I’m always wondering why your family never moved to Israel?
Susan and I did something unusual last week. While we always work on the Ask the Rabbi column together, our answers to this question diverge somewhat because of the different way each of us was raised. Susan answered this question in her Susan’s Musing and I am going to initially answer here, although Susan will join in at some point – you will see us switch from singular to plural.
As Susan said in her response, the commandment to live in Israel is one among many. While she was raised in a religious Zionist atmosphere that does encourage Jews from around the world to move to Israel, I was not. In the worldview of my family and my teachers, the political State of Israel, founded largely by atheistic socialists in the early years of the 20th century, certainly did make it easier to live in Israel. However, from a religious point of view, the obligation for a Jew to live in the holy land had been no less stringent earlier while the land was under Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman or British rule. In other words, the mass return of Jews to the land after the State’s founding in 1948 was not really the equivalent to the return under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah around 400 BC.
Not only was the State of Israel merely a political entity, in its early years there was a great deal of hostility towards religion. My great-uncle and teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, relocated to the land of Israel late in his life and opened a Yeshiva (Bible school). My parents sent me as a 12 year-old to live and study with him for a few years. I clearly remember the taunts and provocations that came my way from anti-religious Israelis. On our part, we loved the land as Jews have for millennia, but the founding of the sovereign State of Israel in 1948 didn’t really change much. That was how I was raised. Needless to say, both the State of Israel and my views have changed over the years.
Fast-forward to the present. While there is some tension between the official religious presence in the country (there is no church-state separation in Israel) and some non-religious Israelis, the old-time hostility towards God and Judaism has pretty much vanished. It is not easy for those of us outside Israel to understand, but even Israelis who maintain little formal religious affiliation are often deeply connected to God. It is hard to ignore the fact that life in Israel is a daily miracle. This is true everywhere, of course, but it is blatantly obvious there.
Thousands of books and articles have, been written about the different political and social distinctions found among Israeli Jews. Many of these are almost unintelligible to those unfamiliar with the historical, religious and social history. One thing is certain and that is that Israel’s founding fathers would be more shocked by the religiosity of the country today than they would be by the military, technological, and economic advances that have occurred over the past 70 years.
Nonetheless, we are American. (There is that singular/plural switch we mentioned) Not only is our work best accomplished here, but even if we were to move to Israel, we would be Americans living in Israel. Our heartstrings do soar when we are there, but they also beat with pride at America’s national anthem. We are quite confident that God was present at America’s founding and we have reason to believe that He has not abandoned us. In many ways, the question you asked presumes that we should be living in Israel. Many of our friends, particularly those who have made aliyah and moved to Israel would agree with you. Many others, basing their outlook on religious and cultural views, do not. We believe that America is part of God’s plan for the security of both Israel and the world. What we do know is that when both the State of Israel and the United States of America respond to God’s wishes, there is no conflict in loving both. Conflict only arises when one or the other betrays its mission. We, like you, pray for that not to happen.
Shalom u’bracha (Peace and blessing),
Rabbi Daniel (and a little of Susan) Lapin
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