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Love, Loathing, and the Law of Return

In the Talmud, a timely story about what it means to be a people

by
Richard Hidary
March 23, 2021
The Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Getty Images

David Ben-Gurion explained the Law of Return in these glowing words:

The State does not grant the right of return to the Jews of the diaspora. This right preceded the State; this right built the State; its source is to be found in the historic and never broken connection between the Jewish people and the homeland.

This inspiring declaration guaranteed a policy of open Jewish immigration for the new State of Israel, even though the details of its enactment set off controversies that remain a crux of today’s Israeli election. Jewish communities for 2,000 years maintained standards of halachic Jewish identity through a decentralized network of rabbis and courts across the world defined by matrilineal descent and conversion. The Law of Return appropriately and necessarily expanded the definition of a Jew to include anyone with a Jewish grandparent, anyone who would have been persecuted under the Nazi’s racist definition.

The gap between these two definitions has resulted in a class of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are Jewish enough to be granted aliyah but who are not halachically Jewish and therefore unable to marry a Jew in Israel under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Closing this gap requires halachic conversion, which would be a viable solution in the vast majority of cases had the Chief Rabbinate followed the vision of Rabbi Meir Hai Uziel, the State of Israel’s first Sephardic chief rabbi. In dozens of responsa, Rabbi Uziel proposed that patrilineal descent deems someone part of the “seed of Israel” and therefore worthy of every rabbinic effort toward full conversion, even if their commitment to Jewish law was not (yet) complete. Indeed, this tolerant approach to conversion was applied since the times of the Talmud and Maimonides to resolve cases of potential intermarriage and enjoys broad support in rabbinic literature.

Tragically, the current Chief Rabbinate has opted for much more stringent conversion requirements. These strictures not only cause hardship to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who immigrated under the Law of Return but may not legally marry Jews; it also adds pressure to Israeli coalition politics and further drives a wedge between the Israel and diaspora Jewry.

Earlier this month, the secular Supreme Court of Israel voted to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel as eligible for the Law of Return. The law affects only a small group of people who will still not be recognized as halachically Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate and therefore unable to marry or be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Nevertheless, the vote touched off a firestorm as a possible precedent for the Supreme Court further disempowering the Chief Rabbinate.

The ultra-Orthodox party UTJ responded with an advertisement mocking the American liberal Jewish phenomenon of “bark mitzvahs.” Flashing pictures of kippah-wearing dogs donning tefillin and shawls, the ad announces that these canines would all be Jews according to the Supreme Court’s new ruling. (Muzzle Tov?!) The announcer pauses at the picture of a bespectacled golden retriever and asks, “And this one? His grandmother was a rabbi! He is definitely a Jew!” The ad concludes asking viewers to vote for UTJ, the only ones who will ensure a Jewish future.

I am not sure that the censors at Facebook realized the ad was created by religious Jews when they tagged it as anti-Semitic for comparing Jews to dogs. In fact, the ad is denigrating a practice that I agree is worthy of mockery as a desecration of a foundational rite of passage as a young Jews accept upon themselves the full weight of responsibility to continue the historic covenant of the Torah. The future of the Jewish people depends on the seriousness with which our children prepare for and remain committed to their obligations as sons and daughters of the commandments. To apply such a celebration of our precious future to our pets is a sacrilege comparable to the idolatry of sanctifying an animal shaped Golden Calf.

Nevertheless, sometimes an attack can be worse that the original sin. The point of this ad was not to object to bark mitzvahs per se but rather to denigrate non-Orthodox Jewry, uphold Haredi Halacha as the only legitimate form of Torah, and make liberal Jews feel unwelcome in the Jewish state. Compare this to the reaction of Moses, who, after the Golden Calf, defends the people with his life. When God offers to wipe out the entire population and uphold Moses as the progenitor of a new nation, Moses declines and reminds God that these are His people to whom He promised the land. Besides, what would the Egyptians say when they hear that God rescued this slave nation only to kill them in the desert? Moses at once denounces the sin but defends the people and seeks not to cut them off but to inspire and lead them.

In an exquisite and timely aggadah, the Talmud extends this message by comparing Moses to Hosea and sets forth a manifesto for what it means to be a great leader as well as how to navigate the dangers and opportunities of diaspora living. Bavli Pesachim 87-88 provides background for why God instructs Hosea, the eighth-century prophet in Northern Israel, to marry a prostitute:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Hosea: “Your sons, the Jewish people, have sinned.” Hosea should have said to God in response: “But they are Your sons; they are the sons of Your beloved ones, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Extend Your mercy over them.” Not only did he fail to say that, but instead he said before Him: “Master of the Universe, the entire world is Yours; since Israel has sinned, exchange them for another nation.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, said: “What shall I do to this Elder who does not know how to defend Israel? I will say to him: Go and take a prostitute and bear for yourself children of prostitution. And after that I will say to him: Send her away from before you. If he is able to send her away, I will also send away the Jewish people,” as it is stated: “The Lord said to Hosea: Go, take for yourself a wife of prostitution and children of prostitution” (Hosea 1:2). …

After two sons and one daughter had been born to him, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Hosea: “Shouldn’t you have learned from the example of your master Moses, who, once I spoke with him, separated from his wife? You too, separate yourself from your wife.” He said to Him: “Master of the Universe, I have sons from her and I am unable to dismiss her or to divorce her.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Just as you, whose wife is a prostitute and your children from her are children of prostitution, and you do not even know if they are yours or if they are children of other men, despite this, you are still attached to them and will not forsake them, so too, I am still attached to the Jewish people, who are My sons, the sons of My faithful who withstood ordeals, the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Once Hosea realized that he had sinned, he got up to request that God have compassion upon him for having spoken ill of the Jewish people. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Before you request compassion upon yourself, first request compassion upon the Jewish people, since I have already decreed upon them three harsh decrees on your account.

