Celebrating a New Jewish Diasporism: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777


A synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”

This is how we explain this particular core value:

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.

However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”

It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.

I want to say at the outset that when I use the word Zionism, I’m referring to political Zionism – the ideology that advocates for a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine. I know that historically there have been many different of variants of Zionism. But today I believe that issue is largely academic. Political Zionism led to the establishment of the state of Israel; and political Zionism is this ideology that continues to support, justify and advocate for it.

Of course in today’s Jewish community, Zionism is much more than just a political ideology; it has become the sine qua non of our Jewish identity. For the Jewish communal establishment, Zionism is the litmus test as to whether one is ultimately inside or outside the Jewish community. This is actually pretty staggering when you consider that Zionism is a relatively recent phenomenon in our centuries long Jewish history. Before the 1800s, the question “are you or have you ever been a Zionist?” was simply not relevant to one’s Jewish identity. For centuries, Zion was represented a mythic spiritual homeland, but for the overwhelming majority of Jews, it was not their actual home. The home in which they lived, the home that provided the essential context for their Jewish lives, was the Diaspora.

So if I was asked to refer to non-Zionism in positive terms, I would call it “Diasporism.” It feels almost redundant to refer to Judaism in this way, but in the age of Zionism, it’s all too easy to forget that Jewish tradition was actually born and bred in the Diaspora. Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Judaism was a land-centered, Temple-based sacrificial system that was already splintering into several competing sects. But after the Temple was destroyed, dispersing the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora, Pharisaic Judaism – Rabbinic Judaism – adapted to this new reality with a religious system that could be observed anywhere in the world.

Actually, the Jewish Diaspora started to emerge even before this. Centuries earlier, there were thriving Jewish communities in places such as Babylon and Alexandria. But Judaism as we know it came into being after the Romans destroyed the Temple and the majority of the Jewish people established communities outside the land of Israel. Judaism became, as it were, as a kind of “spiritual road map” – a spiritual response to the trauma of dispersion and exile.

The experience of exile also profoundly affected Jewish tradition itself. A famous midrash teaches, “when the people of Israel were exiled, God went into exile with them.” I personally find this theological image of a “God in exile” exceedingly powerful. Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality. This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we used our own unique experience  to make a spiritual statement about the human condition. Whether we are Jewish or not we are all, in a sense, wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.

And so from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-national, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.

The destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” The rabbis held fiercely to the idea that there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. They were also painfully aware the last Jewish attempt at empire was not a happy one. I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom established in the wake of the Maccabean victory. in 164 BCE. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.

In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah’s “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah. (It’s also not a coincidence that the story of the Macabees and was revived and revered by the modern Zionist movement, but I’ll get to that a little later.)

Jewish tradition as we know it could never have existed without the Diaspora. Our central Jewish text – the Talmud – was itself composed and compiled in Babylonia. And the myriad of lands in which we have lived have provided the fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity. The most important Jewish figures throughout history were very much of their specific cultural time and place: the great 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature, integrated Jewish theology with the Hellenistic Greek philosophy of his day; Maimonides’ classic philosophical treatises were deeply influenced by the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of Medieval Spain; Franz Rosenzweig’s work clearly reflects the ideas of modern German liberalism.

This is not to say that the land ceased to become important in Jewish tradition. The land of Israel remained the Jewish homeland, but now in a spiritual rather than literal sense. Our religious tradition is replete with a powerful yearning for a restoration of Zion – but the rabbis insisted that this could only happen with the coming of the Messiah. The midrash I quoted earlier ends with “when they return from exile, God will return with them.” In the meantime the rabbis cautioned, we cannot and must not force God’s hand by establishing a sovereign Jewish state ourselves.

This spiritual yearning – this idealized vision of a future of redemption set against the hard realities of the present – is so intrinsic to the Jewish religion. Even if we don’t literally believe in the coming of a Messiah or reject the actual rebuilding of the Temple (God forbid), I would suggest that this idea has a universal relevance. The dream of a Messianic future speaks powerfully to our yearning, our desire for redemption in our lives and in the world. We don’t have to be traditional messianists to understand that the world we seek has yet to arrive. That our lives and our world are still broken and in need of repair – and that we ourselves have a sacred responsibility to work to bring redemption to the world.

I’d like to share another midrash with you now. It’s also pretty famous (I think for good reason):

Rabbi Joshua was meditating when he was visited by the Prophet Elijah. “When will the Messiah come?” asked Joshua. “Ask him,” replied the Prophet. “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, so that he will be ready to return at a moment’s notice.”

