Commentary

Homeland Insecurity

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Jeffrey M. Green

“Henry, why are you here?”

“Waldo, why are you not here?

One might have thought that the establishment of the State of Israel would resolve the debate about the need for a Jewish homeland in the guise of a sovereign state by making the question moot. Whether we need it or not, we have a state. However, like many other issues in internal Jewish debate, this one remains open: Is the State of Israel truly the Jewish homeland? If it isn’t, where is the Jewish homeland? If it is, and you don’t live there, why not? And if you do live there, what are you to think of the Jews who do not?

There is no need to expatiate upon the negative responses, even within the Jewish community, to the proposition that the State of Israel is the Jewish homeland. These include Neturei Karta on the radical religious right to Jews for Justice for Palestinians on the other extreme. Nor need one mention the extremists who regard the State of Israel as illegitimate but see it as their religious obligation to settle on the Land of Israel (under the protection of the army of the state they reject). The range of these responses signify that the question is far from moot.

My own life choices, beginning with aliyah in 1973, service in the IDF, and involvement in the social, cultural, intellectual, political, and religious life of Israel reflect my own answer to this question. I have become an Israeli Jew. I regard Israel as my homeland. Though at times I disagree strongly with our present government and am disappointed by many of the developments that have taken place here since my aliyah, I don’t intend to leave the country and deny its legitimacy.

A Traveling Homeland

My learned and brilliant friend, Prof. Daniel Boyarin, takes the opposite view. He doesn’t think we need a geopolitical homeland at all. In his A Traveling Homeland, Boyarin musters historical, philological, and theoretical arguments to redefine the Jewish diaspora. He claims that the “homeland” to which Jewish communities related was not the geographical or historical Land of Israel, but rather a text, the Babylonian Talmud, which they made into a virtual homeland for Jews living among non-Jews in communities throughout the world. The implicit consequence of this thesis is that the Zionist interpretation of Jewish history is erroneous. If the Talmud is the real Jewish homeland, we Jews have no business displacing Palestinians in the Land of Israel.

The term “diaspora,” as Boyarin shows, has become a prominent element in social theory and is no longer a specific term. Originally, with a capital ‘D,’ the term referred (according to Merriam- Webster) to “the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile; b: the area outside Palestine settled by Jews; c: the Jews living outside Palestine or modern Israel.” Now, as the dictionary definition continues, it has also come to refer, with a lowercase ‘d,’ to “a: the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland; … b: people settled far from their ancestral homelands …; c: the place where these people live.”

“Diaspora” is descended from the Greek word diaspeirein, meaning “to scatter, spread about.” Boyarin claims that it is never used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “galut” (exile), which in any case, he says was “not always negatively charged” in Greek and Aramaic (p.6). As Merriam-Webster further notes, the term is first used specifically in connection with Jews, and no later than 1594, in a translation of Lambert Daneau’s A Fruitfull Commentarie Upon the Twelve Small Prophets:

This scattering abrode of the Iewes, as it were an heauenly sowing, fell out after their returne from the captiuitie of Babylon … they are called Diaspora, that is, a scattering or sowing abrode.

Nevertheless, Boyarin rejects the idea that the Jewish Diaspora is the ideal standard to which all other diasporas must be compared. He attacks “usage of the alleged experience of the Jews in theorizing diaspora” (30) and claims that “the Jewish diaspora has been seriously misdescribed by most theoreticians and historians until now and that when more accurately interpreted, the Jewish historical experience serves as an excellent example—not regulating norm or even ideal type—of what seems to me is most useful in identifying diaspora and constraining the term sufficiently so that it is a useful taxonomic term for discussing modes of cultural hybridity” (31).

Boyarin’s insertion of the word “alleged” here is the key to his historical thesis, which is essentially that the Jews were quite at home in many places to which they migrated, and he musters considerable evidence from the Babylonian Talmud and elsewhere to prove this point. For him, living in a D/diaspora community means living in two places at once—the physical place where one actually lives, and a distant, ideal homeland—and this diasporic experience is enriching (and shared by many other people besides the Jews). As he says, “We cannot think of the Jewish diaspora… as always and everywhere being understood as a forced and oppressive exile” (6). Though, of course, it often was!

Boyarin knows and concedes that the term “diaspora” is not one that the Jews applied to themselves. Indeed, they saw themselves as living in galut (exile) (6). He also knows and would have to concede that life in exile was not always idyllic. Nevertheless, for him, life among gentiles, with the Talmud as a traveling homeland, is a more authentic mode of Jewish life, preferable to the ingathering of exiles in the Land of Israel and life under Jewish sovereignty.

Speaking as a personal friend of Daniel Boyarin’s and an amateur in the areas in which he is expert, I find his argument to be, at bottom, wrongheaded.

My first disagreement with Boyarin is connected to his reconstruction of the word “diaspora,” which is obviously central to his entire argument. In every dictionary I have consulted, the first definition of the word “diaspora,” with a capital ‘D,’ refers to the Jewish Diaspora, and all other uses of the term are, by extension, applied to ethnic groups living away from their historical homelands. Boyarin reverses the order, giving the secondary meaning priority, and, taking that as the norm, applies it back to the historical situation of the Jews. Thus he enables himself to attack the view that life in the Diaspora is life in exile, an abnormal and painful situation.

By making this move, he empties out the concept of diaspora completely. He calls “the particular situation of diaspora … the cultural situation of a collective that is located in its own local culture and in the culture shared with another collective elsewhere” (p. 107). As I see it, this definition is so broad that it would include, say, the teenage musicians of Liverpool in the early 1960s who looked to black American rhythm and blues for inspiration, and to the members of the Krishna Consciousness sect, whom I remember from the 1970s, dressed in saffron robes and chanting in Harvard Square.

What have we gained by making the meaning of a term so broad that it encompasses Armenian-Americans in Watertown, Massachusetts; a Korean enclave that Stalin exiled to Turkmenistan; or Circassians sent by the Ottomans to various places in the Middle East? This list of ethnic enclaves could be extended to the Greeks who formerly lived in Asia Minor, to the Germans who once lived in Russia and Romania, to people of Irish and Scottish descent all over the world, to people from South Asia living in London, and so on. It seems obvious to me that placing all of these situations under the rubric of “diaspora” blurs the much more important task of exploring the specifics of every case. Boyarin makes this very point about Jewish ethnic enclaves in various places at various times, arguing that there was not one Diaspora but many diasporas, “the ever-changing and developing conditions of Jewish life through time and space” (26).

Beyond the theoretical issue in cultural studies as to what characterizes a diaspora (a red herring if there ever was one), Boyarin also uses the term “diaspora” metaphorically. Throughout the book he argues, persuasively, although metaphorically, that the Talmud became a Jewish homeland: Jews lived in local Jewish communities and, simultaneously, in the virtual homeland of the Talmud.

While, in a sense, this may be true, I can’t believe that the Jews were so deeply involved in study of the Talmud as to mistake a text for a place. They knew very well where they were living and where their ancestors had once lived. Not only does Boyarin base his entire argument on a metaphor, he also makes an unjustified metaphorical leap, calling the Talmud itself a diaspora, as in the following sentence: “the Talmud as diaspora produces a bifocal Jewish culture” (96). A text cannot be a diaspora.

My second disagreement with Boyarin is historical. Though I am not a professional historian of the Jews, I have acquired enough knowledge of Jewish history to question some of Boyarin’s assertions. His major claim is: “it is talmudic study itself that has constituted the Jewish people as a diaspora” (8).

In support of this claim, the epigraph to Chapter 3, “In the Land of the Talmud: The Textual Making of a Diasporic Folk,” is a quotation from “Do the Jews have a Middle Ages?” an article by the late Hayyim Zalman Dimitrovsky, Boyarin’s teacher, to whom the book is dedicated. Dimitrovsky states, “From the eleventh century on, the Jewry of the world was … in the realm of the talmudic culture.” (Incidentally, as to the relevance of this statement, until this point in the book, almost all of Boyarin’s discussion has been of the text of the Talmud itself, at least five hundred years earlier.) The last sentence of this epigraph reads, “Even more than the Bible, it was the Talmud that was the unifying and uniting force of the diasporas of Israel” (30).

