Off the back of the discussion that’s been taking place around the Deconstructing Geula post, I thought I’d write something deconstructing the whole idea of aliya.
This is such a fraught topic, and so many bad middot and other subconscious impulses come into play with this subject, which is why I’ve generally stayed away from it in my writing. But, after that atrocious book was published to great acclaim in the orthodox Jewish world, which was ‘anti aliya’, to the point of degrading it even as a God-given mitzvah, I think it’s time to look at this subject in some depth, and to deconstruct what’s going on with it.
The first, and really primary, place to start is this:
Does God want Jews to live in Eretz Yisrael, at this stage in time?
Because if the answer is ‘yes’, then there has to be an extremely good reason for not moving here, if you consider yourself to be a God-fearing Jew.
So, without any further ado, let’s dive in the deep end, and see if we can answer the two parts of the question:
- Does God want Jews to live in Eretz Yisrael generally; and
- Does God wants Jews to live in Eretz Yisrael now.
THE BIBLICAL MITZVAH TO DWELL IN THE LAND
The following comes from 110b in Ketubot (Artscroll Translation):
“A person can force all the members of his household to go up to Eretz Yisrael to live there, but he can force none of them to leave there.”
The footnote to this clear pronouncement says the following:
[According to Rashi] If a family is living in some country outside of Eretz Yisrael and the father or mother decides that the family should move to Eretz Yisrael, the entire household is coerced [by the Rabbinic Court] to accede to the wishes of the parent and to go and live in Eretz Yisrael….According to some Rishonim, there is a biblical mitzvah to settle Eretz Yisrael…..[o]ther Rishonim maintain that there is no positive commandment to settle Eretz Yisrael.
However, even those authorities agree that it is a worthy cause to live in Eretz Yisrael.
(Which is why they enacted the law that would enable someone to ‘force’ his family to move there, with him. Or her.)
By the way, the mitzvah of settling the land doesn’t depend on ‘the land’ being an easy place to live.
When Moshe’s 12 spies go to take a look at Israel, 10 of them can only see the negative points of the country.
It’s hard there, there’s giants. The land devours its inhabitants. The people are really rough and rude. It’s full of wife-beating Arabs and awful daycare centers. The bureaucracy’s a nightmare, it’s too hot, I can’t get a decent job and my wife will miss her parents too much….
What does Caleb, the spy who figured out that you make it in Israel by doing a lot of hitbodedut and praying at the tombs of holy people tell them, in reply?
We can do it, if God is with us, we’ll eat the Caananites for lunch! There’s no problem that God can’t solve! Israel is where we’re really going to discover if we have emuna, or not, where we’re really going to grow into believing that Ein Od Milvado, there is only Hashem!
Come on, guys, the last 40 years you’ve been giving all these Torah sermons about ‘what God requires from us’, and ‘living our emuna’, and having faith – now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, and to really live it! So what, you’ll lose your social status?! So what, you don’t speak the language properly and no-one appreciates your PhD?! So what, you can’t even figure out how to ask for a stamp in the post office?!
All that stuff is humbling, and we know a humble person is much closer to God. God can’t dwell with an arrogant person, we know that! This is your chance to really get humble, and then to get real and stop thinking you’re such a big tzaddik and success, and then to get closer to God. Whaddya say?
We know what the spies said: Thanks, but no thanks.
They had prestigious, well-paying positions outside of Israel. They had respect. They had ‘their’ seat in shul, they had their established set of friends, they knew where to get the best chicken. They had nothing against visiting Israel every year for Pesach – still cheaper and nicer than having to clean their own home and cook everything themselves – but that’s as far as it goes.
Was God happy about this?
The spies got punished awfully for slandering the land, and putting their fellow Jews off from moving to Israel.
But, your kid is going to struggle in school! Your husband is going to miss out on his amazing Rav, his amazing chavruta! You have a nice bunch of friends here, in the desert! But, you don’t speak the language, you can’t get a good job there, you won’t be able to afford your own home if you move to Israel, the place is full of wife-beating, idol-worshipping Canaanites, the divorce rate there is 80%….
