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December 22, 2014 | 30th Kislev 5775

At home in exile

Galilee Diary #257
October 30, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion…

-Psalm 137

When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and abolished our sovereignty and exiled our elites in 586 BCE, it was a trauma from which we never recovered. We had been taught that God's presence was accessible only through the Temple and its cult. We had been told that David's dynasty would be eternal. We had been promised this land "forever." And then, as we had been stridently warned by the prophets, but had refused to believe, it turned out that all those promises had been conditional, not absolute, and we were plunged into mourning over what seemed to be our bitter end.

But it wasn't our end, because the prophets helped us resolve the dissonance between promise and collapse: the promise was still standing – conditionally. The exile was only temporary, a formative punishment, not a total rejection. As Jeremiah put it (29:4, 7, 10),

Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit…And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you… When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor – to bring you back to this place.

Sure enough, merely 50 years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and the new rulers of our world reversed their predecessors' policy and encouraged us to return and rebuild.

And here's the punch line: our mourning had already been channeled, it seems, into more productive directions. We had indeed bought houses and planted fields, invested in businesses and settled the kids in school. We had unpacked. Life in the cradle of civilization was pretty civilized, even without immediate access to God's presence in the Temple, even under a pagan king. Indeed, the frustration of our leaders and prophets in the Persian period was with our lack of interest in returning to the good old days that were still within memory – our lack of motivation to make aliyah, to return to the homeland.

Thus, the model of parallel existence of Jewish communities in Israel and in exile is not a 20th century innovation. Indeed, though we rarely had sovereignty in Israel between 586 BCE and 1948 CE, we often had the opportunity of living there, sometimes with some degree of local autonomy. Yet the number of us who actually bought a ticket remained miniscule. We sang Psalm 137 (see above) by the Euphrates and the Volga, the Nile and the Danube, the Amazon and the Hudson. So we didn't forget Jerusalem – but we also didn't go there. This, despite the fact that the land was always considered holy, and that there are mitzvot that can only be fulfilled there.

Was our mourning hypocritical? Or is it just that life is more complicated than ideology? Perhaps the trauma of exile caused us to spiritualize the land, to disconnect it from physical reality, so that we could comfortably go on living anywhere in the world while continuing to mourn over our exile and to pray for the return – a return that would take place conveniently outside of history, beyond its end, at a time when it wouldn't disrupt our short term plans.

Zionism (and the events of the middle of the 20th century) upset this equilibrium, forcing us to confront an Israel that is very real, solid, concrete – not spiritualized and not idealized and not ideal. We cannot relegate it to the world of prayer, of messianic longing, of Tisha B'av dirges, of slogans. It is in our faces, willy-nilly. It represents us even if we reject it. It speaks for us. It represents Judaism in the world even if we feel it doesn't represent our Judaism, or Judaism for us. It has changed the nature of Jewish identity. We cannot disengage from it even if we want to.

Therefore, by whatever rivers we sit down, we not only remember Zion, we are affected by it; it is part of who we are – and hence we cannot escape a share of the responsibility for what kind of a society it is and what goes on there.

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