If I Forget Thee?

By Allan Arkush
Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“Between Israel and the Diaspora: Where Do Jews Belong?”  This was the theme of a “special day of learning” last Wednesday at Mechon Hadar, an innovative and dynamic institution on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that describes itself as “the first full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America.”  Most of the hundred or so participants in the program were college students from all across the country, for whom the special day was something of an interlude in the two-week seminar on “the people, land, and state of Israel,” in which they are still immersed.  What made the day special was, in part, the presence of a few dozen other people, including much older people, who responded to the invitation to the general public to attend.  

The question of the day was one that is evidently on the personal agenda of at least some of the college students.  More than one of the educators who addressed the group made it clear that they themselves had wrestled with it all their lives.  But the plan was not to ruminate all day about whether, as Rabbi Shai Held playfully put it, it was better to live in Jerusalem or within easy reach of the Kosher Marketplace on Broadway.  The idea was to step back from such issues and to consider what Jewish tradition had to say about the importance of living in the Holy Land.  The goal of the day’s discussions was by no means to come up with any decisive answers.  It was rather, as Rabbi Ethan Tucker emphasized, to examine multiple perspectives on the matter found in the tradition, to think about them together, and thereby to enrich the shared vocabulary that would be at everyone’s disposal in the future, as they continued to mull things over—together.  

“Living in the Land of Israel: Obligation, Option, or Sin?”  For two hours, Rabbi Held led the group through key biblical, talmudic, and much more recent texts that reflected each of the views represented in his title.  He spent much of the time comparing the views of the Rambam (Maimonides), who did not list migration to the land of Israel as one of the 613 commandments, and the Ramban (Nachmanides), who strongly criticized him for this reason.  Giving the Rambam the benefit of the doubt, Held asked why the commandment to make aliyah wasn’t on his list and reviewed a number of centuries-old as well as more recent answers to this question.  The closer he got to modernity, the more excited he got.  Look at the way Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook explains it away!  And look how gleefully the Satmars seize upon it!  It’s amazing how these rabbis can disagree so ferociously about something that is absent from the text!  In describing the ultra-nationalist Kookists and the anti-Zionist Satmars, Held, who is an old-fashioned liberal religious Zionist, was non-committal, yet he was anything but dispassionate.  His deep concern with the texts was contagious and generated intense discussion. 

After lunch, and minhah, there were smaller sessions in which some of Hadar’s other outstanding teachers led discussions of the texts pertaining to such burning questions of Jewish law as “Can you force a spouse to make aliyah?” and whether one can say the Hallel prayer on Israel Independence Day.  Devorah Zlochower, who teaches Talmud at Hadar, wrapped up the afternoon with a skillful and trenchant review for the entire group of Nachmanides’ commentaries on some verses in Leviticus, in which he expounded on the superiority of the Land of Israel to all other lands.  But she too had no axe to grind, and was clearly more interested in responding to questions from the audience like “Did anyone ever propose observing the sabbatical year outside the Land of Israel?” than she was in talking any member of her audience onto the next plane to Lod. 

At the end of the day, Rabbi Tucker seemed reasonably satisfied that people’s lexicons had indeed been expanded.  He drew some broader conclusions too.  Our tradition, he said, is clearly not “geo-neutral.”  Everyone, even the anti-Zionists, recognizes that the Land of Israel has more sanctity than any other place.  But what follows from that?  The position that the Land occupies in a larger covenantal vision, anchored in Torah, is complex, and not self-evidently stable.  It has to remain the subject of a conversation.  The conversation is continuing through this week at a very high level, I have every reason to believe, among the scores of college students still at Hadar and their superb teachers, but without the visitors who joined them last Wednesday.


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