Everybody has the same fears, the same concerns. People can’t live on thin air, it’s true. But again, God often expects some mesirut nefesh, some self-sacrifice from people, in order to keep His mitzvahs.
If someone is interested in working on their soul dimension, then Israel will be appealing to them for a lot of reasons (and if they aren’t, it won’t be, also for a lot of reasons.)
Let’s explore that idea a bit more, tachlis.
ISRAEL IS THE LAND OF EMUNA
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that Israel is the place where you’re going to learn some real emuna. How? Because you’ll be surrounded by miracles and challenges every second of the day.
In Chutz L’Aretz, a person can sin and sin and sin again, and because spiritual matters are more hidden there, they don’t feel the effect of their sins until the end of their lives – usually when it’s way too late to change course and fix things.
There in the hospital, with a tube up their nose and a drip in their arm, they finally start to realize how much of their life they wasted, chasing after stuff, and holidays, and traif food, and non-kosher experiences, and money, and status, and their own bad middot, because God was out of the picture.
God can hide much easier in chul. You don’t keep Shabbat, you don’t keep kosher, you don’t pay your 10% to charity, you don’t pay any attention to what God really wants from you – you’ll just keep swallowing your Prozac, drinking your G&T and going on holiday, or shopping, or working like a dog to drown out any inner discomfort you feel as a result.
And God lets you.
That’s why being in galut is such an ordeal, spiritually such a test. Because it really can seem as though you can game the system, and live a good life even if you’re a bitter atheist with terrible character traits.
But in Israel, it’s not like that.
It says that you walk dalet amot, four amot, in Israel, and that atones for your sins. Do you know why? Because every dalet amot here, you’ll be faced with another rude person, another problem, another challenge, another issue, that has been 100% tailored by God to bring your bad middot to the fore, and to show you what you still have left to work on.
Really? You’re not so bothered about gashmius? Let’s see how you’re going to cope when every brand of kosher-for-Pesach mayonnaise in the country has kitniot in it. Let’s see how much you start craving all the brands in TX Maxx, let’s see how you cope with just one toilet between seven people, and no cleaning help.
And there’s more tests, too. Like, trying to find a school for your kid; and trying to deal with the wounded ego of your spouse, who used to be a ‘bigshot’ in shul, or at work, but is now scrabbling to hold it together as a relative ‘nothing’ in Israel; or dealing with the tremendous loneliness and boredom of being an Anglo in Israel on Shabbos, which used to be filled up with six hour long Shabbos lunches, and ‘kiddush clubs’ at shul (that went on to 1pm…) and yet more shiurim on how to keep super-machmir standards of kashrut. Etc.
And we didn’t even get into the tests involved with having rockets fired at you on a regular basis, or people trying to stab you just for being a Jew, or getting shot or run over as you wait for a bus.
All these things, all these difficulties, build a person’s emuna like nothing else.
Because if you don’t turn to God to deal with the difficulties in finding work, or finding a place to live, or the million and one other things that force you to get real in Israel very quickly, you can quickly sink without a trace.
That’s why Israel is the land of emuna – dafka, because it shows a person what they need to work on, and how far away they are from really having emuna, and really serving Hashem properly, 24/7.
So when people point to the hardships of living in Israel as a reason to not make aliya, they are kind of missing the point – if they’re really interested in the more spiritual dimension of life.
Which honestly, a lot of people really just aren’t. Even in the ‘orthodox’ world.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the halachic arguments underpinning the ‘anti’ aliya argument.
TORAH-BASED ARGUMENTS FOR NOT MAKING ALIYA
This approach was basically set out by the late Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, z’tl, in his book V’Yoel Moshe.
Rav Teitelbaum wrote his book after going through the holocaust. He saw half a million of his Hungarian compatriots sold out by the Zionist government in Israel, who were offered the chance to buy the freedom and lives of the Hungarian Jews by the cash-strapped Nazis – and who turned it down.
