Diaspora Grrl

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Because we rarely draw a distinction between literal Israel and metaphorical Israel, the land of Israel runs the risk of becoming almost an idol.
Rachel Barenblat

Issue #67, April 2004

Some years ago, I began writing and revising my own Passover haggadah. It mirrors the haggadah I grew up using, but with some twists. One such twist comes at the very end, before the familiar closing words L'shanah ha-ba'ah b'Yerushalayim! That rallying cry — "Next year in Jerusalem!" — speaks to a feeling of exile which has characterized the Jewish Diaspora for centuries.

When the standard Passover liturgy was written, Israel was a metaphor: not a physical state, but a place that existed in memory and spirit and imagination. "Next year in Jerusalem" is an ending that fits neatly with the seder's theme of re-creating the journey from slavery to freedom. The story of the Exodus takes the ancient Israelites from Egypt (literally Mitzrayim, the narrow place) to Israel. In retelling it we bring ourselves out from our own narrow places, to freedom, to peoplehood, to connection with God.

Illustrated page from Passover haggadah from Canada's Digital Collections

But now that the State of Israel exists, it's easy to lose the metaphor, to see the call as a concrete one. When we chorus "Next year in Jerusalem," are we announcing an intention to book tickets on El Al? What does it mean when we replace the metaphorical Jerusalem with the real one? What are the chances that we will all be in Jerusalem next year? Wouldn't we rather be together, celebrating Passover in community again around the family table?

In my own haggadah, I temper the words by explaining that the roots of the word Yerushalayim show a double meaning. The word's root can be read as Ir Shalem ("City of Wholeness") or Ir Shalom ("City of Peace"). In my seder, the closing line is modified with, "Next year, wherever we are, may we be whole and at peace." In other words, I'm more interested in striving for the metaphorical Jerusalem than in vowing another visit to the actual one. (I'd like to revisit the City someday, but that's a personal travel goal, not a communal spiritual one.)

The "Next year in Jerusalem" attitude isn't just in the Passover seder, though. It's all over the place: in the many prayers and blessings that make reference to restoring the presence of God in Zion, in traditional observance of Tisha B'Av (the fast day commemorating the fall of the First and Second Temples, and the concomitant beginning of the Jewish Diaspora).

Sometimes it seems to me that Diaspora Jews — particularly American Jews — fetishize Israel, and the Good Old Days when the Temple stood there. As a result, our Diaspora existence becomes a kind of second-class Jewish life, because the "real" Jewish homeland is Israel. . . and "real" Jewish life hit its high point back when the Second Temple still stood.

George Robinson, author of Essential Judaism (Pocket Books, 2000) argues that "every pogrom, every anti-Semitic atrocity, up to and including the Holocaust, that occurred between 70 C.E. and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 was the direct result of the fall of the Second Temple." (p. 132.) Which makes me go, "Huh?"

Certainly, the fall of the Second Temple was disastrous. It kicked off a painful transition into exile. And no one sane could argue that our Diaspora history of persecution has been a good thing. But should we regard the fall of the Second Temple (and the beginning of the Diaspora) as a lasting tragedy for the Jewish community — maybe even our defining tragedy?

Not in my opinion. I'd argue that the Diaspora enabled Judaism to mature. If the Temple hadn't fallen, Judaism might have remained a sacrificial religion, and faded centuries ago; instead, the challenges of the Diaspora birthed Rabbinic Judaism. We became a people of the Book, carrying our holy texts with us, engaging with God in synagogues and houses of study everywhere rather than via sacrifices at our one-and-only holy site.

Today Jews can create, and sanctify, opportunities to connect with the sacred regardless of where we dwell. Thanks to the changes wrought by the Diaspora, we've gained tremendous agency: we can reach toward our Source ourselves, through study and meditation and prayer, rather than relying on a High Priest and altar. I wouldn't want to reverse the change from Temple-oriented Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism. Would anyone?

So then why knock the Diaspora in such a profound way? At the time of its destruction, Jews understood the Temple to be God's dwelling-place in creation; but later generations came to regard all of creation as potentially infused with the Shekhinah (the immanent — and, incidentally, feminine — divine Presence). If holiness can be anywhere, if we've learned to reach toward the Breath of Life through the simple and personal acts of prayer and study, why mourn the change that brought us to where we are?

There's nothing wrong with planning to spend next Passover in Jerusalem. But there's nothing wrong with planning to spend next Passover right where we are, either. Why do so many Diaspora Jews focus on Israel as though we were still in unwilling exile?

