Don’t Call Me a Zionist, I Don’t Deserve It

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Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel.

I. Trouble In Paradise

There is trouble in Modern Orthodox Zionism. More and more American Jews who adhere to the Torah and profess a love of Israel feel no obligation or desire to move there.

Full disclosure: I live in the United States, and do not see that changing in the near future. Nothing I write here pretends to cast stones at others for their failure to move, since my house is as glass than theirs. Rather, I want to call attention to a change in the conversation around Israel, and offer ideas as to what the American Orthodox Zionist community should do about that.

Losing Touch with the Need for Aliyah

I always thought Jews who didn’t live in Israel had their reasons, like I have mine. Some are better, some worse, but we can leave it to Hashem to judge each of us in that regard. What bothers me is that, increasingly, I hear people frankly declaring they aren’t living in Israel—or striving to– simply because they don’t want to.

One of my first stark realizations of this came when I was speaking with a twenty-something who was considering his career options. I suggested that he might want to figure the possibility of living in Israel into his calculations.

He said, “Why should I think about living in Israel?”

This was a well-educated Jew, dedicated to Torah study and observance, and yet his reaction was honest surprise. I put it aside as an anomaly. A year or two later, I overheard a newly engaged couple being asked whether they were thinking of living in Israel, and they, too, said, “no.” Not, “we’d love to, but…” just no.

Reaching Across the Aisle in Desperation

It began to eat at me, and I took to mentioning it whenever the opportunity presented itself, only to find, at each juncture, that this was more widespread. The most extreme example, I think, was when I was speaking with a small group of people, and mentioned sources that make clear that we should at least aspire to live in Israel.

One of them, Ketubbot 110b, cited by Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 5:12, says it is better to live in Israel in a city that is majority idolaters than to live outside Israel, in a city that is majority Jews. Better to live in the Bahai section of Haifa, in other words, than in Boro Park or Monsey.

One of the people there, a man whose home is lined with sefarim, who attends shiurim faithfully, responded that that’s only true of idolaters, but when the city in Israel is filled with nonobservant Jews, that’s different. Astounded, I asked where he had heard that, and he referenced the late Satmar Rebbe!

In fact, it’s not only Satmar who say such things—R. Moshe Sternbuch, Teshuvot ve-Hanhagot 1:1000, quotes his father as saying it’s better to live an Orthodox life outside of Israel, hoping to live in Israel, than a nonobservant life in Israel. In R. Sternbuch’s view, the question of whether residing in Israel will support or hinder observance should be part of the calculus when thinking about moving there.

As I said before, I am not going to judge others’ reasons for going or not going, especially not someone who knows so much more than me. But what was striking about this man bringing it up was that he was a Modern Orthodox Jew, had attended college and graduate school, his children (now grown, so there is less worry that a move to Israel will adversely affect them) all attended college and graduate school, a man who could easily find places in Israel that reflect and support his religiosity.

Yet he was so determined to stay out of Israel, he was willing to turn to Torah scholars who completely disagreed with his lifestyle for support on this issue. It doesn’t seem irrelevant to me that many Satmar Hasidim and R. Sternbuch himself currently live in Israel.

Saying It Loud and Clear

There was also a recent revealing exchange of blog posts on The Times of Israel, where a young woman named Hannah Dreyfus shared her conflicted feelings about aliyah, and how, much as she sees its importance, she doesn’t think it’s going to work out for her (link). That’s already somewhat troubling since it shows how much we (all of us; I see her as reflecting at least a significant minority of our community) have become so attached to exile, have so lost touch with what we should value, that we allow our love of this exile to impede our return to our Land.

There’s a story about the Chafetz Chayyim being approached by rich Polish businessmen, who wondered why he, the Chafetz Chayyim, always spoke of Mashiach and the return to Israel. What was so wrong with Poland? (I pause to note that the United States is, by far, not nearly the first exile that Jews have found comfortable enough to allow it to compete with Israel). The Chafetz Chayyim responded with a parable, the upshot of which was that when a father sends a son into exile, and then makes that exile comfortable, the son is supposed to realize it means the father isn’t bringing him home soon, and to feel upset about that, not to enjoy the creature comforts of the exile.

