became a Yiddishe Club Med, mostly for the tzitzes-and-snood set. Consuming mounds of flanken, schools of gefilte fish, cartons of matzoh, our spirits soared. Our hearts gladdened. Our waistlines expanded. Our arteries clogged. Yet it seemed a great inversion has occurred. The Torah does not just dictate what to eat but where to live. Although to some traditional commentators the mitzvah, commandment, of living in Israel outweighed all other mitzvoth combined, the behavior of many Orthodox Jews today suggests that many trifling mitzvot trump living in Israel. I wondered: How can Jews be “Orthodox” without living in Israel? Rather than singing so passionately about “Next Year in Jerusalem,” why don’t they simply make it happen?

I regret being ungracious because the experience was beautiful. The seders enabled far-flung families to reunite, consecrate the moment, and reinforce their bonds by embracing enduring values while reenacting meaningful rituals. And this time, someone else did the dishes.

In creating this temporary, luxurious, Jewish village, the guests expressed that characteristically Jewish need to consecrate a Jewish space. Living in Jewish time is not enough – which is why Golden Ghettos have sprung up worldwide. The contrast between the temporary kosher zone we rented in Central Jersey and the chametz-filled Newark Airport we encountered upon leaving was striking. Part of this year’s seder magic came from our parallel experiences in our artificial Jewish space: hearing the echoes of Dayenu resounding through the hotel’s halls; peeking into other family seders; noting who wore white kittels and who did not, who prepared shtick for kids and who did not, who continued past midnight and who did not, while all singing from the same hymnal, er, Haggadah.

As a sensual, 24/7 religion, involving tastes, smells, sounds, and as the religion of one historic people, Judaism functions best in a Jewish space. But suburban New Jersey is not our natural habitat; the land of Israel is, being the Jewish people’s historic homeland. That is why the Bible made Judaism a homeland-based religion. That is why so many commandments are bound up in the land. That is why the exile was so painful for millennia. And that is why – at two of the most popular, profound Jewish religious moments – ending Yom Kippur and climaxing the seder – we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

I am not a Zionist fanatic. I understand why non-Orthodox Jews, especially those who do not take the Torah literally or believe in God, might live elsewhere, even if they acknowledge the upside of Jewish sovereignty, even if they love Israel. And these secular Zionists, of course, are the minority. Most American Jews have never visited Israel. They love the land they were lucky enough to be born in. As modern Jews they easily balance their Jewish and non-Jewish selves outside Israel. Most have no problem supporting Israel without ever living in Israel. I applaud Zionism for maturing beyond its original negation of the Diaspora. I particularly love the United States and Canada, being grateful for the welcoming home these two, safe, flourishing, prosperous democracies provide to millions of Jews.

But Orthodox Jews are, well, Orthodox! Anyone who feels commanded to live fully as a Jew should acknowledge Israel’s centrality in that mission. Moreover, Orthodoxy seems to be particularly rigid these days, with fanatic rabbis turning ritually autistic, blurring minor and major commandments, demanding blind observance to all religious dictates equally, passionately, fully. The traditional seventy fences placed around each mitzvah risk becoming seventy prison walls, with the most restrictive interpretation triumphing.

This rigidity is often curmudgeonly. Before Passover, the New York Times’ front page covered the quinoa controversy. Many Ashkenazi Jews have embraced this South American grain during Passover to expand their gastronomic repertoire. Yet some rabbis have banned it, although it was unknown in Biblical times, in what seems to be this Ashkenazi compulsion to disdain anything new and make Passover another trial to endure.

Given that, how do so many rigidly pious Jews ignore the commandment to live in Israel? How do they reconcile this contradiction? And why do their rabbis, who hector them about the most minor kashrut questions, avoid this subject in sermons?

My mother, despite being Jewish, teaches that “guilt is a wasted emotion.” I do not raise this question to make Orthodox Jews feel guilty. I acknowledge how deeply Zionist the Orthodox community is, having made the pre-college year studying in Israel a given for most Orthodox youth. But this mass violation of the commandment to settle the land, in an era when the land is accessible and appealing albeit challenging, demands debate.

A fuller discussion might help religious Jews see other compromises they make too. That recognition might encourage the often-ignored Jewish value of humility, which could improve relations with less-Orthodox Jews. This humility could encourage greater flexibility on minor matters such as micro-bugs in lettuce as well as major matters such as conversions and the need to consider compromising with Palestinians, who actually live in the land of Israel and whose own nationalist longings should be respected – if they choose to be peaceful and recognize Jewish nationalism.

At its worst, Orthodoxy today risks making Judaism into what traditional Christian critics claimed it was – a pots-and-pans religion obsessed with form not substance, more concerned with superficialities than spirituality. Three decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the guts to read Torah in his Manhattan synagogue, follow its dictums and move to Israel with a small committed minority. Are other rabbis at least brave enough to broach the subject with their congregants? Or are these supposedly Orthodox rabbis and their professedly pious followers actually reformers, having magically made the Israel-based mitzvoth optional?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

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