On a visit to Israel a few years ago I had the chance to chat with some new olim, who asked when I would be joining them. I wasn't sure how to tell them that I had no intention of relinquishing my Diaspora status. That my Jewishness draws sustenance from my local and personal spiritual centers: Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal retreat center in the Catskills; my shul, where we meditate on Friday mornings to open our hearts before Shabbat; the little stream where I do tashlich every Rosh Hashanah; the books and ideas and prayers that go with me wherever I go. My Jewishness isn't rooted in Israel. It's rooted where I am.

There's a lot that's wonderful about Israel. But isn't it a little odd that so many American Jews who wouldn't dream of making aliyah still keep the habit of gazing longingly east? It almost seems as though we want Israel to be holy on our behalf. As though we have no confidence in our ability to effect spiritual changes wherever we happen to live. Which seems, to me, fair neither to Israel nor to ourselves. I want to know what would happen if we turned some of that focus, some of that longing for holiness, into our own hearts and onto our own soil.

Imagine what would happen if some of that energy were directed in some other way. What if that ruach, that spirit, went toward supporting those of us (anecdotally, almost all women) who are crafting new rituals, new prayers, new linguistic ways of approaching our tradition and our Source? What if that spirit went toward interfaith outreach, so those of us who intermarry could feel more comfortable bringing our non-Jewish spouses and partners to shul?

What if that spirit went toward supporting the existence of a Jewish feminist press, to ensure the continued survival of magazines like Lilith and Maydeleh so that our daughters, and their daughters, could grow up secure in the awareness that our voices belong here? What if that spirit went toward building bridges between women and men of all the denominations?

18th/19th c. Persian amulet of Lilith: The Israel Museum, JerusalemWhat if that spirit went toward making people aware of how much more there is to Judaism than Zionism, avoidance of intermarriage, and remembering the Shoah? For many contemporary American Jews (and non-Jews, as well), that trio is what Jewish experience boils down to. And that's a serious drag, because there's so much more to Judaism than that. We've got millennia of songs and prayers and poems, philosophy and recipes, a mystical tradition, a radical political tradition, the kind of ideas that make my heart expand and my head sing. And yet few people hear enough about this stuff to engage with it.

To be clear, when I argue that we need to stop fetishizing Israel, I'm not arguing that we should reject it. Clearly Israel continues to have spiritual significance for the Jewish people. Excising it from our liturgy would be short-sighted, and losing the link between Israel and Diaspora would impoverish both sides of the geographic divide. But Israel is in the unique position of being both a physical reality and a metaphorical one. As Diaspora Jews, I think we need to be aware of that, and to be mindful of when we're talking about literal Israel and when about figurative Israel.

Because we rarely draw a distinction between literal Israel and metaphorical Israel, the land of Israel runs the risk of becoming almost an idol for the average American Jew. Being a Jew means accepting the twinned responsibility, and opportunity, of engaging the tradition with one's own hands and head and heart. It seems to me that there's a temptation to replace that personal engagement with Zionism. As though supporting Israel gave one a "bye" on co-creating kehillat kodesh, holy community, wherever one happens to live.

Israel has long been a focus for Diaspora Jewish communities: first the idea(l) of Israel, and in recent decades the actuality. We've learned, over time, to view Israel as a place where Judaism is concentrated: where what's holy about our tradition, and also maybe what's problematic about it, are stronger, more powerful, more pure. I don't believe that's necessarily so. The lesson of the Diaspora is that we carry our God, our holiness, our moral imperative to heal the world, with us wherever we go.

For my own part, I want to support interesting, nourishing Judaism in my own community. I want to support Jewish women and little grassroots Jewish magazines. I want to support the creation of new rituals that will touch the souls of people who believe, I think erroneously, that Judaism is patriarchal and unchanging and dry. I want to green the deserts of our hearts. I'm a Diaspora grrl: I want to make a holy land right here.

Rachel Barenblat is co-founder and executive director of Inkberry, a literary arts center in western Massachusetts. She holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington, and is author of two chapbooks of poems, most recently What Stays (2002). Her work has appeared in Lilith and Phoebe, among others. She blogs regularly about Judaism at http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com, and is at work on a book about Jewish rituals.

Credits: Illustrated page from Passover haggadah from Canada's Digital Collections. 18th/19th c. Persian amulet of Lilith from collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Copyright © 2004 by Rachel Barenblat. All rights reserved.

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