Exile or Aliyah? – That is the question
Exile or Aliyah? – That is the question

The first Chief Rabbi of Israel, HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, received a letter asking if it was a mitzvah to settle in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Kook answered, "I am amazed at the question. How can one possibly have a doubt about this fundamental principle of our faith? We plainly see the immeasurable devotion to Eretz Yisrael, to its settlement, its acquisition, and its building, throughout all of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Oral Torah.” Rabbi Kook continued his lengthy 24-page response by citing hundreds of verses from the Torah, Scriptures, and the Talmud expressing the Jewish People's eternal bond and commitment to Eretz Yisrael ("Hazone HaGeula," Pgs. 10-34). 

More recently, a young Torah student from Lakewood who made Aliyah told the revered Torah authority, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky of Bnei Brak, that in America, many people maintain that a Jew should not move to Israel until the Mashiach arrives. The reply of the elderly Sage was filmed. “G-d forbid,” HaRav Kanievski answered. “It is a mitzvah of the Torah to make Aliyah,” (The video can be seen on the website, naavakodesh.org).  

Today, some 100 years after Rabbi Kook wrote his letter, for many Jews outside of the Land of Israel, there still exists a question concerning a Jew’s obligation to live in the Chosen Land. Many Orthodox Jews cite a ruling of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein as the halachic reason that they don’t come on Aliyah. The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, and other leading Torah authorities, disagreed with Rabbi Feinstein’s reasoning. To explain the argument regarding the mitzvah of Aliyah, I turned to Rabbi Howard Jachter, who wrote a lengthy treatise on the controversy which was published in the journal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County where he teaches Judaic Studies. He also serves as Rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Dayan on the Beit Din of Elizabeth, where he has earned an international reputation as a Get divorce administrator.  

The late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that in our time, Aliyah is an optional mitzvah and not an obligation. In a concise fashion, can you explain his reasoning to us?

It is widely known that the Ramban states that in all generations every Jew is required to live in the Land of Israel, (“Supplement to the ‘Sefer HaMitzvot’ of the Rambam,” Positive Commandment 4. See also, “Commentary of the Ramban on the Torah, BaMidbar, 33:55). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked whether one should move to Israel in accordance with the view of Ramban, or follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen cited in Tosafot (Ketubot 110B) that the mitzvah to live in Israel does not apply today, (See, “Igerot Moshe,” Even HaEzer, 102).  The Tosefot brings the opinion that since the journey and subsequent life in Israel is fraught with danger, and since it is difficult to fulfill the mitzvot associated with the agricultural laws of the Land, then today there exists no Torah commandment to live in Israel.

Rabbi Feinstein writes that Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's opinion should certainly be considered when contemplating moving to Israel.  He notes that even though "most authorities" agree with Ramban, that one fulfills a mitzvah by living in Israel today, there is no obligation to move there.  While agreeing that living in the Land of Israel is certainly a mitzvah, Rabbi Feinstein defines it as an optional mitzvah (“mitzvah keyumit”), and not an obligatory one (“mitzvah chova”). 

Rabbi Feinstein seeks to prove this point from the fact that the Rambam (Laws of Kings, 5:12) writes that it is prohibited to leave Israel, but does not state that one is prohibited to reside outside Israel.  If there exists an obligation to move to Israel, reasons Rabbi Feinstein, then the Rambam would have recorded a prohibition to live outside of Israel.  Rabbi Feinstein concludes that since there exists no obligation to move to Israel, then one must "certainly" consider Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's opinion which discourages Aliyah, lest one not fulfill the commandments dependent on the Land in their proper fashion.

What is the approach of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University? 

In an essay published in the Fall 1984 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Rabbi Hershel Schachter takes an entirely different approach to this vital issue.  First, Rav Schachter cites a responsum from the Avnei Nezer (Yoreh Deah, 454:2) which states that Rabbeinu Chaim Cohen's concerns are no longer relevant.  Rav Schachter adds, "If conditions in Israel were not a hindrance to Aliyah when the Avnei Nezer penned his responsum some ninety years ago, surely today they do not now constitute an impediment to Aliyah."

Rav Schachter understands thatthat  Ramban believes that moving to Israel is a “mitzvah chiyuvit,” an obligatory mitzvah, not merely a “mitzvah keyumit” (optional mitzvah).  Indeed, when the Ramban writes, "In my opinion, this is a positive command to live in Israel and to inherit it, because it is given to us," Rav Schachter clearly indicates that this assumption is correct. 

Rav Schachter proceeds to summarize the many opinions regarding the celebrated omission of the Rambam of the mitzvah of living in Israel from his list of the six-hundred and thirteen Torah commandments.  He cites opinions which state that Rambam believes that living in Israel is Rabbinic in nature and is therefore not listed as one of the 613 Torah commandments.  Then he cites Avnei Nezer (aforementioned responsum) who asserts that once the Rambam counted the mitzvah of conquering the seven nations who lived in Israel prior to the conquest of Yehoshua (Devarim, 20:17), he did not find it necessary to count the actual conquest and settlement as a separate commandment.

Rav Schachter, however, dismisses the approach of the “Megillat Esther” who asserts that the Rambam does not list this mitzvah because it applies only in Biblical and Messianic times, but not at present.  Rav Schachter cites the Avnei Nezer's disproof of the “Megillat Esther” – noting that the Rambam counts the bringing of sacrifices, despite the fact that it applies only when there exists a Beit HaMikdash.  Rav Schachter further notes that the “Megillat Esther's” assertion even smacks of heresy, because his approach essentially states that in Messianic times a new mitzvah will be added to the Torah, a mitzvah to live in Israel.  This borders on heresy because the Rambam lists as one of the “Thirteen Principles of Faith” the immutability of Jewish law, that no new Torah commandment can ever be added.

