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The Diaspora Party

By Saul Goldman

The Jewish nation, like other democracies, began as a revolution. Ostensibly about the economic and physical exploitation of people, the revolutionary idea was monotheism. But, like so many revolutions, the freedom movement encountered a more conservative or counter-revolutionary movement. The debates and the battles (molten calf, Korah, spy debate) between them shaped the theory of governance that is spelled out in Biblical political philosophy. The core of this ideology is that of a covenant (social contract) between a free nation and God who defines Himself as the substance of liberty. Throughout the Exodus narrative there is a dialectic between the demand for freedom and a willingness to make accomodation to the conditions imposed upon the Israelites. Moses leads the freedom party or the Zionist faction. But, it is clear that there is an active constituency that is ambivalent about the risks and burdens of freedom. Nevertheless, the proponents of this Diaspora party joined in the freedom march. They were after all merely an intellectual or political faction within a people that chose freedom. The Diaspora party was not totalitarian. On the contrary the narrative reveals that they were quite disputatious. The Diaspora party while giving give lip serve to liberty and homeland, argued forcefully for remaining in the Diaspora. They embraced a duality which was to characterize the Jewish condition. They became hyphenated Jews.

In Hebrew law slavery was a moral tragedy. The first commandment begins not with an imperative but with an explanation: “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt”. The commandment is not merely the prohibition against worshipping other gods; it is about apprehending the essence of the one God. Worship actually comes later when Moses grasps the needs of the people. In the political compromise between the Diaspora party and the Zion party, worship actually represents the work of the former. It is reminiscent of Egyptian life and it recognizes man’s need for dependency; a psychological reality which remains the counterpoint to the imperative of freedom. Man has an instinct for bondage and will constantly impose his need for dependency upon any political leader whose narcissism signals a need to be worshipped.

The Hebrew rebellion was not a revolt against the Egyptian tyrant. The rebellion constituted a transformation of the Hebrew national consciousness. It was the kind of revolution that Crane Brinton would have categorized as a "nationalist-ideological" revolt. But, it also acknowledged the territorial imperative. The Hebrew republic would no longer be a polity in exile. Hence, the idea of geulah took on the additional meaning of homecoming. For the Jew, redemption was the restoration of sovereignty by the people and over the Land of Israel.

Like the American Revolution the Hebrew rebellion was not a unanimous decision. There were those who remained loyalists and fought alongside the British against their colonial neighbors. Likewise, there were Jews who remained loyal to Egypt and resisted Moses and his ideas about freedom. We realize that many of the incidents in the Exodus narrative reflect the influential presence of the Diaspora party; a political faction led by Dothan and Abiram, Korah, Nadav, Abihu and at one time Aaron. Like all political factions they alternately were in and out of power.

Their story begins in Goshen when Moses returned from Midian with a plan. It appears that Goshen was more than an Egyptian suburb; it was an autonomous Hebrew province. There are sources which describe the contribution Goshen made to Egyptian military campaigns. The autonomy and strength of the population was a concern to Pharaoh. The imposition of hard labor in order to weaken the people physically and morally reduced their potential threat to Egypt. Pharaoh's main concern was that if the Hebrews were not effectively subdued, they might ally themselves with other nations that threatened Egypt. Some might claim that these other elements (perhaps the Hyksos) aided the Hebrews in their rebellion. For example, where did the Israelites obtain their weapons? How did they receive military training? Did some other nation join with Israelite forces at the Red Sea in an ambush that routed the Egyptian army?

Eventually, Moses leaves Midian and approaches the tribal elders in Goshen. During the next period he will confront not only Pharaoh but his own people as well. Understanding that slavery was as much a mental condition as a political and economic status, Moses moves on two planes. He tries to convince his own people that in order to worship their God they must be free. At the same time he works to force Pharaoh’s hand. Moses reappears in Egypt after a long stay in Midian. Upon his return he becomes a skillful politician who manipulated both the Hebrews as well as Pharaoh. We see him as a powerful agent standing before Pharaoh. Yet, he had to make sure that Pharaoh did not accede to the early demand of merely allowing the Hebrews to worship their God. Freedom of worship was only a part of the plan. Certainly the Diaspora party leaders would accept such a compromise. Operation ten plagues which culminated in an attack on the first born was the solution. Now Pharaoh would drive out the Hebrews. They no longer had any alternative. The Hebrews must abandon their homes and set out for the old-new Land.

Forging a new identity in a wasteland challenged both the people and their leaders. The Hebrews debated ideas about their identity and destiny. The debate was between the Zion party and the opposition party that preferred life in Egypt to the rigors of freedom. They affirmed the economic benefits of assimilation. Their slogan echoed throughout the arduous journey to the Promised Land. Each time the going got rough, Moses heard their political sound-byte: “at least we had meat to eat in Egypt.” Indeed, this Diaspora party remained an active constituency within the Jewish nation. They consistently argued in favor of self-defeating proposals and alliances with nations that sought to subjugate Israel. They rejected Cyrus’ edict and Nehemiah’s call to the Jews in Babylon to go home. Jeremiah (29:5-7) encouraged Jews to plant gardens, build homes in Babylon and pray for the welfare of the city because its welfare will benefit the Jews.