The whole sordid tale is told in Ben Hecht’s excellent book, Perfidy, but the Satmar Rebbe was one of the brands snatched from the conflagration in Hungary, and he had personal experience of this most ugly face of secular ‘zionism’. The awful actions of the secular politicians in Israel before, during and after WW II almost certainly influenced the opinions he put forth in his book.
Remember, the Israeli authorities in the 1950s were irradiating the kids of Moroccan immigrants in the tent camps, and cutting off people’s payot, and selling Yemenite children to the highest bidder. They were yucky, ugly people in every sense of the word.
Many of our other leading orthodox leaders, within Israel and without, also recognized who they were really dealing with, and that the secular leadership in Israel was spiritually corrupt, and corrupting to a very high degree.
The Satmar Rebbe took this idea to an extreme in his book, where he puts forward the idea that the anti-Torah Zionists in Israel caused the holocaust to happen, at least indirectly, by their actions, and by ‘forcing the time’ for returning to the land. (We’ll look at what this ‘forcing the time’ is referring to, in a moment.)
First, there’s a partial translation of some of the Satmar Rebbe’s words in V’Yoel Moshe, HERE, which the following ideas are taken from. The Satmar Rebbe avers that:
- The anti-Torah Zionist groups in Israel caused the holocaust by ‘informing’ on the Jews in Europe to the non-Jewish authorities, and making trouble for the Jews there, in order to turn up the heat and get these Jews to move to the fledgling State of Israel.
- That these anti-Torah Zionist groups “violated the oath of hastening the end by claiming sovereignty and freedom before the time.”
- That the secular Zionist groups performed several “cruel actions” before, during and after the war which also lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews.
“Furthermore, among those who have moved to Eretz Yisrael in these times, most of the immigrants from Arab countries were living peacefully and tranquilly in their countries, lacking nothing, until the establishment of the heretical kingdom in Israel. Through the establishment of that State they began to suffer hatred and persecution in their countries, and the Zionists themselves aided this through their wiles, so as to increase the persecution until they would be forced to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, destitute and with nothing, and they glorified their saviors, but the truth was the opposite – that [the Zionists] had brought about all of the destruction in the first place. (Va-Yo’el Moshe 123)”
THE THREE OATHS ‘PREVENTING’ ALIYA
The idea of the three oaths that prevent Jews from returning to Israel before God actually wills it comes from the Gemara (Ketubot 111a), where it brings a discussion between R’ Zeira, who wanted to make aliya to Israel from Bablyonia, and Rav Yehuda who said:
Whoever ascends from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael transgresses a positive commandment, as it says: “They will be brought to Babylonia and they will be there until the day that I attend to them – when I shall bring them up and return them to this place.
Rav Zeira said that this verse is referring to the sacred utensils that were used in the Temple service, but that people are permitted to make aliya, still. Rav Yehuda disagrees, and says that the verse I have adjured you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by gazelles or by hinds of the field etc means that the Jews are bound by an oath not to ascend to Eretz Yisrael until the Final Redemption.
Rav Zeira says that’s not what this verse means. Rather, he says it means that:
The Jewish people should not converge upon Eretz Yisrael in a wall of force, but that an individual is permitted to settle there, if he wants to.
Rav Yehuda again disagrees, so then R’ Zeira explains there are three oaths, as follows:
- The Jewish people should not converge upon Israel as a wall of force;
- Hashem adjured the Jewish people to not rebel against the nations of the world [to try and force their way back to living in Israel before the time God wanted that to happen]; and
- Hashem also adjured the idolaters (i.e. the non-Jewish nations) not to subjugate and terrorise the Jews more than was required.
R’ Zeira explains that any case, an individual is never adjured to not make aliya to Eretz Yisrael.
This discussion in the Gemara is ‘sandwiched’ between the following statements:
BEFORE: Whoever dwells outside Eretz Yisrael, it’s as if he worships idols.
AFTER: The people dwelling within Eretz Yisrael are forgiven of sin.
