Diaspora as a Strategy for Jewish Survival
Israel’s exile among the nations is described in the Babylonian Talmud by Rabbi Oshaya as an act of divine beneficence:
בבלי פסחים פז: צדקה עשה הקב״ה בישראל שפזרן לבין האומות.
b. Pesaḥim 87b The Holy One, Blessed be He, performed a charitable deed toward Israel in that He scattered them among the nations.
Rashi (Shlomo Yiẓḥaqi 1040-1105, ad loc.) explains that the dispersal of the Jews helps to ensure that they cannot be destroyed at any one place at one time (שלא היו יכולין לכלותם יחד). Biblical commentators have traced the idea of dispersal as a survival strategy back to Jacob.
Jacob’s Division of the Camp
On the eve of his rendezvous with Esau, Jacob split his camp into two, with the following rationale:
בראשית לב:ט ...אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה.
Gen 32:9 ...If Esau comes to the one camp and smites it, then the camp which is left shall escape.
After dividing the camp to ensure that part will survive, Jacob prays:
בראשית לב:יב הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל בָּנִים.
Gen 32:12 Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mother and children alike.
Jacob’s strategy and prayer have been invoked in perilous times during Jewish history, from expulsions to pogroms to the Holocaust. Moreover, through the ages, Jews have viewed their persecutors as “Esau.” In the 2nd and 3rd century CE, the Rabbis conceived of the Romans who had destroyed the Second Temple as descendants of Esau:
בבלי גיטין נז: והידים ידי עשו, זו מלכות הרשעה שהחריבה את בתינו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו.
b. Gittin 57b “And the hands are Esau’s hand” (Genesis 27:22): this refers to the evil empire that destroyed our temple, and burnt down our sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.
Medieval persecutors, at that time in Europe, Christians, were also linked to Esau. For instance, Rashbam (Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158), commenting on Esau appearing “like a hairy cloak” (כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר, Gen 25:25), makes an indirect reference to Christians:
כאדרת שער - שלובשים התועים.
“Like a hairy cloak” – that is worn by pilgrims.
The word התועים, literally, “the ones who strayed,” is a veiled jab at Christian pilgrims, who have the appearance of Esau by virtue of their cloaks.
Jacob and Esau Presage Jewish Survival and Hope
Naḥmanides (Moshe ben Naḥman, 1194-1270), the medieval Sephardi commentator , elaborates on Jacob and Esau’s encounter (Gen 32:4, ad loc.), suggesting that it applies to later generations:
ויש בה עוד רמז לדורות כי כל אשר אירע לאבינו עם עשו אחיו יארע לנו תמיד עם בני עשו.
This alludes also to future generations: All that happened to our ancestor Jacob with Esau his brother will always happen to us with Esau’s descendants.
He then counsels Jews to take instruction from Jacob’s strategy in facing adversaries, and to either offer prayer to God and gifts to their enemies, or to run away:
נזמין את עצמנו לשלשת מהדברים שהזמין הוא את עצמו, לתפילה ולדורון ולמלחמה, לברוח ולהנצל.
Let us avail ourselves of the three measures Jacob took: prayer, gift, and salvation by way of war, that is, to escape and save oneself.
Unlike Jacob, who prepared himself for war, Naḥmanides’ only option in the aftermath of the famous Barcelona Disputation (1263), where he fended off Christian claims that Scriptures and Midrash showed Christ to be the Messiah, was to leave Spain, to “escape and save himself” (לברוח ולהנצל).
However, Naḥmanides does not depict all of Esau’s descendants as the enemy. At times, he noted, some provide a refuge for the Jewish Diaspora:
שלא יגזרו עלינו בני עשו למחות את שמנו אבל יעשו רעות עם קצתנו בקצת הארצות שלהם מלך אחד מהם גוזר בארצו על ממוננו או על גופנו ומלך אחר מרחם במקומו ומציל הפלטים.
The descendants of Esau will not decree to completely erase our name but persecute us in a few countries; one king will rob us of our money or expel us, and another will show mercy and save the refugees in his country.
He closes his comment by quoting the Midrash in Genesis Rabbah (76:3):
אם יבא עשו אל המחנה האחת והכהו אלו אחינו שבדרום והיה המחנה הנשאר לפלטה אלו אחינו שבגולה ראו כי גם לדורות תרמוז זאת הפרשה.
“If Esau comes to the one camp and smites it” – these are our brothers in the south (i.e., in the Land of Israel), “then the camp which is left shall escape” – these are our brothers in the Diaspora. Behold, this Parashah is a sign for the future.
With “brothers in the Diaspora” to stand alongside our “brothers in the south” (the Land of Israel), the Jewish people’s survival is assured.
America: A Kosher Place of Refuge?
As centers of the Jewish Diaspora have migrated across the globe over two and a half millennia, the identity of the “remaining camp” has likewise shifted. In the modern period, especially from the 1890s to World War I, two and a half millions of Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the US. This migration did not, however, receive Orthodox rabbis’ endorsement.
When Soviet communists were destroying traditional Jewish life in Russia, and antisemitism and poverty were mounting in Eastern Europe, Ultra-Orthodox rabbis still advised against immigration to the US. Until after the Holocaust, the United States was considered by many authorities to be treifidike (impure; nonkosher), a country where Jews assimilated and lost their soul.