Rav Schachter therefore concludes that most Acharonim (Later Authorities) are of the opinion that living in Israel constitutes an obligatory mitzvah of the Torah, according to both the Rambam and the Ramban, even today.  Indeed, the language of the Rambam that, "an individual should always live in Israel," (Laws of Kings, 5:12), lends credence to that opinion.

Former Chief Rabbi of Israel and head of Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, the late HaRav Avraham Shapira, also didn’t agree with Rabbi Feinstein’s understanding of the mitzvah. Could you explain Rabbi Shapira’s opinion?

An entire book was written in rebuttal to Rabbi Feinstein's responsum.  It is named, "Arise from the Dust,” written by a young Torah scholar, Zvi Glatt, who moved to Israel from Brooklyn at age sixteen and who was tragically murdered by Arab terrorists in Hevron.  The book presents an overview of the many Rishonim and Acharonim (Earlier and Later Torah Authorities) who discuss the mitzvah of living in Israel and concludes that the overwhelming majority of opinions reject Rabbi Feinstein's approach to this question.  (Incidentally, Rabbi Feinstein wrote a letter of approbation to this book.  That alone is a demonstration of his sterling character.)  Zvi Glatt mentions that he spoke to many of the great authorities in Eretz Yisrael, including Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, and Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Weisz, and they all agreed that there is an obligation to move to Israel even today, unlike the opinion of Rabbi Feinstein. Chief Rabbi Shapira’s opinion is also cited in Glatt’s book. He maintains like Rav Schachter that there is a mitzvah to move to Eretz Yisrael even today. To quote a short part of his explanation, he states: 

“The implication of this new concept – an ‘optional mitzvah’ – is that one is not obligated to fulfill it, but if one does, he has performed a mitzvah. This seems self-contradictory. On a simple level, a Torah commandment, counted as one of the 613, is not dependent on man’s desire that if he wants to fulfill it, he will, and if not, he won’t. After all, this contradicts the whole idea of a mitzvah, which is a command from Hashem Yitbarach. How can one say that G-d leaves the fulfillment of His decree to man’s discretion?

“The mitzvah of Aliyah is different [from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s example of] tzitzit, which is not an obligatory mitzvah, but one that depends on man’s will. Tzitzit depends on a person’s desire to wear a four-cornered garment, and the Torah does not obligate one to wear such a garment. However, once a person wears a four-cornered garment, he is obligated to place tzitzit on its corners, and that is not dependent on his desire at all.  Once he wears a garment that the Torah speaks of, he cannot evade the mitzvah. Why, then, would we say that there is a mitzvah to make Aliyah, but that it is up to man whether he wants to fulfill it or not? It appears that we do not find another mitzvah like this in the count of the 613…. It is clear that when there is an explicit mitzvah in the Torah – one of the positive commandments included in the 613 – one cannot say that it depends on whether or not a person wants to fulfill it. Therefore, according to the Ramban, who holds that dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is a positive commandment counted as one of the 613, one cannot say that fulfilling it depends on man’s desire. Rather, it is absolutely obligatory.”  

What was the opinion of Rav Yosef Soloveitchik? I heard he said that if a person believes he can live a more productive life in the Diaspora, he or she doesn’t have to make Aliyah?

I did not speak to my Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, about this matter, so I hesitate to say.  Rav Soloveitchik does, however, speak glowingly about Medinat Yisrael and Aliya in his celebrated essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. It can be noted that Rav Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, made Aliyah. (Ed. Note: More telling, Rabbi Soloveitchik ran for the post of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi in the early days of the state, but lost to another famous rabbinic candidate).

One often hears the claim that we are not allowed to make Aliyah until Mashiach arrives. What is the source of this belief, and why is it not universally accepted?

The Gemara (Ketubot 111a) states we are not supposed to take Eretz Yisrael without consent of the nations of the world.  However, as noted by the Avnei Neizer and Tzitz Eliezer (7:48:12), this does not apply to Israel since large scale Jewish settlement was approved by the League of Nations in 1922 and the Jewish State was created by the United Nations in 1947.  

What if a person feels that he won’t be able to make a sufficient livelihood in Eretz Yisrael to support his family?

The Pitchei Teshuva (Even HaEzer, 75:6) writes that all Rishonim and Acharonim agree that this mitzvah applies at all times. However, he cites authorities who rule that one is not obligated to move to Israel if he is able to earn a living outside of Israel, but is not able to do so in Israel.  They cite the Talmud's rule that it is better not to make special meals for Shabbat if it necessitates relying on charity (Shabbat 118A). 

How would you summarize the debate?

We can never afford to be complacent regarding our decisions vis-a-vis this mitzvah.  Indeed, Chazal (at the conclusion of Ketubot and elsewhere) greatly extol the mitzvah of living in Israel.  Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein summarized the issue succinctly: just as a Jew would find it painful to live without the holiness of time (Shabbat and Yom Tov), a Jew should find it painful to live without the holiness of place - the Land of Israel.

Considering everything you have said, when are you planning to make Aliyah?

It is a painful subject for me. While I realize my place is in America for now, it pains me that I do not live in Israel.  Each time I leave Israel I am in tears for voluntarily exiling myself, and every time I see a picture, or videos of American Olim landing at Ben Gurion Airport, it brings me to tears.