From Rabbi Rebecca, on the occasion of Noah Laikin's Bar Mitzvah (14th July 2018):
So Jews disperse to other religions as well as other countries! That is the question Noah asked. (All our B’nei Mitzvah students ask questions). If we like to stick together why are we so dispersed?
The Dalai Llama famously asked American Jews in 1989 what was the secret technique of their survival? The Jewish Diaspora. Why did Jews stay in community when they ‘were in exile’? In a week when we have talked a great deal about the collective, team-spirit, patriotism, sense of togetherness (football) how is it we are dispersed? We have been dispersed for almost 2000 years.
Diaspora means to disperse/scatter from the Hebrew tefuttza. It comes from the Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Deuteronomy. It refers to the original exile/galut under the Babylonians from 586 B.C.E but then finally under the Romans135 C.E when Jews became stateless until 1948. That has been our story of moving always for survival, they/we had to move again and again…a collective community. As [rabbi] Shimon bar Yochai said,
“When one Jew is injured, all Jews feel the pain.”
Jews moved from towns and villages after pogroms and crusades, and then left countries.
1290 UK under Edward 1
1492 Spain and moving the east and some back to the Netherlands
1656 back in UK but was an overstatement to say Cromwell welcomed us.
Jews moved to survive and to make a living…. That is why we dispersed. We/they could not own land in the middle ages and so arrived at urban centres, offering important finance and usury services. They /we moved on and on; becoming indispensable to ruling governments but separate too.
Wherever they went and gathered we Jews used our laws and customs to ensure we stayed as a community together: food laws, marriage laws, prayer, mikveh all this ensured we existed as a separate community but amongst others. Think of Shakespeare’s Shylock in Merchant of Venice from 1605;
“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.”
Maimonides, medieval Spanish physician, rabbi and scholar, famously a doctor for the sultan in Cairo in the 1170s (after fleeing Spain) ministered to patients in the palace all day, probably for 12 hours and returned home to minister to those in the Jewish community in Furstan outside Cairo eating just once his own kosher meal and sleeping for a few hours before returning to the palace and not eating or drinking there for the next 12 hours. He was indispensable to the king valued for his knowledge and skill and yet a religious Jew.
Jews have been ambitious and with a strong survival instinct, where they could, moving to where they were needed. At the end of the 19th century we know many Jews wrote about the failure of the diaspora in terms of safety and happiness - even before the Holocaust…such as Theodore Herzl in The Jewish State (1896):
“We have honestly endeavoured everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so.”
Or Leon Pinsker, another Jewish physician, who had believed that the spread of humanism and enlightenment would put an end to Anti-Semitism, but who experienced a major change of heart and wrote one of the early texts of secular Zionism, Auto-Emancipation (1882) “In seeking to fuse with other peoples [Jews] deliberately renounced to some extent their own nationality. Yet nowhere did they succeed.”
150 years on, through the dark events of the 20th century, even alongside the establishment of the state of Israel many of us prize the flourishing diaspora.
Some think even the term [Nomenclature] is misleading now. Like David Hartman, eminent rabbi in Jerusalem…who shockingly suggested Israel is a focus of love and concern but the diaspora is bigger! The language is wrong. “We need to reclaim a family discourse. Families in fact have multiple centres that interact with each other,” those that live outside of Israel and those that live in Israel are that family diaspora-Jews-are-already-home.
Still Jews actually make up a tiny percentage of the global pop 0.2% in big centres and tiny communities. Even now there are small communities all over the globe. Dispersal is what we do. There is now a rabbi even on the isle of Skye.
In India young Jews work in call centres with perfect English. In Tahiti there are many Jewish doctors or in the pearl business. In France there have been three Jewish prime ministers. In Britain high ranking politicians. Jews have reached all corners. And don’t choose to settle just in Gateshead, New Jersey or London.
In this week’s portion Moses chastises Ruben and Gad for breaking off from rest of the tribes to settle where they chose-separately.
Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here to build a sheepfold…..
We all make choices where to settle.
But in all these places and homes- there are strong supportive Jewish mechanisms offering just that and intimacy for Jews. In our dispersal we have so much to give - so being in different places being full citizens, contributing and sometimes changing the society to which we belong is a responsibility and privilege.
Noah, you arrived here and instantly fell at home, as did Deborah and Mark. Already you have all engaged with so much willingly and warmly… Great Jewish Bake Off was a highlight……and our production of The Disputation is awaited with anticipation.
As you have already mentioned you were a precious baby and still a precious boy and now to be a young man.
Some of you who know your mum may have noticed she is quite discerning in her choices. Choosing a community was her act of love for you and your dad, somewhere where you would flourish, and you have. Maths-loving, fashion-appreciative, computer-literate, deep-thinking and curious you Noah, you have brought so much of yourself today.
If communities are microcosms of the world then don’t stray too far Noah in your choice of dispersal. Whether the villages of the Himalayas or the islands of Scotland, or here in North Finchley, Jews will be there; and you must find your own real home - so your mother doesn’t have to come far to claim you!