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.
-Jeremiah 29:4-7

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.

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

8 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Exile?”

  1. avatar

    One of the great commentators of our time Charles Krauthhamer said, “do not listen to what he says, watch what he does.” No one would disagree that Obama is a gifted orator. But then, so was Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jung Il, etc. I am not comparing President Obama to any one of these tyrants, but his actions betray his rhetoric

  2. avatar

    As usual, Rabbi Rosenstein’s column was interesting and he made a lot of good points.

    However, there is one glaring problem with one thing he said, “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.”

    The problem is that in our current environment the opposite of Zionism, as Rabbi Rosenstein defined it above, is now the truth. As news stories demonstrate every day, Israel’s security depends heavily on America’s protection, from standing up for Israel at the U.N. to providing Israel with weapons and to a great extent the cash to buy them.

    On the other hand, as an American Jew, I am treated with respect and affection by my many, many non-Jewish friends and acquaintances and much of the non-Jewish community, as well as the government,zealously protects my rights, dignity and freedom.

    I no longer hear urgent calls to make aliyah in liberal synagogues as I heard years ago. I think that most if not all American Jewish organizations have gotten the message: by and large American Jews see America as their home, and have long since dispensed with the suitcase under the bad. That ship has sailed.

    Now we are confronted with the need to find something that we can use to tie American Jews to Judaism. We’re trying hard, but so far, American Jews are being lost to secular American culture. (The number of Americans who identify as Jews decreased by about a third from about 1970 to 2000.)

    We know how to attract Jews when no one else is trying to attract them, but we don’t know how to compete now that others want us. Let’s at least work on the real problem we have.

  3. avatar
    Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman Reply December 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Well written Marc. The questions are all good ones. For me the reality of a URJ or formerly UAHC Biennial is that I expect the response to an eloquent President who is part of the Democratic party to receive an everwhelmingly positive response. the Biennial groupies are all mainly Democrats and the URJ is very much in line with Democratic party actions. The additional question I need to ask is is it good for the representative organization of American Reform Judaism and its rabbis and leadership to be experienced by most Americans as taken for granted Democratic party supporters. Are we in the Democratic party pocket? I guess that my questions are an example of the suitcase under the bed, packed and ready to go, or perhaps a call from a rabbi who in his rabbinate has served three congregations each having members with strong conservative feelings not to be so easily identified with one political stream. Our tradition is NOT so easily identified. hanukkah l’simhah, hag urim l’simhah!

  4. avatar

    It’s an interesting question. I have to say in the Black community (that I am also a member of) there have been many an election where we looked around and wondered (a) if we should run and (b) where we could run. I used to say that I would run to Israel. Now, I read the news and wonder if that is even a possibility.

  5. avatar

    With the possible exception of Israeli security issues, the RAC might as well be a wholly owned subsidiary of the DNC. The political postings of the RAC/URJ, which now numerically dominate this blog, carry the notation, “Comments Off.” Apparently the secular political advocacy of the RAC/URJ not only commands the compulsory financial support of every member of an American Reform Jewish congregation, but now is not even to be subjected to scrutiny on this web site. Reform Judaism rightly welcomes all other forms of diversity, but cannot abide diversity of political opinion.

  6. avatar

    Good speaker – did he use a teleprompter? Judge him and his adminstration by his actions not his speeches.

  7. avatar

    “Here there are no outsiders” Unfortunately there is a push to make many people “outsiders”. A good Pharaoh could be replaced by a bad one. Any group can be the next “outsiders”. Maybe, the story continues to be relevant even in America

  8. avatar

    It is better when a gifted orator uses his talents for us rather than against. And i’ll admit that i do like the way Obama speaks. That said, our history has taught us that even the most enlightened countries can become hostile for any number of reasons. I do have hope for America, and this is my birth home. However, i am not so naive to think that things could never go wrong for us here. Having solid connections to other Jews not only in Israel but all over the world is one of the best tactics for survival.

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