Then, a friend of Ms. Dreyfus’, Aryeh Younger, wrote to dispute her claim that most Modern Orthodox Jews shared her struggle (link). Mr. Younger—educated at fine yeshivot, meaning that he would seem to have had ample opportunity to be exposed to the way Jewish tradition views Israel—asserted that he and many like him (he thinks it’s the majority of Modern Orthodox Jews; I suspect he’s right) are happy in America. They have positive feelings towards Israel, are Zionists, but experience no need to think about moving there.

II. Thrust of Judaism

There is a purely halachic response to Mr. Younger, but the whole of Tanach and Jewish liturgy should have been enough to show him how far off the mark he and those like him have strayed. Moshe Rabbenu literally begs to be allowed into the Land; the threat of galut, exile, and its eventual reality, is a central theme of Navi and the history of the First Beit haMikdash. The longing to return, and the ways in which Chazal shaped our practices to remind us of that longing, are prominent in our devotional lives.

The Mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael

But since all that has passed Mr. Younger by (and many other Jews, as I have noted), let me review some halachic sources that show just how misplaced his attitude is in any reasonable construction of Orthodox Judaism. The easiest place to start is Ramban (Nachmanides)’s fourth forgotten positive commandment. Rambam had listed his version of the 613 commandments of the Torah in the Sefer haMitzvot, and Ramban critiqued it, showing how Rambam counted some he shouldn’t have and left out some he should have.

The fourth of the obligations Ramban thought Rambam had wrongly omitted was that of conquering and settling the Land. Ramban made sure to note that the obligation did not cease with the original conquest, that it is a continuing responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that the Land is in our possession. He adds that Chazal criticized David haMelech for conquering areas outside of Israel when the whole country was not yet in his possession.

As if he worried that someone might argue that once the Land is firmly in our grasp—which it is not yet, even today—Ramban adds that Chazal spoke in extreme terms about this obligation, going so far as to note that one who leaves Israel and lives elsewhere is as if they worship idols, based on David haMelech’s complaint (I Shmuel 26:19) about having been chased out of Israel, being told to go worship other gods.

The Halachic Preference for Israel, Mitzvah or Not

But perhaps that’s only Ramban. Rambam, after all, doesn’t count this. Let’s therefore note the paragraphs preceding the one I already mentioned in Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim. In 5:9, Rambam asserts a prohibition to leave Israel, ever, except to study Torah, find a wife, or save Jews from trouble.

Lest we think that is only a problem for leaving Israel, he adds immediately that it is prohibited to live outside of Israel unless financial or famine conditions in the Land are so severe as to make it impossible. In halachah 10, he notes that the early Sages would kiss the borders of the Land when forced to leave it. Halachah 11 speaks of the atoning powers of the Land, for those who live there and even for those who are only buried there. Halachah 12 records the two Talmudic statements that we’ve already seen, that it is better to live in a majority idolater city in Israel to a majority Jewish city outside, and that leaving Israel is like worshipping idols.

I note those halachic rulings of Rambam’s because they show that, whatever his reason for not counting a mitzvah of settling the Land (many suggestions have been made), he was not shy about the importance of living there.

There are, of course, exceptions, justifiable reasons for living outside the Land. I know an educator who lived most of his life in Israel, who confessed that he was fairly sure he would have been more effective had he lived elsewhere. I know dedicated rabbis and educators who would happily live in Israel, but are sure (correctly so, in many cases) they are making a bigger contribution where they are.

As I said before, I have no intention of rehearsing or evaluating the range of reasons. My point is only that Judaism is clear that, barring good reasons (a matter between each Jew and Hashem), we are supposed to live in Israel.

III. What We Can Do About It

All this brings me to my last story, and some policy recommendations. As I was encountering all these people who were so open about their lack of interest in Israel, I mentioned my bewilderment to a friend, who replied that he had no reason not to live in Israel, he simply did not wish to. I note that this is a man who in fact has obvious reasons he might feel currently bound to the States; he chose, to his credit, to be more forthright about his motivations.

