There is an ancient prophecy, beginning with Moses and continuing with the prophets, that speaks of Jews being scattered into exile. The prophet, Daniel, speaks of four ferocious beasts that come upon us. These beasts have been understood as the Jewish exiles of Babylon, Persia, Greece and ultimately Rome.
However, this prophetic disaster is always followed by the hopeful notion of the “ingathering of the exiles,” the idea that, when all is said and done, the Jewish people will be brought together from the four corners of the world back to Israel.
This ingathering is most often linked to the view of a messianic era, when Jews will search for God and will then find each other. Today, with the liberation and immigration of Jewish groups to Israel, whether they are Yemenite, Ethiopian, Russian or Syrian, the question has been raised as to whether this could be the beginning of the prophetic “ingathering”.
In fact, when speaking of Jews moving to Israel, we use the term “aliyah”, which means “elevation”. Jews are not engaged in immigration when they move to Israel; they are engaged in fulfilling a holy prophecy, elevating the mundane to the holy.
Yet the question remains: what is the purpose of the exile? Did God punish the Jews by flinging us into exile, in which case the ingathering would occur once we learn our lesson and become obedient?
Interestingly, the Talmud states that the final exile occurred because Jews practised “baseless hatred” toward each other, not because of our relationship with God. We couldn’t stand each other. We judged, condemned and even killed each other for no substantive reasons. The Jews of that time differed in their practices and their interpretations of Jewish ritual. It was those differences that led to hatred, and those differences are what the sages called baseless.
Perhaps exile was not a punishment, but an experiential understanding of baseless hatred.
For 2,000 years, Jews have been subjected to surviving through what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel termed “the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” The exile experience thrust us into the ugly core of baseless hatred and showed us there is no positive way out.
When Jewish commentators discuss the resolution of exile – ingathering the exiles – they do not address the reality of the differences exile has created within our people. Mostly we are familiar with the separate traditions of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, German traditions and Spanish traditions that grew into separate Jewish practices, languages and history. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Jews of Greece, present in that land since the 4th century B.C., have their own Jewish traditions, as do the Jews of Italy, Iran and Holland, to name a few. In fact, being exiled to the four corners of the world for at least 2,000 years has resulted in an extreme diversity of Jewish expression. How are we to create one people?
The most recent Jewish expression of diversity is the denominational difference between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities. There are other groups that exist, as people were not finding their place within these three mainstream options.
Recently, young families are stating more and more that they do not identify with any one stream of Judaism.
A secular culture of lateral thinking to progress in a professional world, as well as freedom of choices which include choosing gender, has resulted in young Jews feeling confined by the boundaries and definitions of Jewish spiritual expression. In some American cities, Jewish community centres are attempting to fill this growing void in Jewish connection.
What if the “ingathering of the exiles” is an ancient prophecy that could speak to a global Jewish community? We have spent thousands of years all over the world creating Jewish cultures, traditions and rituals that, if brought together, would speak of almost boundless Jewish expressions. What if this ancient prophecy did not only speak of gathering people to Israel, but also of gathering our exile treasures into our peoplehood?
Instead of locking us into our differences, which our own history has shown we do not navigate well and the sages warned against, what if we reimagine those differences? Six hundred thousand Jews stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. The rabbis told us that each person heard something different, resulting in six hundred thousand understandings of being Jewish.
The challenge is not to create one truth, but to discourse with each other about our multiple truths.
Ingathering of the exiles would then mean each group brings its exile treasures to the larger people. As part of the Jewish people, I can now enrich myself with these treasures.
A Jewish-Greek bride and groom betroth themselves to each other by wearing
flower crowns which they exchange in front of family, friends and witnesses. One year later, they stand under a
huppah and marry. When their child is born, there is a traditional scroll the family writes to protect that child from all evil.
Jewish women of Iran hold bowls of water under the new moon so they can see each other’s reflections in the water and grant blessings, understanding that the reality of this world is but a reflection. The rabbis of towns in Italy, in the Middle Ages, resolved how to include a Torah scroll into the birthing room of a difficult delivery. Sephardic Jews eat lentils on Passover; Ashkenazim wait six hours between eating meat and milk, while the Jews of Germany wait three hours and Dutch Jews wait one hour. All these traditions are authoritatively anchored in Jewish texts.
The beauty and power of tradition is that it creates a chain linking us to previous generations. The Jewish expression “The custom of our ancestors is in our hands” secures us from creating a Jewish nation filled with chaotic self-expression. The ingathering of these cultural treasures has each group bringing its authoritative traditions.
We can choose to judge each other and condemn the group that is different, or, maybe, we can finally glimpse the resolution of Jewish exile in the creation of a people diversely engaged in the tapestry of Torah, Jewish history and Jewish creativity.