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The Necessity of Exile

What good is the Diaspora? Here are two important views, from unexpected places.

Shaul Magid
November 09, 2020
Elise Hardy/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Elise Hardy/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Virtually all Zionist theories and activists have agreed in one way or another,” historian Arnold Eisen wrote in 2014, “that galut (exile) and golah (a word connoting both exile and Diaspora in Zionist usage) must be opposed, condemned, denied legitimacy.” The notion that Zionism’s success is dependent on the idea that Jewish life in the Diaspora is dangerous, either physically or spiritually, is something common both to Zionism’s earliest and contemporary formulations. Today, it is no longer much debated. It is theoretically believed, but in practice little discussed in the Diaspora, that Diaspora is an inferior state in which to live. That is, many ardently Zionist American Jews unquestionably aspire to end their years in Jerusalem—but are happy to delay the option for another year in Riverdale or Boca Raton.

Eisen’s viewpoint is shared by many other scholars. For example, in 1984, Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid wrote that the “rejection of Jewish life in the Diaspora—shlilat ha-golah—is a central assumption in all currents of Zionist ideology. … In its most extreme formulation, the idea of shlilat ha-golah implies that the condition of exile will ultimately destroy the Jewish people, first of all in the moral and spiritual sense, and afterward in the physical sense as well, whether by discrimination and persecution, or by total assimilation.” And Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin put it this way, in a 1993 essay: “A central axis of an all-embracing viewpoint that defines the self-consciousness of the Jews in Israel, [the negation of exile] informs their conception of history and collective memory, as well as cultural practices that both fashion and reflect Zionist-Israeli identity.”

Ironically, in the debates about the “negation of the Diaspora,” both sides, Zionist and anti-Zionist, have shared a premise: “exile” as a defining category of Jewish existence was over. In the first part of the 20th century, the inferiority, indeed the perils, of Diaspora life were hotly debated by Zionists, Diasporists, and anti-Zionists. They fought vehemently in the American press about Zionism and the future of Jews and Judaism. The Zionist Organization of America squared off against the anti-Zionist American Jewish Committee; the Zionist chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Solomon Schechter, debated via correspondence with Hebrew Union College president, and anti-Zionist, Kaufmann Kohler; Reform Zionists such as Stephen Wise (1847-1949) and Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963) fought with the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. They argued about the value of Diaspora—but they all agreed that with America and Israel, exile was essentially over.

Thus the debates around the negation of the Diaspora were between two Jewish alternatives living in what each, for different reasons, determined was a “post-exilic” era. Zionists and Diasporists both rejected, in some fashion, the notion that “exile” remained an operative category of Jewish existence. The Zionists mostly believed exile had ended and thus immigration to the land was necessary. Diasporists believed “exile” had ended, and now Jews in the Diaspora could live in a safe state of “dispersion,” golah, and not galut, exile. Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists rejected both of these and opposed any substitution of galut for golah, claiming that Jewish destiny remained deeply embedded in its exilic state that would only culminate through religious observance and the coming of the messiah.

The question has persisted. In 2006, Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua said, “If you don’t live in Israel, your Jewish identity has no meaning at all,” and “Judaism outside Israel has no future.” In a completely different register, but expressing similar sentiments, Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote, in 1967, “Every Jew living in Israel … is observing the Torah, and every Jew living outside the Land of Israel, religious or not, violates the law and this violation is a sin.” The Diasporists and Zionists both “negate” exile, the first to argue for normative Jewish life in the Diaspora, the latter to suggest the end of exile makes living in the Diaspora either “meaningless” or “sinful.” The Diasporists envision the end of exile as the end of oppression in the Diaspora, a fact that may include the existence of a sovereign Jewish state, while Zionists envision the end of exile as the end of the Diaspora, leaving only the Jewish state.

As casual observers of Orthodox Judaism know, this debate has a Hasidic version, played out today on the streets of Brooklyn: Chabad, we are told, is Zionist, while Satmar is anti-Zionist. That is true, after a fashion, but the differences are more interesting than that caricature would suggest. In fact, looking at how the sects’ two leading 20th-century rabbis negotiated the question of Diaspora can be fruitful for our own discussion, at a time when Zionism and anti-, or non-, Zionism is again as polarizing as it was a hundred years ago.

