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August 27, 2015 | 12th Elul 5775

Going up, going down II

Galilee Diary #205
October 31, 2004
Marc J. Rosenstein

Judah Halevi, a philosopher and poet living in 11th century Spain, was fascinated by the stories circulating about Khazaria, a kingdom on the shore of the Caspian Sea whose ruler had decided to convert his entire people to Judaism (a true story: apparently the king was seeking neutrality in the struggle between Christian and Moslem neighboring states). Halevi imagined the conversation between a rabbi and the king, leading up to the king’s thoughtful, informed decision to choose Judaism for his subjects. This imaginary conversation, The Kuzari, became one of the best-known works of medieval Jewish philosophy, a creative vehicle for Halevi’s systematic exposition of his understanding of Judaism.

At one point (chapter 23-4), The Rabbi goes on at some length about the holiness of Eretz Yisrael.

The King: If this be so, you fall short of the duty laid down in your law, by not seeking to reach that place, and making it your abode in life and death…Your bowing and kneeling in the direction of it is either mere appearance or thoughtless worship. Yet your first forefathers chose it as an abode in preference to their birth-places, and lived there as strangers…

The Rabbi: This is a severe reproach, O king of the Khazars. It is the sin which prevented the divine promise with regard to the second Temple…from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they had all willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, while the majority…remained in Babylonia, unwilling to leave their houses and their affairs…

At the end of the book, the Rabbi “draws personal conclusions” and announces that he is leaving for Israel. According to legend, Judah Halevi did indeed make aliyah, and was killed by an Arab bandit shortly after his arrival.

Judah Halevi was acutely aware of the dissonance between our constant statements of longing for “the good old days” of national existence in Eretz Yisrael and our passive acceptance of exile. Extrapolating from the failure of the Jews to return en masse when the Persians conquered Babylonia in 538 BCE, he suggests that his generation too had failed in its duty to make an effort to return. Ultimately, if the tradition is true, he interpreted this duty as a personal obligation, and fulfilled the commandment as an individual.

It seems that inertia and the comforts of life in Babylonia/Spain/America have consistently overwhelmed, generation after generation, the voices in the traditional texts proclaiming our obligation to return to our own land, and to restore the geographical definition of our identity. For most of the years between 586 BCE and 2004 CE, the majority of the Jewish people have lived outside the land of Israel. Judah Halevi may have been viewed as an inspiring hero, but his action inspired few imitators. Later, Zionism promised to solve “the Jewish problem,” and renew Jewish sovereignty, by removing all the Jews from the Diaspora. Today, few take that promise seriously any more, and everyone knows that most aliyah is based not on fulfilling an obligation, realizing an ideal, but rather on escaping persecution or economic hardship. And my sense is that even of those who make aliyah based on free choice, many do so less out of obligation than out of a quest for authenticity and personal fulfillment.

I don’t know where our future lies (did you ever meet an optimistic Jewish demographer?); I know it is not politically correct to talk about aliyah as anything more than a personal option in a post-modern world where all choices are OK. And yet I wonder what Halevi’s Khazar king would say about our solidarity and our fundraising and our missions; our “bowing and kneeling” in the direction of Israel.

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