Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Peoplehood in Space and Time

Do you remember when Yom Ha’atsma’ut evoked sheer amazement – an Independence Day for a sovereign Jewish State! Who would have believed it? Well, the it is almost upon us again, but the quality of the day has changed. It has grown so familiar with age that most Jews here will not even notice it come and go, and those who do will wonder what to do with it.

I suggest we treat it as the opportunity to make spiritual sense of having a Jewish homeland while living outside of it. Gone are the days when founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion could argue that the only proper Jewish response was aliyah. Gone too are the days when Jews had scruples about having a Jewish state altogether. And gone as well are the days when Jews in the Diaspora could relate to Israel meaningfully with no other rationale than proprietary amazement.

That is a formidable truth, especially about the next generation of Jews, those under 40 (let us say), who can just as easily leave Judaism as stay in it, and who want to know that the Jewish project matters enough to command their allegiance. I call that search for commitment “spiritual.” Hence my claim that it is time to make “spiritual  sense” of being a Jewish People divided by geography. What does it mean to live either in or outside the Land (ba’aretz  or chutz la’aretz), but, in either case, to share the mission that gives being Jewish its raison d’etre?

That there is such a mission, I take for granted (although I know it deserves argument on another occasion). My concern here is the phenomenon of the Israel-Diaspora divide which goes back as far as the collective Jewish memory reaches. We need a useful way to think about it.

A productive starting point is the consciousness of space and time as complementary ways of being in the world. We inhabit both, but have different perceptions of each. Points in space are arrayed in a way that allows us to commute back and forth among them. Not so time, which seems more like a video passing before our eyes — just the point that we call “now” actually exists; the others (past and future) belong to memory or anticipation.

A singular phenomenon of Judaism is its intentional seriousness about both. Like other religions and cultures, we too have a holiday cycle that celebrates sacred time; no surprise there. But, somewhat uniquely, we also insist that we have a land, a plot of sacred space without which we would not fully be Jews.

Religions tend to be phenomena of time – they measure their birth by a single historical moment when a prophet, savior, or sage, called them into being. Judaism too goes back to a primordial call in time, but it depends as well on a primordial space that was singled out simultaneously. The founding message to Abraham was precisely to go to the land that God would show him. Judaism, then, had a sacred place the moment it came into being.

So the plenitude of human aspiration is lived out in time and in space; and Judaism, from the outset, highlighted both.

Modern times have seen what amounts to a division of sacred labor: Israelis inhabit spiritual space; Diasporans mine spiritual time. Israelis, who know only space, are chagrined by Diasporans who never even contemplate moving to Israel. Diasporans, who know only time, are piqued by Israelis who go to the beach, not the synagogue, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Both charges are true, but neither is a sign of spiritual ill will. They are simply outgrowths of our two diverse orientations to the sacred: sacred space for Israelis; sacred time for Diasporans.

This time/space perspective sheds light on the attractiveness of Jewish Peoplehood. Ever since the destruction of the first Temple, we have known communities in Israel and in the Diaspora, each one strengthening the other. I do not mean just the exercise of money and power: Diasporan donations that fuel Israeli economic and military genius, which in turn bring pride to the Diaspora. I mean something deeper – a worldwide and eternal People harnessing spiritual energy from the entire space-time continuum.

To live just in space or just in time is impoverishing. I relish the reminder that I have both, and Yom Ha’atsma’ut is such a reminder: a moment in sacred time to affirm my commitment to sacred space. When accompanied by thoughtfulness about the purpose of Jewish Peoplehood, the universal mission for which the Jewish People exists, it can be Jewish spirituality at its finest.


One response to “Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Peoplehood in Space and Time

  1. I loved this post. Thank you! We often speak about Israel as the political entity needing our support to insure survival. That is certainly no small point. But I do it because I feel passionately about that land, the people, and the values that the State of Israel represents. For me…it is the embodiment of hope. So to celebrate Israel’s independence day as a spiritual high point is just as important as my advocacy for Israel’s security and its strong democracy. Thanks for writing this post!

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