Exile: Abstract Condition and Concrete Community
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Author: Ben Halpern

The Hebrew Galut means the abstract condition of exile, or bondage. Golah refers to a concrete community in exile. 


It might help to still the interminable controversy about shlilat ha-Galut [negation of the Exile] and Hiyyuv ha-Golah [affirmation of the Exile], or at least confine it within sensible bounds, if people were more careful in their usage. The Hebrew Galut means the abstract condition of exile, or bondage. Golah refers to a concrete community in exile. In the strict sense of these terms were respected, any normal person would have to repudiate the abstract condition of bondage; and few people would normally disapprove of a community because it is oppressed. Because this distinction is not always noted, the quarrel often degenerates into a verbal misunderstanding between those who are accused of loving bondage and those who are accused of hating Jews. If there is to be any fruitful discussion, it ought to begin with the stipulation by both sides that sholelei ha-Galut (not sholelei ha-Golah) need not hate any Jewish community and mehayevei haGolah (not mehayevei ha-Galut) need not love the condition of bondage.


Jacob Klatzkin once defined the real issues of the debate in terms of two questions: whether the Diaspora can, in fact, survive, and whether it deserves to survive. Present-day defenders of the Diaspora as an adequate base for Jewish living tend to invert the questions. They ask, Is Israel today guaranteed to survive, or is life in Israel today an adequate base for truly Jewish living? These may be stimulating or even significant questions about Israel; but if one is discussing the prospects and quality of Diaspora life today, it is irrelevant and evasive to take refuge in an attack on the prospects and quality of Jewish life in contemporary Israel.


No one can consider the demographic facts about American Jewry, so far as we know them -or permit ourselves to know them -without wondering about the prospects of survival for a community so evidently shrinking. The low birth rate, high intermarriage rate, and increasing dispersion of Jews in areas and occupations that make assimilation more probable, make it quite clear that the American Golah is declining both relativity and absolutely as an element in American as well as Jewish life -and this despite the reinforcements it receives from Soviet, Israeli, or other immigrants. Hillel Halkin's drastic conclusions (in his book Letters to an American Jewish Friend -ed.) from these admitted facts, that American Jewry is doomed, may' have surprised and shocked American Jews, but not because their own reports on the situation have been marked by unquestioning optimism. To add to the gloom and apprehension, American Jews have been increasingly aware that their declining strength in America comes at a time when they can expect to be increasingly under attack because of their privileged social and economic position.


But if one seriously asks whether the observed trends of decline justify a conclusion of approaching dissolution of American Jewry, the answer would have to be negative. Judaism is still a guarantee of Jewish survival, under any circumstances short of genocide -a possibility that may always exist, given our recent experience, but which few would use as an actual base for Jewish planning. Orthodox Jews as well as others who are committed to the synagogue will survive in America as Jews, just as they did under many other trials and temptations. Around them, and among them, will also survive as Jews a nebulous mass for whom Judaism has little meaning, but who have no other religious attachment capable of converting them into Gentiles.


Whether such a community "deserves to survive," is another matter. I hasten to add that I have no wish to question the right of any group -cousins' clubs, old landsleit, and certainly not Hebraists or Yiddishists -to strive to preserve a group identity, even if it is based on no more than a sentimental nostalgic attachment to values that once had vital functions. I may not question such an attachment as a matter of right; but those on whom such cult devotees depend for continuing their identity in the future do not always accept unquestioningly values which may no longer have a meaning for them. Sheer sentimentality is what remains of old values for those who once found them vital; it is not a reliable support for building such values anew, into the identities of uncommitted young people.


Jewish tradition made sense of Jewish experience when the Galut was a state of palpable oppression. It sustained Jewish life as an exercise of passive, heroic resistance which was to be redeemed in the restoration to Zion. After the emancipation of Jewry the Galut is not, at any rate, a state of harsh oppression; particularly not when Israel exists as an always available opportunity for redemption which so few choose to make use of. Contemporary Jewish experience in America, accordingly, is not such that Jewish tradition can make sense of it. Attachment to Jewish tradition has consequently become, for some, an exercise of sheer otherworldly piety, and for others, a nostalgic or deliberately cultivated sentimentalism seeking to cover the nakedness of an identity accepted by force of circumstances alone, without the inherent meaningfulness that it once had.


Such an identity may well survive. But for many who find themselves sharing it, the question of whether it is worth keeping may well arise. That this question in fact does arise is an accepted fact of contemporary Jewish life in America. It is the basis for many Jewish parent's anxieties about exotic cults which attract young Jews in deplorable numbers. It is also the reason that a relatively small number of young Jews still experience Diaspora Jewishness as oppressive, as Galut, and wish to opt for redemption -or, if you wish, for the solution of their Jewish problem -by aliya to Israel.


As one who believes that, wherever possible, problems ought to be solved, and who shares their shlilat ha-Galut, I believe they are right.


Source: Mitchell Cohen, ed., "Negating the Diaspora," Jewish Frontier 46:10 (500) (December 1979): 9-10.

 
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