Joshua went to Rome to meet the Messiah. He greeted him, saying “peace upon you, Master and Teacher;” the Messiah replied “peace upon you son of Levi.” Joshua asked him “When will you be coming?” and the Messiah responded “Today!”

Joshua went back to Elijah, who asked him what the Messiah had said. Joshua told him, adding that the Messiah had not told him the truth; had promised to come today but had not. Elijah explained “This is what he said to you, ‘Today, if you truly listen to his voice.’” (Psalms 95:7)

There’s just so much power to this Midrash, particularly in the image of the Messiah binding his wounds among the poor and the wretched at the gates of Rome. But it’s the final line that drives its point home: the Messiah will come today, but only if we listen to the Messiah’s voice. We cannot sit passively by and simply wait for the for the world to redeemed. We must create a world worthy of a Messiah. Not by creating a state by ourselves, but by actively modeling the world we seek. But paying attention to the poor and the wretched at the city gate. By working for a world in which such misery is no more.

As I understand it, the sacred core of the Messianic ideal is not the notion of Jewish sovereign independence in their ancient homeland. It is the vision of universal redemption: of justice and peace for all; when, as we read in Micah, “all will sit beneath their vine and fig tree and none will make them afraid” or when, as the book of Isaiah says, “the wolf will lay down with the lamb and the leopard will lay down with the kid.”

Having said this, we must beware: Messianism can be a messy and dangerous business. There have been many false Messiahs throughout Jewish history and their stories have invariably ended in tragedy. The most famous of these was Shabbatai Tzvi, who gained a tremendous Jewish following in the 17th century. His claim to be the chosen one that would lead the Jews back to their sovereign homeland caused so much upheaval that he was forced, on pain of death, to convert to Islam by the Sultan. His apostasy caused massive disillusionment and schisms that throughout the Jewish world.

Shabbatai Tzvi was very much a product of his time. He arose during a period in a period in the 1600s when a Puritan form of millenarianism was sweeping Europe. Coming primarily out of England, this ideology preached that the Jewish people would literally return to establish a sovereign state in their Biblical homeland – an event that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ. If this ideology sounds familiar to you, this is the very same millenarianism that is espoused by American Christian Zionists today. It was indeed brought to our shores by Puritan colonists.

When the Jewish Zionism arose was founded in the 19th century, this religious Messianism became fused to a political movement – and the possibility of an actual Jewish state in historic Palestine became very real. The British Lord Arthur Balfour who wrote the famous Balfour Declaration in 1917 was actually a millenarian Christian himself. His pledge of the British Empire’s support to the Zionist movement is the perfect embodiment of this merging of religious Messianism, imperialism and Jewish political nationalism.

I would suggest that Zionism is in its way, a kind of political false Messiah. Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement as an explicit rejection of the Diaspora and a desire to solve the “Jewish Question” once and for all. Once a Jewish state was established, he believed, Jewish life would be normalized. The overwhelming majority of Jews in the world would immigrate to Israel, the few remaining would assimilate into their nations and anti-Semitism would cease once and for all.

In the end, Zionism embodies the most particularlist and exceptionalist aspects of Jewish Messianism. According to political Zionism, we must take it upon ourselves to actively bring about that day, through the establishment of a Jewish ethnic nation state, with the support of Western imperial powers.

This Faustian bargain with Empire is also an explicit betrayal of the rabbi’s central dictum, “not by might and not by power.” This is not to say that the Jewish people have not suffered – often terribly – at the hands of various empires throughout its history. But in the end, those mighty empires have come and gone while the Jewish people have survived. We ourselves are not the descendants of the Macabees who founded the last Jewish sovereign commonwealth. They’re all gone. Our ancestors are the ones who survived because their Judaism was based not dependent upon physical might and militarism but rather upon “Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasidim” – Learning, Worship and Acts of Righteousness.

And tragically Zionism, which purported to end the Jewish exile, did so by exiling another people. The state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians, who today live under military occupation, as second-class citizens in their own land, or else in a Diaspora of their own – as refugees or citizens of other countries – who are forbidden to return to their homes.

But I would suggest that even with Jewish political independence in our ancient homeland, the Jews who reside there are in exile. They live in a state that has become the most militarized state in the world, a garrison state that is becoming increasingly isolated from the international community. And in the absence of some kind of political revolution, Jews will soon become a minority in their own country. Not an oppressed minority like Jewish communities of old – but rather an oppressor minority like the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Right now, the Jewish population of the world is split almost in half between Israel and the Diaspora. Where does this leave those in the Diaspora who choose not to center our Judaism around Zionism, who refuse to celebrate a Judaism of isolation from the rest of the world? Is there a place for those who want to celebrate the Diaspora as dynamic and fertile ground for a new kind of Judaism? One that embraces our existence among diverse nations? One that advocates for the universal redemption of all peoples?