With all due respect to Professor Dimitrovsky, upon reading this statement one would not be surprised to learn that he was a professor of Talmud. I would imagine that professors in other fields of Jewish Studies might advance different candidates as exerting a “unifying and uniting force,” such as the synagogue service, the prayer book, the Jewish holidays, ubiquitous social institutions such as burial and charity societies, customs such as circumcision, the reluctance of Jews to marry out, belief that the Jews are the chosen people, rejection by the surrounding society, and ethnic self-identification. Anyone who has studied the Talmud at all knows that the connection between it and actual social and cultural institutions is quite abstract.

Moreover, it is well known that, throughout Jewish history, only a very small rabbinical elite studied the Talmud, and, for example, it would be difficult to claim that the Talmud underlies one of the most important developments in modern Jewish history, the emergence and spread of Hasidism. Finally, although Professor Dimitrovsky claims that the Talmud was more important than the Bible in creating a unified Jewish culture, how is it that, in referring to the dates, Jews commonly mentioned the section of the Pentateuch read during that week? Certainly the reading of the Bible is central in Jewish religious services, as is the recitation of Psalms.

Another interesting case in point, with which I am familiar because I have translated many articles on the subject by Professor Yosef Kaplan, is that of the marranos, the descendants of Jews who remained in Spain and Portugal after the expulsion, some of whom fled the Iberian peninsula and returned to Judaism. These people regarded themselves as members of what they called the “Nation,” whether or not they had returned to Judaism.

In the seventeenth century, when marranos were allowed to live openly as Jews in a few cities in Western Europe, such as Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London, they established what Kaplan calls the “Western Sephardic Diaspora.” This development was based on the marranos’ feeling of group identification and divorced from any knowledge whatsoever of the Talmud (or of normative Judaism, for that matter). Indeed, to found their communities they had to hire rabbis, who were, of course, well versed in the Talmud, from Italian and other Jewish communities, and their relationship with Jewish law was not, as Kaplan shows, unequivocal.

Among Jews from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, it would also be quite difficult to argue that their (our) culture has been primarily talmudic. For example, I’m sure that, even among observant Jews today (aside from people in yeshivas), study of the weekly Bible portion is more common than study of the Talmud. Even assuming that Boyarin is right in describing Jewish culture as a culture unified by its relation with the virtual homeland of the Talmud from the third or fourth century CE until the late nineteenth century, it is evident that for many Jews, including me, the actual Land of Israel has become the homeland to which the diaspora is contrasted. Boyarin doesn’t say, at least here, what he thinks must happen to Jewish self-understanding when contact with the Talmud is lost.

By temperament, I am reluctant to see things in dichotomous terms: Israel or Diaspora. I know and admire too many Jews who live in the Diaspora to argue that they should be living here in Israel. I also realize that Israelis who decide to live elsewhere may have excellent reasons for their decision. Jews have been migrating for too long to end the habit, and Jewish culture has gained enormously from our contact with other cultures.

Moreover, one must acknowledge that Israel is not the only place where Jewish culture is thriving. Nevertheless, one must also acknowledge that Jewish culture in Israel has more depth than elsewhere. I doubt that the Jewish people could have put itself together again so successfully after the unimaginable devastation of the Holocaust, were it not for the vital energy of the Zionist enterprise.

I don’t expect that the question of the place of the Israeli homeland in Jewish life will ever be resolved, either on the level of personal decisions—where should I live, if Jewishness is central to my identity?—or on the theoretical level—where should an authentic Jewish life be led? This is an uncertainty with which I can live. Indeed, we all have to.


1.Prof. Kaplan has written copiously about these communities. A partial list of his publications can be found here.
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Jeffrey M Green
Jeffrey M. Green moved to Israel shortly after receiving his doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard in 1973. Since 1979 he has been a freelance translator from Hebrew and French. To his credit are more than a dozen books by the late Aharon Appelfeld and other literary and academic translations. He has also published a book on translation, fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews in various venues.