I have never been in the "Israel loop." Despite the fact that I have been a rabbi for twenty-five years, doing what we now call outreach and Jewish continuity work, I have never gone on a mission to Israel or met an Israeli prime minister. I have never gone to Poland before visiting Israel or been taken to Yad Vashem. My Israeli friends have not yet become influential; they tend to be as marginal to their world as I have been to mine, students of Torah and practicing Jews who also support the peace movement yet can't seem to muster enough political muscle to elect even one Knesset member.
I also freely confess to being a Diaspora Jew, at home in North America not because I live more comfortably than I would in Israel, but because I find it exciting to live in a society that is a great social experiment. Israel is the place where national identity is the guiding principle of Jewish identity. It is our contribution to the movement which resolves minority status in host countries through the creation of new and usually smaller independent states. North America is the place where the same issue is dealt with by creating a society based on individual citizenship, one in which all group identities are freely chosen. I believe that both these social experiments are equally exciting, equally meaningful, and equally necessary in the long process toward the redemption to which we all aspire.
Rabbi Akiva said: "Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged favorably, yet all depends on the preponderance of good deeds" (Mishnah Avot 3:19).
Judaism is a dynamic, constantly changing effort to balance different sets of polarities. On the one hand, Jews are just ordinary people and, on the other, we Jews see ourselves as somehow special. On the one hand, we have been chosen by God for a great mission and, on the other, we need to make a living like everyone else. On the one hand, we are a collection of individuals and, on the other, we are a people with a shared destiny.
Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel: "For three years the schools of Hillel and Shammai were divided. These said the law is according to our opinion and these said the law is according to our opinion. A voice emanated and declared:
The words of these and the words of these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the school of Hillel" (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b).
The answer is a paradox. If the words of both sides are equally true, equally the words of the living God, then why should the law be decided in favor of one over the other? And, if the law favors Hillel over Shammai or the other way around, then how can they be equally the words of the living God?
In the best of times, living within this paradox is intellectually exciting and spiritually creative. The possibilities in such conversations are endless and stimulating. However, there are also times when it is not possible to live in the paradox. Decisions need to be made in order to save lives, to escape from dangerous situations, and to transform realities. When the need to decide is a matter of life and death, as it certainly was in late nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury Europe, it is an unaffordable luxury to grant equal legitimacy to two sets of possibilities. The result is a paralysis which in turn allows people to become trapped.
At the risk of oversimplifying, European Jews were forced to radically re-evaluate their situation and the philosophical underpinnings of their lives from the late nineteenth century through the years of the Nazi rise to power. Essentially, there were three schools of thought: the first was to remain where they were, using both old and new skills to at least ride out the storm (as they had done so many times before) by continuing to serve God and/or by working to transform the political systems of the host countries. The second possibility was to move to the West, where the social experiment based on individual identity and rights promised a freedom from the worst aspects of anti-Semitism and the opportunity to escape from poverty. …