Forever Engaged, Never Married, to the Land of Israel

By Assaf Inbari

Homeland as an object of passion and desire.

Years before the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish life prospered in Babylon and Alexandria, and the land of Israel, no longer the Jewish nation’s exclusive land, could not even claim to be its principal one, either. That distinction had already been conceded to cultural and halachic communities in the diaspora. This development can be seen as merely a continuation of the “exile in the land”: The transfer of Jewish scholarship and intellectual life from Jerusalem to Yavneh following the Second Temple’s destruction. Soon, all Jews—those who accepted the authority of the Pharisees, as well as that small minority that crafted a new religion from the teachings of the rabbi from Nazareth—ceased to experience “this world” as a redemptive realm. Instead, they began to attend to the redemption of the soul.
And thus the wife turned back into a lover. The Jews recaptured a feeling of distance from their land, along with the desire that distance invariably brings. And it came to pass in the morning, behold, it was Rachel: Idealized, undemanding, free of all responsibility toward her.
In Babylon, in Sana’a, in Lublin, the Jewish people was a bachelor writing love letters to the woman of its dreams. “Zion, my innocent, Zion, my beloved, for you my soul yearns from afar,” wrote Menahem Mendel Dolitzki.
Jewish life in exile was harsh; in Europe, it was beset with violence. Still, the Jewish people preferred to wander the earth, persecuted and pursued by all, than to settle down in the land of Israel. In this way, the exile was at once both cruel and comfortable, torturous and tempting. How else to explain the fact that, despite countless opportunities during the two-thousand-year exile to return to the land of Israel, all of them were “missed”? True, notable individuals such as Maimonides, R. Judah Halevi, Nahmanides, Rabbi Nahman of Breslav, and R. Alkalai came to the land of Israel during various periods in history. Yet the fact of these individuals’ return to the land only serves to emphasize how possible—indeed, how relatively easy—the return to Zion was, should the Jewish people have sought to do so. Either way, these individuals were the exception. Moreover, even these figures’ journeys resembled brief pilgrimages more than permanent emigrations.
Even those Jews who lived in the land of Israel were not particularly concerned with the ingathering of exiles. The community that developed around R. Luria in Safed in the sixteenth century, for example, busied itself foremost with the Kabbala, choosing mystical matters over practical ones. What’s more, R. Luria’s Kabbalistic interpretation of historical events attributed a spiritual meaning to the exile, thereby excusing it, even helping to prolong it. Kabbala maintained that when the world was created, matter, unable to withstand the force of light, shattered into billions of pieces. Since that time, shards of light have remained hidden or trapped in chunks of matter (shells), and it is the mission of the Jewish people to free them. It is for this reason that the Jewish people was scattered among the nations; the exile, according to this thinking, was not a punishment, but a mission in tikun olam, repairing the world. And, since there were countless shards still in need of liberation, the end of the exile—if it indeed had an end—was not discernible to the Kabbalists.
A century later, the Sabbatean movement, employing R. Luria’s model as a literal action plan for redemption, caused through its failure a severe backlash toward the very idea of Jews playing an active role in ending the exile. This backlash, in turn, was the source of the Hasidic movement, which replaced the figure of the messiah with that of the tzadik, or righteous Jew, and believed that national redemption would be achieved through the performance of gemilut hasadim, good deeds—and not, significantly, through the en masse movement of the Jewish people to the Promised Land. To the hundreds of halachic, midrashic, and mystical reasons the Jews had accrued over the years to excuse their entrenchment in the diaspora, then, the Hasidim had added another nail in the coffin of the notion of the return to Zion. The Jews had come to terms with the exile.
Indeed, it was in the diaspora that the Jews wished to remain eternally, quite content to repair the world from Sadigora, Plonsk, and Kotzk. In fact, if not for the infiltration of secular thought into the Jewish ghettos of Europe, the people of Israel would likely have never left. After all, the Zionist impetus was European, not Jewish. The ingredients of Zionism—higher education, secularization, nationalism, and socialism, not to mention anti-Semitism—were all products of nineteenth-century European culture, and did not spring from the wells of Judaism. The Jews who created the modern Zionist movement did so in the wake of Garibaldi, Bismarck, and the other European visionaries and leaders who established the concept of the modern nation state. Those among them who perceived Zionism as a means toward the creation of a utopian society did so in the wake of European socialism, and not so much as a result of their reading of the prophets or the rabbinic literature.
The nineteenth century, with all its “isms”—romanticism, industrialism (and its result, socialism), progressivism, particularistic nationalism (which replaced universalism as the enlightened ideal), colonialism (which oppressed nations, and thereby expedited their unification)—was, for the Jews, a howling wind of change from which the stifling, bleak culture of exile could provide no shelter.
Ideologically speaking, it must be noted, Zionism was actually two distinct movements. “Rational (or political)” Zionism, identified with Theodor Herzl, sought to solve the “Jewish problem.” Ben-Gurion’s brand of Zionism, by contrast, sought to solve the problem of Judaism. If we concede that the Jews’ real problem was the former—that is, the state of being homeless, helpless, and hunted—then self-determination in the land of Israel is not an identity-change operation, but rather a life-saving surgery, the alternative being the extinction of the Jewish people. If, however, the problem was in fact the latter, then the purpose of Zionism is not only a return to the land of Israel, but to a pre-Jewish, land-based national identity.
Herzl’s colonialist vision, as set forth in Altneuland, described a kind of European utopia almost touching in how utterly removed it was from an awareness of the local realities or symbolic freight of the actual land of Israel. Ben-Gurion’s neo-biblical view, on the other hand, yielded various, nearly Canaanite pronouncements on the Jews’ identity as “Children of the Land,” the most famous (and dubious) of which is the now-legendary opening line of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.”
Were Zionism to have exclusively followed Herzl’s quixotic, Viennese model, the return to Zion would have been nothing more than exile deluxe; the Jewish state, had it been built along the lines of Altneuland, would have been a foreign transplant in the body of the land. Similarly, had the Zionist settlement movement been modeled entirely on Ben-Gurion’s native-roots notion, the return to Zion would not have redeemed Judaism, but rather extinguished it in favor of what the state’s first prime minister conceived of as “Hebrewism.”
Fortunately, despite crowning Herzl the visionary and Ben-Gurion the unquestioned leader, neither of their approaches won out in the end. Most Zionist pioneers realized something both men did not: That it was impossible to settle in the land of Israel without falling deeply in love with it once more, and that the Jews’ love affair with that land would never—indeed, must never—lead to marriage.
The Zionist choice was neither Rachel nor Leah, neither bachelorhood nor marriage, but something in between. It was a relationship defined by the tension between yearning and its fulfillment in matrimony. It was an eternal engagement to the land of Israel, with no wedding date in sight.
No other nation has chosen this kind of relationship to its homeland, or to experience its country in this manner. This is the secret of the Zionist enterprise: A status vis-à-vis the land that speaks to one’s level of commitment and responsibility, while at the same time allows—even insists upon—intense desire. Notably, while this relationship may not have been formulated consciously, and was in all likelihood more the result of hardship and fear than ideological clarity, it was nonetheless one that reflected the biblical approach to the land of Israel.

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