Hosea stood and requested compassion for the Jewish people and nullified the decree. God responded and began to bless them, as it is stated: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered. And it will be that instead of that which was said to them: You are not My people, it shall be said to them: You are the children of the living God. And the children of Judea and the children of Israel shall be gathered together” (Hosea 2:1). And I will sow her to Me in the land; and I will have compassion upon her that had not received compassion; and I will say to them that were not My people: You are My people” (Hosea 2:25).

Wondering how God could command Hosea to perform such an unusual and indecent act as to marry a prostitute, the midrash fills in the gap with a prior conversation in which God informs Hosea of Israel’s sins. Unlike Abraham and Moses who take advantage of the prompt to argue with God’s judgment, Hosea suggests that God choose a different nation. God teaches Hosea a lesson that intimate love and covenantal commitment can conquer even a most offensive act of disloyalty. The rabbis herein embed a response to the Christian challenge of supersessionism by arguing that the humiliation of diaspora may be terrible medicine, but it is also only a temporary separation before a final reconciliation. Once Hosea feels personally how love is blind to blemishes, he is ready to pray that God redeem the misguided nation and let them flourish in their homeland.

So what would Moses or Hosea say today? They may well see bark mitzvahs as some form of idolatrous fetish. Nevertheless, they would denounce only the practice, not the people associated with it. They would certainly never seek to disenfranchise a majority of diaspora Jewry, but instead they would seek the physical and spiritual welfare of all Jews.

The new ruling broadening the Law of Return deals with people who chose to move to Israel, put their lives on the line for its people, and commit to its history, culture, customs, and vision. In biblical times, such people would be the strangers, gerim, who like Ruth we are commanded to protect and love. Why not seek every halachic solution, which are readily available and have strong precedent, so that those accepted as citizens under the Law of Return can also become halachic Jews, legally marry and fully join the Jewish people?

One of most inclusive statement about conversion makes its way into the continuation of the aggadah cited above, which lists two reasons why God dispersed His beloved people among the nations:

Rabbi Elazar said: The Holy One, blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations only so that converts would join them, as it is stated: “And I will sow her to Me in the land” (Hosea 2:25). Does a person sow a se’a measure of grain for any reason other than to bring in several kor measures of grain during the harvest? So too, the exile is to enable converts from the nations to join the Jewish people …

The Holy One, blessed be He, performed a charitable deed toward Israel in that He scattered them among the nations; had He exiled them to one place, they could have all been destroyed at once.

And this concept is that which a certain apostate said to Rabbi Ḥanina: We are superior to you. It is written of you: “For Joab and all Israel remained there six months until he had cut off every male in Edom” (I Kings 11:16), whereas we, although you have been with us for several years, are not doing anything to you.

He said to him: With your consent, a student will deal with you. Rabbi Oshaya dealt with his assertion and said to him: This is not a sign of your righteousness but is simply because you do not know how to do it, to destroy us. If you seek to destroy all of the Jewish people, you cannot because they are not all with you in [the Roman Empire]. If you destroy those Jews who are with you, you will be called a genocidal empire. The apostate said to him: I swear by Gappa, god of the Romans, with this problem we lie down and with this problem we rise up, for we are constantly struggling with the dilemma of how to eliminate the Jewish people.

The first reason for the exile of the Jews encourages the spreading of the Torah’s message to the world. What better way to be a light unto the nations than scatter missionaries around the world and to inspire others to join? The rabbis had a knack for finding the silver lining around a tragic reality. The Talmud infused purpose and meaning to the centuries of exilic wandering by affirming it as an opportunity to invite sincere and dedicated converts to join the Jewish people.

The second more somber reason for diaspora dispersion likens the nation to Jacob’s two camps before the threat of Esau. If an enemy should wipe out the Jews of one region, the Jews in another region will ensure that at least some part of the nation will survive. A certain Roman or Christian challenges a rabbi by citing the massacre by King David of the Edomites, understood as the progenitor of the Roman Empire and of Christianity. The Romans, in contrast, allow the Jews to live in their domain unharmed. The response of Rabbi Oshaya feels chilling to read today as he foretells that countries would one day obsess about the Jewish question, only for one to reach a Final Solution. Precisely as predicted by this third-century sage, a genocidal empire murdered the entirety of Jewry under its domain and it was only thanks to the dispersal of Jews in other countries that we have survived.

The aggadah concludes with a note of hope for the future: “Rabbi Yohanan said: The day of the ingathering of exiles will be as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.” Moving from persecution to redemption requires an act of transformation equivalent to creating order out of chaos, and light out of darkness. The theme running through this series of Talmudic stories is God’s love for His people, never giving up on them even when they sin, protecting them even during exile, and returning them to Israel even when that takes a recreation of the world order. Most importantly, the Talmud teaches that the manifestation of this Divine love works through and depends on the courageous efforts of the prophets and leaders of each generation who feel that same caring and loyalty to the entire Jewish people.

Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is a professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University, a rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue, and a faculty member for the Wexner Heritage Program. He was recently a Starr fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Jewish Studies and a Clal - LEAP fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud (Brown University Press, 2010) and Rabbis and Classical Rhetoric: Sophistic Education and Oratory in the Talmud and Midrash (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He is currently writing a new translation and commentary on tractate Sanhedrin and recording daf yomi classes (available on YouTube). He also runs the websites teachtorah.org, pizmonim.org, and rabbinics.org.

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