As Hasidic courts recovered from their decimation in Europe after the war, two Hasidic figures rose to become true visionaries of postwar American Hasidism: Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), of Chabad/Lubavitch, and Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), of Satmar. They viewed themselves in large part as territorial adversaries in Orthodox Brooklyn (the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, Satmar in Williamsburg) and intra-Hasidic battles among them marked their identities. Lubavitch carried a broad intellectual mystical tradition, while Satmar focused more on traditional Talmud study and developed a mentality of separation and piety. In some way they appeared opposites: Chabad focused on outreach to alienated Jews, Satmar on protecting themselves from foreign influence.

However, I argue here that in fact both had similar innovative visions of America as the new, and perhaps final exilic stage before the messianic era. And both of their visions were based on the notion that the exilic period was still operative. For both, America was indeed a temporary “new promised land,” from where the “old promised land” can finally be redeemed.

Both Schneerson and Teitelbaum were wed to the notion that Jews still lived under a “decree of exile” that was reaching its end, but that end had not yet arrived. In that sense, both were anti-Zionist, even as Schneerson was less overtly so (although his two predecessors were vehemently anti-Zionist). Schneerson and Teitelbaum were both anti-Zionist because they both rejected, in principle and practice, the maxim of “Negation of the Diaspora.” In fact, both viewed the Diaspora, and not the land of Israel, as the only place where exile could reach its culmination. It is no wonder that Lubavitchers refer to 770 Eastern Parkway as “Beit Hayyenu,” “where we live,” a rabbinic reference to the Jerusalem Temple, and reproduce that red brick building around the globe, even in Israel.

While Teitelbaum was not au courant in Zionist literature, he was certainly aware of the “Negation of the Diaspora” maxim that drove much of Zionist discourse. For this reason, he includes an extensive discussion of the theological value and necessity of the Diaspora in his “Essay on Dwelling in the Land of Israel” included in his work Vayoel Moshe published in 1961. Two short examples will suffice. In Vayoel Moshe, 356, we read, “And this is one of the reasons why this evil state [malkhut] which is the state of heretics in the land of Israel who are in a battle against our holy Torah and faith in God, exert as much influence as possible to bring all Jews to Israel such that none remain in the Diaspora. They think that then all Jews will be under their dominion. And they will do all in their power to uproot from them Torah and faith.” And in the following chapter we read, “This has become a statute of Zionism, to draw the hearts of all Jews after them with the claim that all must come to Israel, this is their very purpose ….”

Teitelbaum’s recognition that part of what Zionism seeks to achieve is emptying the Diaspora of Jews presents a theological challenge distinct from the existence of the state itself. He thus asks: What is the role Jews in the Diaspora play in cultivating the culmination of exile? Here Teitelbaum deploys rabbinic and later kabbalistic understandings of the “necessity of exile” as a theological precept that must be maintained. He knew quite well that Zionism was not solely about the establishment of a Jewish state but also negating the Diaspora, which he believed was tantamount to undermining the redemptive process thereby undermining Judaism itself.

Teitelbaum begins as one would expect, with the oft-cited Talmudic passage in Talmud Pesahim 87b, “R. Elazar said that Israel was only exiled among the nations in order to gather converts (gerim).” He continues with a like-minded passage from b.T. Ta’anit 3b. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said that the verse states: For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, says the Lord. (Zech. 2:10). He clarifies: What is God saying to them? If we say that this is what the Holy One, Blessed be He, is saying to the Jewish people: I have scattered you to the four winds of the world; if so, why did God say “as the four winds”? He should have said to the four winds. Rather, this is what God is saying: Just as the world cannot exist without winds, so too, the world cannot exist without the Jewish people. This interpretation of the verse is based on the claim that the winds never cease.”

If one assumes that the decree of exile has been nullified, these passages are no longer relevant. But with considerable textual support, Teitelbaum and others reject that assumption and in doing so, use this discussion to counter religious Zionism’s radical claim that exile has ended.

On the question of negating the Diaspora or nullifying exile, Teitelbaum finds in kabbalistic texts strong support for his notion that Jews dwelling in exile is crucial and constituted perhaps the central component in Isaac Luria’s view of Diaspora. One noteworthy citation from Luria’s disciple Hayyim Vital makes his point. Regarding the difference between the exile of Egypt (where Jews were prohibited from returning) and all other exiles. In Sha’ar ha-Mitzvot, 111, 112, Vital writes:

And this is the meaning of what Moshe said to Pharaoh, You will not see them again … this means that since they had rectified all the sparks from the kelippot, anyone who would return there [to Egypt] to serve under the kelippot would be defiling the holy and the shekhina for no reason, and thus be subjugated under the kelippot. And this tells us about the difference between the exodus from Egypt from the other kinds of exile, because only the exodus from Egypt was complete. The future redemption will be even greater than Egypt the reason being that the exodus from Egypt even though no holy sparks remained there, nevertheless, in all the lands beside Egypt there remained portions that were not clarified and defilements remained there from the time of the sin of Adam.