Isaiah developed an idea of Israel as God’s servant as opposed to covenant partner. Why would Isaiah use the term “eved” (slave)? Servants are passive and dependent, partners are proactive and responsible. In the aftermath of the destruction of the First Commonwealth, Judean leaders and thinkers were once again confronted by the challenge of building a national life outside the land. Enjoying the benefits of Babylonian culture and wealth, the majority of Jews remained in Babylon. But they created a new loyalty; one that transcended mere territorial boundaries. They now argued that their God was universal and so they could maintain a special relationship to God even in Babylonia. Politics is, of course, all about compromise. So, in order to form a coalition with the members of the Zion party, the Babylonian-Judeans projected an eventual redemption safely relegated to a time when a greater than life Messiah would arrive. How would we recognize this brave new world? The leopard would lie down with the lamb.

The fact that only a small portion of the people actually returned to Judah shows us that the Diaspora party had indeed succeeded. It was their ideology that encouraged the synagogue and prayer. Yohanan Ben Zakkai described prayer as the portable Sanctuary that Jews could carry with them into Exile. This avodah she balev or the service of the heart internalized their relationship to God. Of course, prayer is spiritually more elevated than the bloody ritual of animal sacrifice. But, in choosing the synagogue and prayer, the Diaspora party developed the idea that one can substitute words for deeds; that thought is equal to action. This, of course, is contrary to Israel’s constitution or Torah, which is a deed or mitzvah based theory of governance. Like any political party there is an ideological spectrum. As time went on, the process of ritualization became more extensive. The synagogue, then became, the hub of the Diaspora party because it embodies the transformation of Judaism from a civilization into a religion. From now on Jews could comfortably live in someone else’s country because their identity was theological rather than national.

The Diaspora party did not fully succeed in eradicating our Zionist or nationalist aspirations. The prayer book itself based its liturgy around the agricultural feasts of the Land. The liturgy called upon God to return the exiles to Zion. And the body language of prayer (facing Jerusalem) signalled, at least in a small gesture, our national consciousness. The consciousness of nationhood was also expressed in the groom’s recitation of “if I forget thee O Jerusalem” when he broke the glass under the wedding canopy. And certainly, the Passover Seder is the dramatic story of homecoming. But, as rituals became more obtuse in origin and intent, their meanings were changed. Over the centuries our exile became our dispersion and according to various philosophers our dispersion was a good thing. We wandered the world, according to Rabbi Eliezer, so that we might "proselytize" and transform the world (Pesahim 87b). But, we didn’t.

The Diaspora party was the inspiration for the reformist movement in 19th century Germany and coined the slogan: “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion”. The Diaspora party consistently chose the false gods of the communist manifesto or the French Enlightenment and accepted their terms of emancipation. Like the followers of Korah, the leaders of the Diaspora party and their constituents were swallowed up by the fires of Christianity, Nazism, Stalinism and now Osloidism. This syndrome is identified by a system of rationalizations through which Israelis continued to engage in the self destructive process of Oslo, the Road Map and the Two State Solution. But, these episodes of delusional thinking that are always induced by stress have an ancient origin. When Israel first left the security of Egypt for the rigors of the desert, they suffered. The refrain of the anxiety ridden Israelites was “build us a god that we can serve”. Aaron, of course complied with the “molten calf” an image that reminded them of Egypt. Continually they rebelled against the immense burden of their freedom and sought to return to Egypt; then literally, now metaphorically.

Reflecting upon the history of the Diaspora party we see that during different times and under different names they have consistently made the same mistakes trusting others rather than ourselves and placing their faith in anything but God. So they argued against Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and they like Martin Buber or Judah Magnes argued against statehood in the early and mid 1940s.

The impact of the Diaspora party affected the morale of the Israelite army and may answer the question why did a journey of several months take fourty years? One illustration of their effect upon the military was recorded by the author of Numbers. Moses had ordered Joshua and Caleb to form an elite unit capable of conducting long range reconnaissance operations in Canaan. Upon their return there is a public debate. Most of the soldiers in the unit simply presented the facts that the Canaanites were superior in military training and power. Only Joshua and Caleb are convinced that the Hebrews could defeat the Canaanites. Their debate is not simply a matter of objective variables. It resonates with a political shrill.The facts and their interpretation that were reported affected the motivation and morale of the Hebrew forces. Indeed, as a result of the debate the Hebrew forces attempted a Dunkirk- like assault but they were destroyed along the passes into the land. Moses then decides that the nation is not ready and returns them to the desert for another 37 years.


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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