Book Review: Diaspora

Diaspora:  Exile And The Contemporary Jewish Condition, edited by Etan Levine

As is the case often with books I read, I feel simultaneously too close and at some remove from this book and its subject matter.  Although I come from a family that has at least partially Jewish origins, my own involvement in matters of Jewish life and culture has been idiosyncratic and often at arms’ length [1].  Yet despite the distance from the heat of the squabble between Jews settled in Israel and those who remain a part of the diaspora in Europe or especially the United States, reading this book was a painfully personal experience for me even so.  Above all, what struck me the most about this intramural debate between different sides of the squabble over the identity of world Jewry or the the place of aliyah (return) and golah (exile) within the Jewish experience was the way in which people sought both to appeal to others as well as to justify their own actions.  This is not a book consisting of people who are looking for truth, but rather a book full of essays in some tension and contradiction with other perspectives seeking for self-justification in the face of demands that the various people involved realize exceed their abilities, and where the world failed to live up to our expectations as well.  This is a book of neurotic conflicts, and so I suppose it is to be expected that someone as neurotic as I am would be able to relate so strongly to it.

The contents of this book are extremely varied and extremely fierce.  This book is an intramural debate, and so it reads with the ferocity of polemic (like the polemic of the Gospels or the biblical prophets, it must be candidly admitted).  This is the sort of book that can only be appreciated as being written by insiders who find themselves involved in a quarrel with those they consider kin but with whom they must disagree all the more passionately because so much is at stake concerning desires for autonomy and self-identification.  We hurt the ones closest to us most of all, and this book is full of hurts and obsessive rumination on them.  The 30 essays of this book take up more than 360 pages and are divided into nine parts.  The first part of this book looks at the origins of exile with exile being examined as a neurotic solution, as mysticism and reality, as an escape from a demanding land of bare subsistence (“milk and honey”), and in the context of Hasidic thought.  The second part looks at the psychology of exile in Jewish exile and redemption, the phenomenology of exile, and existential reflections on exile.  The third part of the book looks at exile in Jewish theology as a meta-myth, within the scope of modern Jewish theology, and Jewish spirituality in the diaspora.  Part four of the book looks at living a diaspora life as a middleman, as being both living and dead simultaneously, at the problem of Jewish self-definition and exile, at the lessons of emancipation, and at the issue of Jews in the Soviet Union.  The fifth part of the book looks at the American Jewish experience as a situation of strangers in paradise, at the non-community of American Jewry, at the modern literature of aparthood, and at being and remaining in America.  The sixth part of the book looks at Israel and Judaism in the relationship of church and state, the next step of Zionism, and the Jewish condition after exile.  The seventh part of the book looks at unease in the promised land through the exile from Israel after return, the new diaspora from Israel, and the legacy of exile in Zionism.  The eighth part of the book looks at the Israel-Diaspora brotherhood and includes an essay from Golda Meir on what Israel wants from the diaspora, a new outlook for Israel and the diaspora, and a all from Yitzhak Rabin to strengthen the ties between American Jews and Israel.  The ninth and final part of the book contains two final essays on Israel and the Jewish future looking at identity and alienation and confronting the aliyah option, remembering that returning is an option.  Admittedly, this is a book mainly for those interested in Jewish matters or who happen to identify as Jewish in some fashion, but it is no less fascinating for that in its complexity and its conflicted nature.

Yet despite or maybe because of the immense complexity of this vastly quotable book [2], I found this volume to be immensely insightful not only about the plight of contemporary Jewry, but also about my own immensely complicated and neurotic life.  Why is exile so important to the Jewish people?  What is it that makes someone neurotic about the issue of a homeland?  I will venture my own thoughts in this matter.  The importance of exile for the Jewish people is that they retain a memory of a promise of a homeland while beginning nationhood outside of that homeland, and having received that homeland with a set of conditions and expectations.  Not wishing to devote themselves to obedience to God, there is therefore a highly neurotic approach to home, because to return to one’s homeland often involves sacrifice, and also the knowledge that the home will not be secure without the help and assistance of God, which comes with the terms of obedience to His laws.  Likewise, a great deal of neurotic conflict comes from the tension between having people expect more of us than we can deliver as a cost of being chosen, and expecting more from the world than it is able to give us because of its own fallen and imperfect state.  We wish to justify ourselves and are too proud to repent, and so books like this are written to let people speak their mind even if few people are listening to what the others have to say.  Even so, it makes for a fascinating document of a momentous debate.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

“Suppose, for example, that we had an unmarried friend who hated and suffered from his unmarried status, proclaimed that he believed in family life, and avidly sought it; this man wanted children as a continuance of himself. Suppose that despite this he spoiled–almost intentionally–all possibilities of marriage, that everytime we arranged a union between him and any woman, he did everything to get out of it, not because he did not like the woman or was incapable of love, but out of fear of marriage, in which he so fervently believed. Would it not be our duty to this friend to try and find out, by therapeutic or other means, the underlying motives for his profound neurotic conflict? The Jewish people are in need of just such therapy; and the first step in any course of treatment is diagnosis–in this case insight.” – p. 22

“Yearning of the heart, stirrings of the spirit, profound love–these are beautiful and helpful provided they lead to action that is steeled and to duty that is stern.” – p. 243

“Love is not blind to faults nor does it excuse them; they are simply irrelevant. We do not love because it is deserved, as if we were paying out something earned. Love knows no reason because it sets no conditions and makes no demands.

This is not to say that norms and standards are abandoned. To love does not require losing the power to discriminate between right and wrong nor does it require abandoning the commitment to what is right. It requires only giving up weighing the other in the balance, whether or not he is found wanting. Neither teaching nor learning is a matter of good grades…” p. 349

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Bible, Biblical History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Middle East and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Diaspora

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Murderers Among Us | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Desert And Shepherd In Our Biblical Heritage | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Israel: I Looked Over Jordan | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Story Of Yiddish | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Book Review: America’s Prophet | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s