The Jews did not need to return to Egypt—which is why they were prohibited from doing so—because the Exodus was so complete that the Israelites redeemed all of the remaining holy sparks when they left. This is what distinguished Egypt from all other exiles. Here Teitelbaum makes perhaps his strongest statement on the negation of the Diaspora. In Vayoel Moshe, 316-318, we read; “R Menachem Azaria de Fano [1548-1620] writes that the purpose of the various exiles is to purify the air of the lands of the gentiles. ‘God sent [Israel] into exile to purify the places where they are dispersed.’

Teitelbaum is suggesting here that “being exiled in every land is necessary in order for there to be Torah and devotion to God in all the lands to purify the air of the world in preparation for the indwelling of the Shekhina …. But this all requires preparing the air of the entire world to be fit to receive the sanctity of the land of Israel. Thus righteous ones must be spread throughout the world to prepare the air. Due to the sins of our generation our strength has been weakened such that there is no way to accomplish this except by residing in all places.”

Teitelbaum is not contesting the importance of dwelling in the land of Israel and not negating that Torah observant Jews should live there. Rather, as he makes clear here and elsewhere in his work, he denies one theological premise of the Zionist project: that the decree of exile has ended, and thus the Diaspora must be negated, and, as a result, Jews have no more responsibility there. He simply does not agree that living in the Diaspora is futile. There is essential work to be done.

Unlike many others, Teitelbaum does not focus on Israel’s suffering in the Diaspora as part of the purification of their own souls. In some way, he may side with those Zionist figures who believe the suffering of the Holocaust subsumed all the necessary “birth pangs” of the pre-messianic era. For Teitelbaum, exile is not solely the occasion for Israel’s suffering but still serves as a necessary component of redemptive history. Refracting this idea through biblical mythology, he continues, “When Adam and Eve sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden, even though the exile was a punishment nevertheless being scattered was for the good in order to spread sanctity to the entire world to know and serve God.”

It may seem somewhat odd for a Satmar sectarian to argue that Jews need to be in the world in order to bring exile to a close. But Teitelbaum believed the Jews doing mitzvot in the Diaspora were engaged in a necessary act of “purifying the air of gentile lands” and gathering the final sparks exiled there. For Teitelbaum, negating the Diaspora undermines the messianic process.

What I am calling Teitelbaum’s “necessity of exile” can be viewed as a response to Zionism’s “negation of the Diaspora,” turning the Zionist claim on its head. Establishing a secular state in the land of Israel is one thing. Negating the Diaspora is another. While the former may be prohibitive on Halachic grounds, the latter is prohibitive on theological grounds.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, is not known as an anti-Zionist, and many of his followers have become part of right-wing Zionist movements. But a careful study of his writings, particularly about America, show him to be a deeply committed theological Diasporist and, in my view, not a Zionist at all, even though he was pro-Israel. By this I mean that he believed that the messiah cannot arrive until the work in the Diaspora is done, and such work has not yet been completed. “Negation of the Diaspora” could only represent for him an anti-messianic approach.

This does not mean he did not acknowledge the spiritual significance of living in the land of Israel. Both he and Teitelbaum firmly acknowledged the significance of Torah-observant Jews living in Israel to purify the land, in preparation for the end-time. Teitelbaum was certainly much more critical of the secular state than Schneerson, who viewed the state as a tool to protect Jews. Neither, however, gave the state any semblance of sanctity that we find in the writings of Rav Kook or most religious Zionists.

