Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Turning Failings into Mitzvot: Classic, but Pathetic

We all live with some amount of cognitive dissonance: the gap between the way that we act and the way we think that we should act. This dissonance is a good thing. It propels us forward, hopefully, spurring us to change and improve. We grow when we can look at former behavior that we used to consider positive and realize just how destructive and negative it was. (For example: I used to think hanging out with my friends and drinking at the bar was great - time well-spent in leisure and cameraderie. Now I realize that I was an insufferable drunk avoiding spending time with my family.) Conversely, our spirituality and growth is in greatest peril when we stop thinking that we're doing something wrong; when we mentally shift our attitudes and consider what we used to think of as negative behavior into "acceptable" or even "admirable" activities.
The Gemara in Yuma (86b) makes precisely this point, teaching us,

דאמר רב הונא כיון שעבר אדם עבירה ושנה בה הותרה לו הותרה לו סלקא דעתך אלא אימא נעשית לו כהיתר
Rav Huna said: once a person committed a violation and then repeated that act, it is permissible to him. Does he really think that it is permissible? Rather, I must say that it becomes as if it is permitted.
Rav Huna reminds us that this precisely is the M.O. of the yetzer hara. It's much harder to get someone to sin than to convince him that his activity isn't actually sinful. It's also much more efficient. No one wants to actively engage in destructive or sinful behavior, and if he does, he feels a sense of remorse afterwards. That's too much work for the yetzer hara, trying to get us to commit sinful acts each and every moment. Rather, he'd much rather work on our attitude towards that behavior, because once he's shifted our perspective, there's no need to entice us to sin. It's automatic.


Readers of this blog know well my Zionist ideology. I quit my job, picked up with my family and moved to Israel, mostly because I consider aliyah a religious and spiritual imperative.
I'm not alone. Scholars throughout the ages considered living in Israel a vital aspect of Jewish life. Living in Israel is encoded into Jewish law. I have very little patience for arguments about whether the Rambam considered aliyah a mitzvah or not; whether it's a mitzvah kiyumit or a mitzvah chiyuvit. Really. Who cares? In either case, Jews are supposed to live in Israel.

At the same time, I try and walk a difficult line and avoid overtly criticizing Diaspora Jews who don't make aliyah. No one knows just how difficult moving to Israel is more than us olim. It's never an easy decision, and I have tremendous respect and admiration for the people who make the leap of faith to come and live in Israel, and I really try hard not to judge Jews who don't. Four years ago that was me, and there's no need to be critical of people who choose to live the USA. We all have our challenges, and they haven't yet been able to make the jump to Israel. But at the very least, they know that they should. They feel the pull, as well they should.
But when someone comes along and says, "No they shouldn't, and argues that living in the Diaspora is a mitzvah, I feel a need to respond. Even worse is when the person argues both badly, and incorrectly, as Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz recently did in a short piece in the Long Island Jewish Star.
Essentially, Rabbi Yanklowitz argues that Judaism's values prompt us to not only live in Israel, but also to fulfill our national mission in the Diaspora. To put it bluntly, he's wrong, not only Judaically, but factually as well.
It's best, I think, to rebut his short essay point by point.
Living in caravans in a small settlement town during my years learning in Israel, my dream was always to settle the land. As a religious Zionist, I feel that living in Israel is a tremendous and miraculous opportunity, and all Jews can and must consider making this life transition as we are all very familiar with the halakhic obligation of yishuv ha’aretz, the religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel. I would like to suggest, however, that in addition to this well-known imperative, there is also a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora.
Let's stop here. If there's a halachic obligation of yishuv ha'aretz, how then can there also be a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora? Doesn't make that much sense, methinks.
The Rambam, following the Babylonian Talmud, allows for limited exceptions to the mitzvah to reside in the Land, including studying or teaching Torah, searching for a marriage partner, living in safety, or in the case of economic hardship. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, suggests that there is no prohibition against leaving Israel at all, even if one is already living there.
The Rambam is accurate. But I've asked around about his unattributed reference to the Yerushalmi, and I have no idea where in the Jerusalem Talmud one can find the suggestion that there's no prohibition against leaving Israel. Of course there are circumstances that allow for one to leave the Holy Land temporarily, but that's not the implication of the piece. I'm certain that this is a quote taken out of context. At the very least, it suggests that one was already living in Israel.
Some of the great 20th century authorities have argued that one is not obligated to reside in Israel today: Rav Yehudah Amital, the late rosh yeshiva and Israeli leader, once said, “In America there are many great Torah scholars, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe and others. Is it possible that not one of them knows the halakhah?”
This again is a quote clearly taken out of context. Does anyone remotely imagine that Rav Amital, the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, didn't think that one is obligated to live in Israel today? Of course he did. Yet, he wasn't a man who made broad pronouncements, especially about great Torah sages. I've asked some friends of mine who studied in the Gush, and they suggested that he was supportive of people who wanted to settle in the Diaspora to teach Torah. But it is impossible to suggest that Rav Amital didn't think that the average Jew is obligated to live in Israel. He was speaking about great Torah sages. To apply a single quote about a very specific group of unique people to the entire community of Diaspora Jewry is the height of intellectual dishonesty. And, aside from this out-of-context quote, which rabbinic authority has ruled categorically that one is not obligated to live in Israel?

