Galilee Diary: Exile?
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia: Build houses and dwell in them and plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take for your sons wives and for your daughters husbands, that they will have sons and daughters and multiply and not diminish. Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray for it to the Lord, because in its peace will you have peace.
I recently had the privilege of attending the Biennial Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism in Washington DC, as a representative of the HUC Jerusalem faculty. It was a fascinating experience and there were many moving moments and interesting conversations (and it was fun to meet in person so many Galilee Diary readers). One of the highlights of the convention – for me and for the great majority of the participants – was the address by President Obama to the 5,000 assembled Reform Jews. Whether one is satisfied with his presidency or not, likes his policies or not, it was pretty hard not to be impressed by his speech and by how he presented it – and by the enthusiastic response of the crowd. From his mention of his daughter’s weekly invitations to her classmates’ bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, to his comments on the week’s Torah portion, to his statements about social policy and Israel, he “pressed all the right keys” and the resonance of the audience was powerful. I think even cynics (and opponents) had to give him credit for giving what was essentially a campaign speech with such grace.
The next day I taught a Torah study session on the Joseph narrative in Genesis, which began with that week’s Torah portion. Joseph arrives in Egypt as a slave and an outsider, and after various vicissitudes (and accusations of being a sexual predator), rises to a position of high authority, “second only to Pharaoh.” He then invites his entire people to leave their homeland and settle in Egypt under his protection. Things are looking pretty good. But of course, history moves on, and Joseph and Pharaoh die, leaving the refugees exposed and powerless; seen as outsiders and a threat, they are enslaved. It is possible to see this story as a foreshadowing – or an archetype – for all of Jewish history in our various Diasporas through the centuries: as outsiders, we can achieve, by dint of dreams and skills and hard work, power and prosperity, security and integration. However, our outsiderness is never totally overcome; it lurks, forgotten or suppressed until a moment of instability, when our power turns out to have been an illusion – being second to Pharaoh is significantly different from being Pharaoh, or Ahasuerus, or Abderachman, or Casimir… The castle of cards collapses, the Golden Age of wherever it is darkens with the smoke of autos da fe or crematoria. That was the Jewish experience from Joseph all the way into the 20th century. That pattern has been a driving force of Zionism – the belief that the only true security, the only real power, is that associated with being the insider someplace – of being second only to no one, of being no one’s protected guest.
So what is the meaning of the President’s address at the Biennial and the delegates’ response to it? Why were they so moved? Because he is just such a good speaker? Because it makes them feel so reassured about their place in the US to have the President come to tell them how much he values them, putting to rest their lingering doubts about whether they really are accepted? Because it makes them feel powerful to know that he really needs them politically? Because the fact of who he is in this position reaffirms their sense that the United States is fundamentally different from all the Diasporas we experienced before – his being President means that here there are no outsiders, and so no one is a protected guest? Which raises the question: Is the story of Joseph, the archetypal story of Diaspora powerlessness, inescapable? Or is it just a function of pre-democratic political structures? (But then, what do we do with 20th century Europe?)
Is it finally OK to get rid of that suitcase under the bed?
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.