This discussion is the halachic basis for the Satmar position, together with some other groups, for why it’s not a mitzvah to make aliya.
But you’ll notice, even in this discussion, it’s clear that the main ‘problem’ being discussed is for groups of Jews to ‘ascend’ all at once. There is no problem for individuals to make aliya, and as is clear from the surrounding text and discussion in the Gemara, the Sages considered it a very praiseworthy thing, to move to Israel.
ARE WE AT ‘THE END’ OR NOT?
The main argument revolves around a discussion of whether we are at the ‘the end’ of the galut, as determined by God, or not. If we’re at ‘the end’, then there is no problem at all with making Aliyah en masse.
If we aren’t at ‘the end’, then it’s good for individuals to make aliya, but still problematic for large groups to come on aliya.
Here’s a few suggested reasons for why the 3 oaths have been superseded:
- The nations of the world actually gave permission for the State of Israel to be created, back in 1948.
- The Gemara in Sanhedrin (98a) says that “when Eretz Yisrael gives forth fruit abundantly, it is a sure sign that the redemption is coming”. This was already happening in the early 1900s, in the time of Rav Avraham Kook.
- Only very large groups coming in a short period of time violate the ‘oath’, it doesn’t apply to a slow trickle of Jews moving here.
- The Ari’s student, R’ Chaim Vital, said that the oath only applied for 1,000 years.
- The Vilna Gaon states that the oath applied to rebuilding the Temple, not to resettling the land.
And then, there’s all the evidence we see with our own eyes today, and things that we feel with our own hearts, that tells us whether we are at ‘the end’ or not.
DON’T CONFUSE ‘THE STATE OF ISRAEL’ WITH ERETZ YISRAEL
Another important point to make here is that the State of Israel should not confused, or conflated, with Eretz Yisrael.
When we talk about moving to Israel, we’re not talking about the State. We’re talking about moving to the land that God gave to the Jews more than 3,000 years ago.
Sooner or later, the secular ‘State’ will fall away – as Rav Kook describes it, as the ‘peel’ around the fruit’.
SUMMING UP WHAT’S GOING ON WITH ALIYA, AND RELIGIOUS JEWS IN CHUL
This is a long post, I know (but still probably not doing real justice to the subject….) But let’s try to sum it up, and bring all this information together into something practical and easy-to-digest.
- If you are a God-fearing Jew, and keeping mitzvahs is important to you, then moving to Israel is a big mitzvah for an individual.
Not one of the Rishonim or Achronim commentators disagrees with this statement.
- If you want to come to Israel as part of a very large group of people moving here ‘all at once’, there is a Torah view that this is prohibited, as long as we haven’t yet reached ‘The End’.
- If we’ve reached ‘The End’, the three oaths don’t apply anymore anyway.
- There’s lots of things that suggest we are now in the stage of ‘the end of days’ – not least, all the pronouncements by the nations’ leading rabbis that we’ve reached ‘the End’.
That’s a basic sum-up of the halachah.
Now, I just want to spend a little bit of time, finally, to explore why more orthodox Jews aren’t moving to Israel.
There are three main reasons why more orthodox Jews aren’t coming to Israel:
- They are scared to come out of the comfort zone.
- They really do want to come, but God isn’t let them.
- They actually don’t care so much about keeping mitzvahs, getting closer to God, or working on their emuna.
I won’t belabor this segment, as this is where things can get very sticky. Each person knows what’s really in their heart.
There are people who really do want to come, but are stuck outside for a whole bunch of reasons that really are out of their control. For these people, they are learning emuna and humility by being kept away from Israel.
Then, there are others who really don’t want to come at all, and are just looking for excuses to justify their own spiritual shortcomings – at Israel’s expense.
Then, there’s the third group, who would like to come in theory, and know that it’s good to be here, but are too scared that they won’t have the lifestyle, the money, the connections, the big house, or the career they currently have now, if they leave.
But if we truly have reached ‘The End’, then God will find a way to coax everyone who really can, to make aliya, and He will open the gates to the Holy land, one way or another.