JEWS at home are in Israel. What about the Diaspora — is Jewish history in the Diaspora the history of persecution? Two more radically different answers could hardly be imagined than these: Certainly so! Look at the Holocaust. Or, certainly not! Look at America.
In fact, the Torah hints at both of these answers, as well as more subtle ones.
As our Torah portion opens, Jacob, deeply frightened, prepares for his reunion with his brother Esau (Gen. 32:4-24). In Jewish lore, Esau has come to represent an archenemy of the Jewish people, Christianity, due to the long history of Christian persecution of Jews.
Jacob, we may recall, fled Canaan because word reached him that his brother Esau intended to murder him for receiving the blessing from their father Isaac (Gen. 27:1-45).
Many years and children later, Jacob now flees the land of his conniving father-in-law Laban, whose chicanery has become unbearable (Gen. 31:2, 5). Returning to Canaan, Jacob prepares to meet Esau peaceably, but he also prepares for war. Is Esau’s hatred for Jacob still burning? Jacob does not know, so he takes no chances.
Yet, the moment Esau sees Jacob he runs to him, embraces him, falls on his neck, kisses him — and both of them weep (Gen. 33:4).
Netziv (1816-1892) comments:
“Both brothers weep. This teaches us that Jacob, too, was aroused — with a great love for Esau. And so it is throughout the generations. There are moments when the seed of Esau is aroused with a purity of spirit and acknowledges the virtue of the seed of Israel. And when that happens, we are aroused and acknowledge Esau as our brother. Example: When in Roman times Judah the Prince loved Antonius; and, in fact, there are many such examples.”
This commentary speaks for itself. The Diaspora is not one long lugubrious history of persecution.
If Netziv’s comment is subtle as measured against the historical record of persecution, Netziv makes a still more subtle comment, characterizing the Jewish condition in the Diaspora as inherently ambiguous. After Jacob’s reunion with Esau, Jacob settles in Nablus. Except, he doesn’t exactly settle there. The language of the verse (33:18) is, “and he encamped before the city.”
“This is the plain meaning of the verse: Jacob did not enter the city; he remained outside (‘before the city’). This is the Jewish destiny: to be isolated, not intertwined with the nations of the world.”
Netziv then notes a double entendre: “encamped” in Hebrew can also mean “shed grace upon”:
“From outside the city Jacob shed grace and honor upon it. From this we learn how to conduct oneself when one is a traveler [i.e., an outsider].”
Let us sum up the possibilities of Jewish life away from home:
1. It is frightening. Yet, it has moments of love and acceptance.
2. It is isolating. Yet, one may contribute.
Another, more extreme possibility, based on the very same verse in which Netziv sees moments of Jewish-gentile reconciliation:
“It is a known halachah (law) that Esau hates Jacob” (Rashi, 33:4). The comment’s use of “halachah” — law — is particularly acerbic. Not a mere trend but a halachah — a fixed, final determination — says that gentiles hate Jews. This accords with the negative post-Holocaust alternative mentioned at the beginning of the column.
LET us examine another reading of the Jewish-gentile relationship in the Diaspora that weaves all of the possibilities above into a whole.
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) encapsulated within his view of Jewish history in the Diaspora a chilling foreboding of the Holocaust.
Here is his reading:
Since the Jews were exiled from their homeland of Israel in the year 70, their destiny has rotated between fixed poles in a fixed pattern.
As Jews escaped from or were expelled by an anti-Semitic society, they reestablished their sense of independent identity. As they took root in a new society, they considered themselves “like citizens,” not full citizens. “Citizen” here has a spiritual and not necessarily a political connotation. Even in the societies which granted Jews political rights and in which Jews could be good citizens, they considered themselves spiritually different, unassimilable, unalloyed to the culture.
The primary manifestation of their spiritual independence was their dedication to the study of Torah. Torah study, however, differs from other fields of knowledge in one critical respect. In other fields, progress is the norm. One generation’s knowledge generally surpasses the previous generation’s. The study of these fields generally yields satisfaction and contentment.
In the study of Torah, however, it is rare and perhaps impossible for one generation’s understanding to surpass or even meet a previous generation’s. The further the Jews extend from the origin of the Torah — from Mount Sinai — the thinner, the more superficial, their knowledge of Torah becomes. This is true even for the greatest scholars.
Therefore, at some point, Jews begin to look to other pastures to find satisfaction and contentment. They explore other fields of knowledge in which progress is the norm.
Very gradually, they abandon their commitment to the study of Torah, until they assimilate into the host culture and forget that their identity is independent of it.
Whereupon, G-d brings havoc. The culture in which Jews have taken root and become comfortable and accepted erupts in passionate anti-Semitism.
The Jews wander once again. Forlorn but all the wiser, they take root in a new land, this time loyal once again to their Torah and spiritual integrity. They rebuild their Torah society — until the process repeats itself once every few hundred years, from Babylonia to North Africa, from Spain to Eastern Europe, and so on.
IN the midst of this analysis, Rabbi Meir Simcha makes reference to the contemporaneous state of the cyclical process, around 1860. He characterizes his own age as one in which the Jews have forgotten the Torah and (in a telling phrase) now regard “Berlin as Jerusalem.” In the present cycle, the Jewish people has reached the intensive assimilative stage. It stands at the brink of the next persecution. It will emanate from Berlin.
Now, this was written in about 1860 and published in 1927 — some 13 years before the Holocaust, of which Rabbi Meir Simcha could have no direct knowledge. He is not the only writer whose ideas foreshadowed the Holocaust. Heinrich Heine writing in German in the 1830s, Rabbi Meir Simcha in Hebrew in the 1860s, Hillel Zeitlin in Yiddish in the 1920s, and Czelaw Milosz in Polish in the 1930s (to name a few), all had a terrifying premonition of catastrophe in Europe. Most thought it would engulf the Jews.
However, in Rabbi Meir Simcha’s reading of Jewish life in the Diaspora, no anti-Semitic persecution will annihilate the Jewish people. There will always be a saving remnant. The covenant between G-d and the Jews, though severely tested, will never be annulled.
Sources:Heinrich Heine: Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (New York, 1966), pp. 219, 226.
Hillel Zeitlin: Symcha Bunim Urbach, “Hillel Zeitlin,” Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972), vol. 16.
Czelaw Milosz: Russel Schoch, “Poet Laureate,” California Monthly (Dec., 1980), p. 7.
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