Recently, I received an email from a reader who admitted being troubled by a lot of the new understandings of Judaism he was encountering for the first time in my Jewish Press blogs. He asked me a question that I have heard from other people as well. It may very well be that hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Jews have thought about the very same question at one time or another, so I’m sharing my answer with everyone.
Question: We live in a thriving Orthodox community in Monsey, New York. It offers the best in Jewish education for our children, a wide gamut of synagogue activities for the whole family, Torah classes throughout the day, and real joy during the Jewish holidays, all of which foster a sense of Jewish identity and pride. Why should we move to Israel where the influence of the secular Israelis is so pervasive, and where our spiritual (and physical) well being will be jeopardized?
Answer: There aren’t any spiritual dangers living in America? Is Monsey so hermetic that you don’t feel the influence of the Christian culture that surrounds you? For instance, if you have to leave your shtetl at this time of year, aren’t you immediately confronted by Santa Clauses and mangers? And if my memory serves me right, wasn’t some synagogue in Monsey torched not long ago, and a giant Chabad menorah vandalized? And aren’t there also secular Jews in Monsey, and in the surrounding towns, and on the campuses where your children go off to college? Not to mention their non-Jewish friends and the skyrocketing rate of intermarriage, which hardly exists in Israel.
Furthermore, if you enjoy your life in the ghetto, we have dozens of Monsey-like communities in Israel that dwarf Monsey in size and in religious observance, places like Mea Shaarim, Geula, Ramot Dalet, Bucharim, Sanhedrin Muchevet, Romema, Har Nof, Bnei Brak, Betar Illit, Modiin Elite, and the dozens of Orthodox settlements in Yesha, Haredi and Dati Leumi alike. In almost every city in Israel, there are Orthodox neighborhoods which offer everything you describe, with the added bonus of being in the Holy Land.
Don’t make the mistake of underplaying the holiness of the Land of Israel. Nothing in the world compares to it. Just look at the Torah portions that we have been reading. When our forefather, Yaacov, awakes from his famous dream, he realizes that he is in the “House of God” and at the “Gateway to Heaven.” Can Monsey boast that? And notice how the angels of the Land of Israel refuse to accompany Yaacov in his exile from the Land because of the spiritual impurity of the Diaspora. And our Sages teach us that on his return home to Israel, Yaacov feared Esav, even though Esav was a wicked man, and even though Hashem had promised to guard Yaacov, because all the time that Yaacov was away, Esav had the merit of observing the commandment of living in the Land of Israel, which is equal in weight to all of the commandments of the Torah. And see how Yaacov made Yosef swear to bury him in Eretz Yisrael, and not in Mitzrayim, so his offspring would always remember that the Land of Israel was their home, not impure foreign lands.
But beyond these reasons for living in the Land of Israel, I am afraid that your understanding of Judaism is incomplete. Judaism isn’t a private religion such as Christianity, Protestantism, and the like. Judaism is the NATIONAL CONSTITUTION of the Nation of Israel that is to be played out in Jerusalem and over the mountains and valleys of Eretz Yisrael. In addition to private individual commandments like tzitzit, tefillin, and keeping kosher, Judaism includes commandments for the Jewish Nation as a whole, like conquering and settling the Land of Israel, enlisting in the Jewish army, rebuilding the Temple, establishing the Sanhedrin and Jewish Monarchy, and keeping the agricultural mitzvot that are dependent on the Land.
The proper understanding of Judaism is that each individual Jew put his life in line with the goal of the Nation of Israel as a whole (the Clal), and not just live a private, ritual Judaism, practicing personal precepts, stripped of our national essence. The Jewish People are to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and this can only be accomplished in our national format in the Land of Israel, as it says, “For the Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” When we choose to dwell in foreign lands, instead of in the Land that God promised us, it makes Hashem seem weak in the eyes of the gentiles, as if He lacks the power to keep us in our own Land, and this is a Chillul Hashem.