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Close But No Cigar!

By Tzvi Fishman
1/12/2010, 12:00 AM

In our previous blog, we wrote that Jews in the Diaspora have a distorted understanding of Judaism. Since this statement triggered some backlash, I’d like to explain in more depth.

Perhaps “distorted” is not the right word. Maybe I should have said that Diasporinians (like Floridians) have a “mistaken” understanding of Judaism, or that they live a “truncated” Judaism, or that they have been “improperly taught” what Judaism is all about.

For instance, everyone readily understands that there are levels of measurement and performance. Some people have a higher IQ than others. Some people are stronger than others. Some cars can drive faster than others. There is Major League Baseball and there is the Little League. There are magnificent championship golf courses and there is miniature golf.

The Real Thing
Self delusion

In the same way, there is a difference between the Judaism of the exile and the Judaism of Eretz Yisrael. Not only quantitatively, in the greater number of mitzvot a person can perform in the Land of Israel, but also qualitatively, in the deeper understanding of what Torah is all about, which a Jew receives when he studies the Torah in the proper fashion.

Let me cite an example that I’ve mentioned in the past, especially for the benefit of new readers. Once, I was in the city of Toronto to raise money for a kiruv program in Israel. Invited to speak at a large Orthodox shul, I arrived early and had time to browse through the local Jewish weekly. On the cover was a big picture of the skyline of Toronto. The headline read: “Looking Forward to the Next Decade of Jewish Life in Toronto.”

I took the newspaper into the auditorium and held it up for everyone to see.

“What is going on here?” I asked in amazement. “Everything I learn says that a Jew is supposed to look forward to the next decade of Jewish life in Jerusalem. I have a feeling that if the Mashiach were to come, he would mess up your plans.”

The point is that when a person has the proper understanding of Judaism, he or she longs to live a life of Torah in the Land of Israel. He or she longs for Redemption from the exile, for the ingathering of the exiles, to take a part in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Nation of Israel in its Land, just as we request in our prayers three times a day. This is the whole goal of the Torah. Without it, Judaism is a dry, lifeless impersonation of the real thing. No matter how pleasant the Jewish community in Toronto may be, it’s not the real thing. It’s just a shell of Judaism, like the Dodge City of the MGM movie studio lot, it’s a façade without real Torah Judaism behind it.  

Of course, throughout the long and painful generations that we were outcast from our Land, the Judaism of the exile was all that we had and its value was beyond all measurement, preserving the Nation and its sacred heritage until we could return. But now that we can come home, why linger on, clinging to Toronto and Dodge City for a few dollars more?

For a few dollars more.

This isn’t a new phenomena. In the upcoming Torah portions, Rashi will reveal that eighty percent of the Jews in Egypt refused to leave the foreign flesh pot for the Land of Israel, and were subsequently punished with death in the three days of darkness, so that the Egyptians wouldn’t see our shame and the terrible affront to G-d when His children turned their backs on Him preferring to remain in Egypt instead. They too, like the Spies in the wilderness after them, didn’t understand that building a Torah ideal in the Land of Israel was what Judaism is all about.

Another time, I was in Boca Raton visiting my parents before they made aliyah. Entering a synagogue to pray, I noticed a flyer on the bulletin board. It featured a photo of WDC and the headline read: “This Summer Visit Our Nation’s Capitol with the Rabbi.”

If I forget thee O Jerusalem

Now if the rabbi of the shul is teaching his congregation and its kids that their nation is America and that their capitol is Washington, and not Jerusalem, how can you expect them to have a proper understanding of Judaism?

I remember when I was a boy, my grandfather would take me on trips to Lake George in upstate New York. On the way, there were all kinds of attractions for tourists like “Frontier Town” and “Indian Village.”

Eretz Yisrael is more than a Jewish Disneyland

Now, the Birthright Program is a wonderful thing in affording young Jews to visit Israel, but instead of teaching young Jews that Israel is their one and only true homeland, and the place where they should be living, they use the Land of Israel as a giant “Jewish Village” to strengthen feelings of Jewish pride and identity. This approach cheapens the real value of Eretz Yisrael and totally misses the essential foundation upon which all the Torah rests – that Eretz Yisrael is the Land of the Jews, and that America is a place you can go to for a ten day vacation (if you can find a valid halachic reason for leaving the Land.)

For those of you who find my style jarring, here’s pretty much the same message from Rabbi Kook in more scholarly garb:

“The thought regarding Eretz Yisrael that it has merely a peripheral value to facilitate the subsistence of the unified nation; even when it comes to fortify the concept of Judaism in the Diaspora, in order to preserve its form, and to strengthen the belief and fear of Hashem, and to strengthen the performance of the commandments in a proper fashion - this orientation toward Eretz Yisrael is not worthy of lasting fruition, for its foundation is rickety in light of the towering, unshakable holiness of Eretz Yisrael” (Orot, 1:1).

Eretz Yisrael is more that a Jewish Disneyland Park to bolster Jewish identity for ten days before flying back to Toronto and NYU.

Someone who thinks that Jewish life in Toronto or Brooklyn or Monsey is all roses and dandy, and “who cares that Jews are assimilating everywhere else,” does understand that Judaism doesn’t just concern itself with the happiness of the individual, but rather Judaism concerns itself with the welfare of the “Clal,” the Jewish Nation as a whole, and that the plague of assimilation can only be stopped when all Jews live in Israel, amongst Jews, and not mingling wherever they go in Toronto with the gentiles, no matter how gentle Canadians pretend to be. Diaspora Dreamers, who don’t understand what true Judaism is all about, are deluding themselves into thinking that their future is secure. As our history has taught us the hard way, and as the Talmud attests, when a brushfire breaks out amongst the weeds, it isn’t long before the winds carry it along to sweep up the haystacks. The haystacks are the Torah scholars and the flourishing Jewish communities.

"Everything is fine and dandy here!"

Rabbi Leon Levi, in exhorting us to go out and teach others, warns that this self-centered galut understanding of Judaism brought about the extinction of European Jewry, when a distraught Jew would run to one of the great yeshiva rabbis, saying that the Jews from the next town were assimilating. “So what?” was too often the answer. “Everyone in our yeshiva is a big tzaddik. Everything is wonderful here.” But when the fires of anti-Semitism erupted, they didn’t stop with the weaker communities, they burnt up the stronger, more righteous communities as well.