In Chabad literature, the question of America is understood in cosmic or metaphysical terms, largely based on a reference to America in a letter written by the first rebbe in the Chabad dynasty, Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745-1812). Menachem Mendel Schneerson once spoke about “the exile to America” as a very great descent that could culminate in an “incomparable ascent.” And in a striking passage in Kfar Chabad Magazine, in 1951, Schneerson wrote, “It is a mistake if we conceive of the worldwide dispersion of the Jewish people in exile as a catastrophe …. As the Jewish sun set in one land, it has already begun to rise in another …. Now that the great powers in Eastern Europe have been destroyed by Fascism and Communism, America has become the focus and fountainhead of Jewish survival …. American Jewry must recognize this sacred historical mission which Divine Providence has entrusted to it at this critical moment of our struggle for survival.” As scholars Philip Wexler and Eli Rubin wrote earlier this year, “Right from the outset of his leadership Schneerson had a clear conception of America as the new center for a global renaissance.”

Elsewhere, I have argued that while Teitelbaum was vehemently opposed to political Zionism (the establishment of a secular Jewish state), Schneerson was just as opposed to cultural Zionism, the transformation of religion to culture that stood at the center of Israel’s state project. But Schneerson went even further. Wexler and Rubin continue, “Elsewhere he [Schneerson] argued that it was America in particular, rather than Israel, [my italics] that provided the most fertile resources with which to craft a viable model for postwar Jewish life on a global scale.” In his book on Schneerson, Open Secret, Elliot Wolfson offers an astute understanding of Schneerson and America, noting that “the situation of Jews in America takes precedence over the situation of Jews in the land of Israel, while this will change in the future, even then the ‘land of Israel will spread to all the lands and this includes America as well.’” This viewpoint contests A.B. Yehoshua’s assessment above that Jewish life in the Diaspora is “meaningless,” or Zvi Yehuda Kook’s estimation that it is “sinful.” Quite the opposite; for Schneerson, negating the Diaspora, in part by denying the exile, brings redemptive history to a screeching halt. Here Scheerson and Teitelbaum are in full agreement.

Schneerson saw the same hazards as all other traditional Jewish leaders regarding America: secularism, materialism, and assimilation. He knew the dangers were spiritual and not physical. But he saw something else that most others didn’t see. Schneerson, and I think Teitelbaum as well, saw something much more transformative, something even beyond what Joseph Soloveitchik saw, which was a place where a modernized Jewish Orthodoxy could flourish. For Schneerson, America was a place where a tikkun, a repair, needed to be done and, more important, could be done. America’s free society might very well be the place Jews could complete the necessary work of purification before messiah.

In short, America was a vehicle of the messianic. Hence Schneerson’s legal fight to light Hanukkah lights in public squares, and his campaign to the gentiles to adhere to the rabbinic seven Noahide Laws, commandments to be followed by righteous gentiles. Jews and gentiles could be reached because the society affords religious expression sufficient to the task. America is the perfect last phase of exile.

Paradoxically, Teitelbaum saw something similar, and was working toward similar ends by very different means. In a sense, Teitelbaum deeply understood America, and viewed it as the place to fulfill his mission. Eastern Europe was burnt territory, Israel defiled by a secular state. Did Teitelbaum think America was different from other diasporas? I think the answer is yes, but in a complicated way. Like Schneerson, Teitelbaum saw opportunity in America, not to rebuild something that was lost, but to build something that had never been. Kiryas Joel, his true fantasy collective in Orange County, New York, was only possible in America; here, he could build a model Hasidic enclave of his own imagination, which would maximize spreading the wisdom of Torah to the world through intense piety and fidelity to custom and law. Satu Mare in Romania, where Teitelbaum served as a young rabbi, was a mixed city—home to Hasidim, Maskilim, Yiddishists, Communists, Zionists—but not Kiryas Joel.

If we think that “Negation of the Diaspora” is an outdated paradigm or one only espoused by extremists, secular or religious, we are mistaken. Teitelbaum and Schneerson offered complementary diasporic, messianic projects, in opposition to Zionism. And both presume and require the decree of exile to remain operative. I agree with Eliezer Schweid, who argues that reviving the Negation of the Diaspora maxim is fundamental to the continued success of Zionism. For as he puts it, “In the face of phenomena such as emigration from Israel and alienation from Zionism both in Israel and abroad, the Zionist movement must sharpen its criticism of the Diaspora experience and bring it up to date, in order to make the people face the cruel truth of disintegration and decadence in Jewish life abroad.”

In looking for an alternative vision of exile in our time, religious or secular, and to reenvision the role of Jews in the Diaspora, there is much we can learn from Teitelbaum and Schneerson, each of whom resisted the push to argue for the end of exile and thus offered a nonassimilatory positive vision of the Diaspora against its Zionist negation.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.