In fact that Judaism is already emerging. I do believe we are witnessing the nascent stirrings of the Diasporism to which I referred earlier. Jewish feminist scholar Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz is one of the pioneers who is doing important work in this area. I highly recommend to you her book, “The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism,” in which she lays out this vision as well as the challenges that lay before us:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic premise: once we were gathered in our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of the circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis? “From Margin to Center” echoes a book title by African American feminist bell hooks. But hooks’ constituency – women and people of color – comprises the majority of the world’s people, suggesting an inevitable, “natural” centrality: The majority “belongs” in the center.

Jews worldwide number only about 13.3 million, a tiny minority except in Israel. Diasporism means embracing this minority status, leaving us with some tough questions: Does minority inevitably mean feeble? Can we embrace diaspora without accepting oppression? Do we choose to be marginal? Do we choose to transform the meaning of enter and margins? Is this possible?

There are increasing numbers of Diaspora Jews who are actively grappling with these questions. Just as there is a new and growing understanding of the concept of Diaspora by other peoples, there is also a new exploration of a 21st century form of Jewish Diasporism. So what does that mean? What might it look like in practice? I’d like to conclude with a few suggestions:

– Jews in the Diaspora will always be on the margins. But must reject the notion that marginality must automatically equal vulnerability. Anti-semitism is a reality in our world and will always be so, but we are blessed that there is no longer any government-sponsored oppression against Jewish communities anywhere in the Diaspora. Nonetheless, given our past history in the Diaspora, we must be forever vigilant against the rise of institutional anti-Semitism anywhere in the world.

– There are many minorities throughout the world who are being oppressed by their governments at this very moment, including Palestinians. As a minority with a history of oppression ourselves, it is our obligation to stand in solidarity with them.

– There is a small but enormously courageous community of Israelis who stand in solidarity with Palestinians and seek to empower Diaspora Jewry to stand with them. I met many of them this past summer on a delegation sponsored by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. Together with 40 other Diaspora Jews we joined Israeli activists to participate in solidarity actions led by Palestinians in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills (along with Tzedek Chicago members Scout Bratt and Lesley Williams). There is a significant and coalition movement of Diaspora and Israeli Jews who are putting themselves on the line to stand with Palestinians in their struggle. We would do well become a part of it.

– We must seriously unpack Kantrowitz’s question: “can we choose to be marginal?” It’s not as simple as it might seem to white American Jews. There are Jews of color throughout the world and their numbers are increasing here in this country. However white American Jews might “choose to be marginal,” they will still be racialized as part of the white majority and enjoy the privilege that comes with it. A Jew of color does not have that “choice.”

– If Judaism is a transnational, multi-cultural peoplehood, we must challenge the assumptions we carry from our own particular Jewish culture and heritage. Ashkenzic Jews cannot project their experience onto other Jewish cultures. Moroccan Jewish music is just as “Jewish” as klezmer, even if it might not seem so to Ashkenazic ears. Throughout the Jewish world – including Israel – there is an assumption of Ashkenazic normativity. A kind of “Jewish white supremacy.” We must not succumb to it.

– Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.

So there you have it: my long answer to my original question. I’m excited by the prospect of exploring what it would mean for Tzedek not to be simply a “non-Zionist” community, but to be an active Diasporist community. A community that views the world as our true “homeland” and brings, as Kantrowitz would say, the margins to the center.

I’ll end with her words. I think they might well make a wonderful mission statement for our community:

Diasporism cherishes love across the borders – and let’s face it, every reaching out beyond one’s own body is a border-crossing. If we can stick up for each other across borders and race, we have defeated racism’s most powerful weapon. Thus Diasporism embraces intermarriage, embraces mixed-race, mixed culture babies. Diasporism is anti-assimilation, not anti-change. We want to raise truly bi and multicultural children, knowledgeable and proud and connected. Our vehicle is not the bloodline but culture, history, memory. Diasporists recognize our identity as simultaneously rock, forged under centuries of pressure, and water, infinitely flexible. Diasporism requires those who know and value past and existing tradition and those who create new ones.

This New Year, let’s find new borders to cross together.

Shanah Tovah.