I said that was very surprising. He asked why. I asked how he would react to an Orthodox Jew who didn’t shake a lulav on Sukkot and, when questioned about his behavior, said he didn’t want to. My friend said that would be very strange.

That was my point: it is one thing to fail to shake lulav and etrog for some reason, such as if they are rare or too expensive. If a Jew didn’t do all he could to secure the Arba Minim, we could understand. But where they’re abundant, and a Jew who otherwise seems devoted to fulfilling the religion’s wishes and dictates doesn’t take them simply because he doesn’t want to? It’s strange, and it bears noticing.

Reminding Ourselves of Aliyah

It’s strange enough, and becoming common enough, that I think action is called for. First, I think rabbis and educators in the community have to adjust their rhetoric around the topic. Perhaps because they worry about being called hypocrites for promoting living in Israel when they do not, I hear many public figures who soft-pedal the question of aliyah.

Seeing how that is leaving Jews with the impression that there is nothing wrong, Jewishly, with choosing to live outside the Land, shows us that we need to change that. We should be making clear, all of us but especially our leaders, that Jews are supposed to live in Israel when and as soon as possible.

Once we realize that, we would also see that while it is still not possible to live there, we need to be reminding ourselves that we are living a life that is significantly less than ideal. This is not, “oh, I could probably learn five more minutes of Torah a day if I tried” (not to belittle that), it’s not “I could speak a bit less lashon hara if I paid attention,” (not to belittle that) this is a gaping hole in our relationship with Hashem. We are supposed to be there, and we are not, and we need to have that issue put in our faces however frequently it takes to keep it alive for us.

In line with that, I think we should be reminded, annually, to evaluate whether or not we can now move to Israel. Granted that we all have reasons not to live there, life shifts and changes. Reasons that once kept us from moving relinquish their hold, freeing us to be there if we are alert to the opportunity.

Even if we come to the same conclusion, that we cannot get there yet, the reminder keeps alive what otherwise might fade into irrelevance (as we are commanded to do with other mitzvot, to keep alive aspirations and emotions that might become lost in the hustle and bustle of life).

Leave the Title Zionist for Those Who Have Earned It

Second, I think we should restrict the term Zionist to those who live there currently, those who have lived there within the past three years and have near-term plans to return, or those who have specific plans to move there within a year or two.

When the word Zionist first became popular, moving to Israel was difficult enough, and new enough, and the idea of promoting a mass aliyah so debatable, that it made sense to include even those who had no intention of going. A hundred and fifty years later, with all that has happened, those of us who still cannot or will not move don’t deserve the title.

We need to realize, in how we identify ourselves, that we are both emotionally connected and emotionally distant from the State and its residents. We admire them, we support them, we are related to them, but we aren’t joining them anytime soon. I propose we speak of ourselves as supporters of the State of Israel and the Jews who live there, but leave Zionists for those blessed to have taken the next step.

American Jews or Jewish Americans?

And, finally, I propose we start referring to ourselves as Jewish Americans, not American Jews. When I was growing up, teachers would occasionally toss out the question, as a measure of where our primary allegiances lay.

One teacher argued we should think of ourselves as Jewish Americans, because that put the Jewish part first. My father, a”h, pointed out that this misunderstood the workings of the English language. In the phrase Jewish Americans, Jewish is the adjective, describing what kind of Americans we are. We should therefore, he concluded, think of ourselves as American Jews.

Given where our community is right now—with many of us having lost sight of the yearning to live in Israel that characterized our people throughout its Diaspora, and others taking refuge in reasons that might be open to question—I propose we admit who we are, Jewish Americans. That admits what is obviously true, that most of us have decided, for good reasons or not, that we’re more devoted to America than to where Judaism tells us to live.

We can still feel connected to Israel, still support it financially and verbally, still insist that its politics be very right wing on negotiations with the Palestinians, but let’s be honest with ourselves. We’re Americans who happen to be Jewish.

And if that rankles, good. Maybe it will rankle enough for us to rethink what’s keeping us here, to join Hashem (Yeshayahu 52:5) in saying ועתה מה לי פה, now what are we doing here? And then we’d all be Zionists.

About Gidon Rothstein

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