The Chafetz Chaim: Land of Israel
The Chafetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933), who was the incontrovertible leader of Orthodox Lithuanian Jewry, objected strenuously to immigration to the US. He also refused any collaboration with Zionism but, in his old age, he frequently expressed his wish to settle in the Land of Israel. Perhaps this is the reason that, long after his death, he was said to have responded to Hitler’s rise to power and threat to destroy the Jewish people with the Genesis quote: וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה, “the camp which is left shall escape,” along with a quote from the prophet Obadiah:
עובדיה א:יז וּבְהַר צִיּוֹן תִּהְיֶה פְלֵיטָה...
Obad 1:17 In Mount Zion [i.e., the Land of Israel] there will be an escape.
The Chafetz Chaim suggested that the Land of Israel, and not America, would be the place of refuge.
R. Elchonon Wasserman’s Warning and Reversal
R. Elchonon Bunim Wasserman (1874-1941), a leading Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodox (and anti-Zionist) rabbi, and student of the Chafetz Chaim, is remembered to have proclaimed, “In Amerika harget men avek kinder,” “They murder children in America.” He meant that there is no Jewish education there, and that is sufficient reason not to go there because that would be the same as murdering one's own children.
Postwar testimonies, however, suggest that R. Wasserman, in his final speech, moments before he was murdered with his Yeshiva colleagues in 1941 in Kovno, tied the future of Jewry to the US. He adjured his colleagues to repent fully right there and then so that the merit of their martyrdom would be even more effective in saving their brethren and sisters in the US.
Post-Holocaust Diaspora — Israel and America
R. Zelig Reuven Bengis (1864-1953), Chief Rabbi of the anti-Zionist Edah Ha-ḥaredit in Jerusalem, is said to have suggested, when news of the Holocaust reached Jerusalem in World War II, that both the US and Israel were Jewry’s refuges. Jacob, he noted, was concerned for both the crushed camp and the surviving one. This is why the biblical phrase says “for a remnant” (לפליטה) and not just “remnant” (פליטה): The surviving camp will support (i.e., be there “for”) the injured one. American Jewry, he stated, was there to provide material help, but, beset by assimilation, they needed the traditional Jewry in the Land of Israel to support them spiritually, each remaining to support the other.
The post-Holocaust resurgence of traditional Jewish communities and flourishing Jewish culture in the US led to remarkable transformation in the Orthodox vision of the prospects of Jewish life there. Increasingly, the past verdicts of Orthodox rabbis denigrating the US were rewritten, and stories of their presaging of American Jewry as the remaining camp emerged.
R. Aharon Kotler – US “Wilderness” as a Torah Center
An apocryphal story self-consciously tells of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry’s changing view of the US. Founder of the well-known Lakewood Yeshivah, R. Aharon Kotler, is said to have escaped Lithuania to the US after having cast a lot in the Bible, opening it up and landing on the phrase in Exodus:
שמות ד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה אֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵךְ לִקְרַאת מֹשֶׁה הַמִּדְבָּרָה
Exod 4:27 YHWH said to Aharon: Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.
He understood that he, Aharon, was to go to the wilderness to meet “Moshe,” i.e., Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), at the time still unknown but later to become the foremost authority in Jewish Law in the US. The “wilderness” was America, at the time a Jewish desert, which together R. Moshe and R. Aharon turned into a Torah center. By the first decade of the 21st century, the Torah desert had indeed become a Garden of Eden.
R. Chaim of Volozhin – US as the Last Station Before Redemption
A short biography introducing the English translation of Ruach Chaim by R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), founder of the prestigious Volozhin Yeshivah in Lithuania, reports that he told his student David Tevel (1793-1860) that “the Torah has many way stations in different countries of the world. ... The last station before the Geulah (redemption) arrives will be America.”
According to the biographer’s grandfather, R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Riff (1893-1976), who had been educated in Volozhin and immigrated to the US, R. Chaim had also predicted the “terrible suffering and persecutions” that will occur “prior to the Torah being established in America” (presumably an allusion to the Holocaust). These apocryphal stories were told retrospectively to have Orthodox Jewry’s founders predict that the US will become a Torah center and Jewry’s refuge.
Emerging from Catastrophe
In the fall of 2006, my four-year old daughter Hadas (שתח׳) attended the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, CA. The headmaster, Rabbi Avi Schochet, in his opening address to the school’s Thanksgiving celebration, expounded on the propriety of celebrating Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday. He combined Rabbi Bengis’ homily on “the camp which is left shall escape” being a remnant “for” the other (לפליטה) to the Volozhiner’s prophecy that the United States will become a Torah center, thereby establishing the US as a refuge presaged by our ancestor, the patriarch Jacob.
In these days of catastrophe that has befallen our “brothers in the south” in the Land of Israel, it may be comforting to recall the two-and-a-half millennia history of our “brothers in the Diaspora.” Not only does a flourishing diasporic community help assure that there will be a “camp that remains,” but, knowingly or not, the remaining camps support one another. In this way, we will forever continue to sustain Jewish life, and we shall no doubt once again re-emerge from the calamity.
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November 26, 2023
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Prof. Malachi Haim Hacohen is Professor of History, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Religion at Duke University. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, and his research interests focus on Central Europe and include social theory, political philosophy, and rabbinic culture. His Karl Popper - The Formative Years, 1902-1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna (Cambridge, 2000) won the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize of the AHA and Austria's Victor Adler State Prize. His Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History Between Nation and Empire (Cambridge, 2019) won the Center for Austrian Studies' Biannual Book Prize. He has published on the European Jewish intelligentsia, Cold War liberalism, and cosmopolitanism and Jewish identity in leading professional journals. He was a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, and the IFK in Vienna. He was Leibniz Professor at Leipzig University in the Summer Semester of 2023.
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