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Judaism in the Twilight Zone

By Tzvi Fishman
5/4/2009, 12:00 AM

Remember the old TV show, the “Twilight Zone?” With Rod Serling? Fantastic, wasn’t it? If Rod had done a show on the Diaspora, here’s how he might have begun:

“This is Jeremy Cohen. He’s going to the shul this morning just like he does every day to put on Tefillin and pray, thinking that he is practicing the real Judaism of his forefathers, but he doesn’t know that his prayers are giving strength to his enemies, because Jeremy Cohen is lost in foreign dimension, an unwitting captive in the Diaspora, otherwise known as the Twilight Zone.”

"Welcome to the Diaspora"

To explain this deep conception, we will once again have a look at the Commentary of the Ramban to the Torah portion of Achre Mot. Unlike other lands, the Land of Israel vomits out sinners. The Ramban explains this unique holiness of the Land of Israel by revealing that when G-d  created the world and distributed the different lands to different peoples, he placed Angels, or Celestial Ministers, over the gentile nations to rule over their affairs.

Angel of America

The different characteristics of these angels result in the differing cultures and languages and customs of the peoples. The Ramban writes:  

“Now outside the Land of Israel, though every place belongs to His glorious Name, its purity is not perfect because of the celestial servants that hold sway there, and the gentiles go astray after these celestial agents to worship them. This is the reason that Hashem is known as the ‘G-d of gods.’  

Only one land had no Celestial Minister appointed over it – the Land of Israel, which G-d rules over alone. Therefore moral transgression (especially sexual transgression) is much more stringent in the Land of Israel than other lands, and the Holy Land vomits out sinners who pollute the Land through their deeds ( Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Vayikra, 18:25).

It is G-d’s intention that His Chosen People live in His Chosen Land, and so He rules over Israel alone without any intermediary angel. The Ramban states:

“This is the meaning of the saying of the Rabbis of the Talmud: ‘Whoever lives outside the Land of Israel is as if he has no G-d’ (Ketubot 110B), for it is said, ‘I am the Eternal, your G-d, Who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your G-d’ (Devarim, 25:38).  When you are in the land of Canaan, I am your G-d. When you are not in the land of Canaan, I am not your G-d (Ramban, loc cited).

Now, of course, G-d is everywhere, but because he has appointed angels to rule over other lands, it is as if a Jew in the Diaspora has no G-d. All of his prayers and Torah learning go up to the gentile angel who presides over that land, giving strength to that foreign nation. This is why wherever Jews lived in great numbers, the countries they lived in were superpowers. And this is why when the Jews left those countries, like Spain and Russia, their great empires collapsed.

This is what makes the Diaspora a “Twilight Zone.” The Jew thinks he is worshipping G-d and keeping the Torah as it is meant to be kept, but this isn’t the case at all. Thus, our Rabbis have taught that whoever lives in the Diaspora is like one who worships foreign gods (Ketubot 110B) because of the angels that rule there. Furthermore, they said: “In all times a Jew should live in the Land of Israel, even in a city where the majority of inhabitants are pagans, and not live in the Diaspora, even in a city where the majority of inhabitants are Jews, for everyone who dwells in Eretz Yisrael is like someone who has a G-d, and everyone who dwells outside of the Land is like someone who has no G-d” (Ibid).

G-d created the Jewish People to be His unique treasure: “You shall be my unique treasure from amongst all the peoples” (Shemot, 19:5). “You shall be My people, and I will be your G-d” (Yermiyahu, 11:4). In other words, the Ramban explains, the Jewish People will not be under any lesser Celestial Ministers, so He gave them their own special Land, where He alone is sovereign without His heavenly assistants. “I am the Eternal your G-d who has set you apart from the peoples” (Yermiyahu, 22:20), meaning, in the words of the Ramban: “He has set us apart from the nations over which He has appointed heavenly princes and other celestial powers by giving us the Land of Israel so He, blessed be He, will be our G-d.”    

This isn’t something I just made up to get down on the continuing love affair with the Diaspora. These are the words of our Sages and the Ramban, who was called the “Father of Israel” because of his greatness in Torah.

The Ramban goes on to explain why our Twilight Zone character, Jeremy Cohen, isn’t really performing the mitzvah of Tefillin as it is supposed to be performed when he laces the straps over his forearm before morning prayers. This is because the mitzvot are meant to be performed in the Land of Israel, and not in the Diaspora, where they are like a practice rehearsal until we return to Israel:

“Although I banish you from the Land of Israel to outside of the Land, make your selves distinctive by continuing to keep the commandments, so that when you return they will not be novelties to you” (Ramban, there. Also, Sifre, Ekev, 43). Why? Because, the Ramban answers: “The main fulfillment of the commandments is performing them when dwelling in the Land of Israel. Therefore our Sages have said that dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah” (Sifre, Reih, 80).

Like batting practice - it ain't the real thing

Whether you call the Diaspora the “Twilight Zone” or the “Matrix,” the idea is the same. You might think that it’s the real thing, but it isn’t. You might think it’s the right place to be, but it isn’t. You might think you are leading a full Jewish life, but you’re not. As the theme song sounds, “Dee dee, dee dee, dee dee, dee dee, dee dee….”

Moshe Brown escaped the Matrix - So can you!

Jeremy Cohen may be content putting on his tefillin, but he’s a prisoner of the Twilight Zone. What about you?