While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice;

This is an oft-quoted liberal slogan that's hard to justify, mostly because it's not true, notwithstanding the fact that it's now taken as gospel truth. Yes, the Torah tells us צדק צדק תרדוף - "that we must chase after justice." (see Devarim 16:20. I also find it ironic that the verse continues, למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר ה' אלקיך נתן לך - "that you live and inherit the Land that the Lord your God gives you." The entire commandment to pursue justice is explicitly connected to inheriting and inhabiting the Land. Rabbi Yanklowitz is using this very commandment as an excuse to do precisely the opposite!) The clear literal understanding is that the verse refers to internal justice within the Jewish people. God reminds us that we must ensure that we act with justice and righteousness towards each-other! Somehow, this has been transformed into a slogan for global justice. I'm certainly not against global justice, but arguing that this is a specific Jewish value is difficult to defend. Rabbi Yanklowitz continues:

to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d’être.
Again wrong. Our raison d’être is to follow the word of God and fulfill the Torah. And, if we do that adequately, then God says that we will become a light unto the nations. The phrase actually emanates from Yeshayahu, who, in words of consolation to the nation conveys God's promise that the Jews would return to their Land following destruction, and again one day return to their status as a strong, powerful nation that others looked to and admired. See the Hebrew Wikipedia article on the term אור לגויים, which provides a nice summary of the use and misuse of the term throughout the ages.)
It is in the Diaspora where we can fulfill the Torah’s charge to combat global poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found. While Israel has been known to do inspiring humanitarian work, a nation-state’s primary concern must be the welfare and security of its own citizens. We must be concerned with Israel’s security as well but our responsibility is also broader. I’ve met thousands of other young Jewish leaders who have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with identities as global citizens.
This is just plain silly. Sure, one can do great chessed in the Diaspora, and fight for social justice. Yet, the State of Israel performs chessed internationally on a scale that pales anything that Jews are doing in America. Sorry, but that's just the truth. What American NGO sent a team of doctors and technicians to Haiti following the earthquake that saved numerous lives? What American organization sent a military unit to Japan to help with logistics and disaster relief after the tsunami and nuclear disaster? That's right, it was the State of Israel.
Israel, through it international reach, performs far more acts of chessed through international business relationships, humanitarian missions, and diplomatic initiatives than any American private organization could hope to reach. What's more effective at fighting global poverty: an American NGO in Haiti, trying to incubate small businesses (not a bad program, but usually minimally effective), or an Israeli biotech company that invented a water system that will allow that same Hatian to successfully irrigate his field? Finally (and most importantly), I fail to see why living in Israel and being a devoted global citizen are mutually exclusive. Israelis are far, far less parochial than most Americans, and are willing to - and do - travel to more places around the world than do Americans. If Rabbi Yanklowitz and the "thousands" like him really have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with global values, then they should move to Israel and do their good works from here. What's so important about doing it in America?
Second, though Jewish thought can and should remain distinct from that of other cultures, and obviously, other religions, the Jewish intellectual tradition has always benefitted, and continues to benefit, from development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies. Taking a cue from Muslim scholars like Al Farabi and Avicenna, Rambam integrated Jewish thought and Greek philosophy without the need to sacrifice our halakhah or our identity. 
True. We have universities here too. Good ones.
Today in America, as in the “Golden Age” of medieval Spain and the Talmudic academies of Babylonia, there is a great concentration of stellar Jewish academic programs and yeshivot. Rabbi Nehorai goes so far as to suggest, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues that will cause it to remain with you” (Pirkei Avot 4:18). This should raise Diaspora self esteem as one must reside where they can develop their best intellectual and spiritual achievements.
This is a joke, right? Is he really suggesting that the United States has developed yeshivot remotely on par with their Israeli counterparts? Why do thousands of young Americans, who run the ideological gamut, travel to Israel to study then? Does anyone other than Rabbi Yanklowitz truly think that one should "exile himself" to New York City to learn Torah. If I read the beginning of his article correctly, he himself "exiled" himself to Efrat (not in the United States) for an extended period of Torah learning. Shouldn't others do the same?
Aliyah to Israel is on the rise. 17,880 immigrants arrived in Israel in 5770 as compared to 15,180 in 5769 – an increase of 18 percent. There is no need for the demographic prophecies of gloom that if we don’t make immediate aliyah, Israel will fumble and that the Diaspora provides no hope for the Jewish future. Neither argument paints an accurate picture nor do they demonstrate the faith to survive that has driven Jews for millennia.
Agreed  But just don't think it's a mitzvah to live in America.
Many have argued for Shelilat ha’golah, the idea that one cannot sustain a Jewish life outside of Israel. One should be cautious of those who suggest that one can only live fully as a Jew in Israel. While there are particularistic mitzvot that can only be performed in Israel, there are also universalistic mitzvot that can only properly be achieved with the cooperation of Jews in the Diaspora. 
Again, I fail to see how he comes to this conclusion. But now I'm just repeating myself. Or is he repeating himself? 
One should not feel shame for choosing to reside in London, Kiev, or Chicago, but rather should proudly accept the responsibilities of supporting Israel while serving as a global ambassador for the Jewish people.
I don't know if I would say that someone should feel "shame", but one certainly should feel lacking if they choose to live in Kiev instead of Israel, just as someone should feel lacking if he doesn't spend time with his children, or learn Torah regularly, or follow any other religious precept. Sadly, Rabbi Yanklowitz has, through a series of logical jumps that are both specious and unrelated, transformed that important feeling of guilt and anxiety into a positive. Don't feel bad not making aliyah. You're not supposed to. You should repair the world!
Which brings me to my final point. Let's assume that he's right. Let's assume that one could only do good works in L.A., and that was a proper reason to remain in America. How many Jews in the United States are really so passionately involved in these types of projects, and not in their shuls, or their kids' schools, or in nothing at all? How many readers of the Long Island Jewish Star can truly consider themselves "global ambassadors" to the point that their engagement justifies ignoring a primary Torah value?
Sorry, Rabbi Yanklowitz. You might be fooling yourself, but for all of your justifications, Jews still belong in Israel. About that, I have no doubt.