A Jewish Imperative to live in the Diaspora?


Living in caravans in a small settlement town during my years learning in Israel, my dream was always to settle the land. As a religious Zionist, I feel that living in Israel is a tremendous and miraculous opportunity, and all Jews can and must consider making this life transition as we are all very familiar with the halakhic obligation of yishuv ha’aretz, the religious obligation to settle the Land of Israel. I would like to suggest, however, that in addition to this well-known imperative, there is also a crucial duty to reside in the Diaspora.

The Rambam, following the Babylonian Talmud, allows for limited exceptions to the mitzvah to reside in the Land, including studying or teaching Torah, searching for a marriage partner, living in safety, or in the case of economic hardship. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, suggests that there is no prohibition against leaving Israel at all, even if one is already living there.

In fact, some of the great 20th century authorities have argued that one is not obligated to reside in Israel today: Rav Yehudah Amitalu, the late Rosh Yeshiva and Israeli leader, once said, “In America there are many great Torah scholars, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe and others. Is it possible that not one of them knows the halakhah?”

While Israel remains the destiny of the Jewish people, we also must not abandon the Diaspora. Firstly, the Torah demands that we, as a nation, commit to pursuing justice; to be warriors against injustice, it behooves us to be stationed everywhere around the globe. This work as an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, is our raison d’être.

It is in the Diaspora where we can fulfill the Torah’s charge to combat global poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found. While Israel has been known to do inspiring humanitarian work, a nation-state’s primary concern must be the welfare and security of its own citizens. We must be concerned with Israel’s security as well but our responsibility is also broader. I’ve met thousands of other young Jewish leaders who have intertwined their religious Zionist identities with identities as global citizens.

Second, though Jewish thought can and should remain distinct from that of other cultures, and obviously, other religions, the Jewish intellectual tradition has always benefitted, and continues to benefit, from development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies. Taking a cue from Muslim scholars like Al Farabi and Avicenna, Rambam integrated Jewish thought and Greek philosophy without the need to sacrifice our halakhah or our identity. Today in America, as in the “Golden Age” of medieval Spain and the Talmudic academies of Babylonia, there is a great concentration of stellar Jewish academic programs and yeshivot.

Rabbi Nehorai goes so far as to suggest, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah – and do not assume it will come after you – for it is your colleagues that will cause it to remain with you” (Pirkei Avot 4:18). This should raise Diaspora self esteem as one must reside where they can develop their best intellectual and spiritual achievements.

Diaspora Jews are not watching the game from the Israel sidelines. Some of the most significant Jewish contributions have and will continue to be made in the Diaspora, where Jews can play a leading role in fighting injustice, alleviating poverty, advocating for Israel and Jewish interests, and learning from people of other faiths. While the modern State of Israel is one of the greatest blessings the Jews have received – and it cannot be neglected – we must also be sure to actualize all of the values of our Jewish tradition.

Aliyah to Israel is on the rise. 17,880 immigrants arrived in Israel in 5770 as compared to 15,180 in 5769 – an increase of 18%. There is no need for the demographic prophecies of gloom that if we don’t make immediate aliyah, Israel will fumble and that the Diaspora provides no hope for the Jewish future. Neither argument paints an accurate picture nor do they demonstrate the faith to survive that has driven Jews for millennia.

Many have argued for Shelilat ha’golah, the idea that one cannot sustain a Jewish life outside of Israel. One should be cautious of those who suggest that one can only live fully as a Jew in Israel. While there are particularistic mitzvot that can only be performed in Israel, there are also universalistic mitzvot that can only properly be achieved with the cooperation of Jews in the Diaspora. Ultimately, after considering the needs of one’s own family, one should not feel shame for choosing to reside in London, Kiev, or Chicago, but rather should proudly accept the responsibilities of supporting Israel while serving as a global ambassador for the Jewish people.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology.