25 Idol Worship in Exile
Chananya Weissman

June 17, 2020

The Rabbis taught: One should always dwell in Israel, even in a city that is mostly heathen, and not dwell outside of Israel, even in a city that is mostly Jewish – for anyone who dwells in the Land of Israel is likened to one who has a God, and anyone who dwells outside the land is likened to one who has no God, as it states “To give you the land of Canaan, to be for you a God.”

But does anyone who does not dwell in the land not have a God?! Rather, it is coming to tell you that anyone who dwells outside the land is as if he is worshipping idolatry. And so by David it says, “For they have driven me out today from being gathered in the inheritance of Hashem, saying 'go worship other gods.'” Now who told David to go serve other gods? Rather it is telling you that anyone who dwells outside the land is as if he is worshipping idolatry. (Kesubos 110B)

Contemporary events lend insight into this famous Gemara that, on the surface, is difficult to comprehend.

At the very outset, it must be noted that this teaching is not an allegory or a philosophical remark. It is codified by the Rambam as Jewish law – the same Rambam that some Jews rely on for staying in galus. I have no doubt that clever Jewish minds will split hairs or otherwise explain this away to justify remaining in their steplands until the bitter end, but that is their choice. The Rambam has nothing to do with it.

The Gemara first likens a Jew who dwells outside of Israel to one who has no God. This is extremely difficult; God is everywhere and is with Jews in galus as well. The Gemara therefore likens him to one who worships idolatry, but this too is difficult. We can understand that a Jew in exile may lack some measure of God's protection and closeness. But how can we say that they are like idol worshipers? Our Talmudists, Geonim, and many of our holiest people lived outside of Israel. How can the Gemara make a blanket statement that seemingly associates even them with any semblance of idolatry? Instead of solving the initial problem, it seems the Gemara only made it worse.

Yet all we need is to look around and we will see how true both comparisons are. The Jew in galus knows deep down how quickly things can change. Even if he lives in a democracy in which all ethnicities have equal rights, the Jew is never secure. On the surface they forget – they drive it out of their consciousness – but the Jew instinctively knows that he is a stranger in a strange land.

He is not like the gentiles, no matter how much he tries to imitate their ways, or even outdo them. Unlike his neighbors of other ethnicities, he must suppress much of his identity, even if he may be outwardly Jewish and proud of it.  Even if the Jew achieves some measure of power, he must always rely on the gentile to safeguard him. Even if the Jew is a wealthy landowner, he is really just a tenant.

Because of this, the Jew will make many accommodations to get along with his gentile neighbors, hoping to be tolerated. His gentile neighbors of other ethnicities do not feel this same instinctive need to ingratiate themselves with Jews or others. It is not built into their psyche.

They do not have to wonder whether their brothers and sisters are “too visible”, have “too much power”, or contribute enough to the community to earn the good graces of their neighbors.

They do not instinctively feel the need to be polite and kind to the doorman, the delivery man, the policeman, or the person they pass every day on the street just in case...just in case if things get bad, maybe that person will remember the Jew was kind and hide him or help him escape. This is something Jews are taught. We should be polite and kind to all people to sanctify God's name...but also because it might one day save a Jew's life. He might one day wave you to the right instead of to the left, just because you said good morning. You never know.

The gentile does not have to think like that. Only the Jew.

Rather, only the Jew in galus.

This is what the Gemara means when it says the Jew outside of Israel is like one who serves idols. Of course he does not actually serve idols...but he must ingratiate himself to those who do.

A guest does not criticize the lifestyle of his host, at least not while in his home. A Jew therefore does not criticize the lifestyle of the gentile while in his land. The guest can be thrown out, and so can the Jew. Even if the host is gracious, it is likely to cool the relationship – something the Jew cannot risk.

The Jew cannot even decide when his synagogue may be opened or closed. The Jew must make sure his yeshiva curriculum conforms to standards set by gentiles. The Jew must ensure that his right to kosher meat and circumcision is not challenged. So the Jew doesn't make a fuss about his host's, shall we say, idiosyncrasies.

The Jew looks the other way. He engrosses himself in his religious studies and his community, ignoring all that goes on in the society around him, so long as it does not directly pertain to him. He censors his religious texts if necessary. He is both ashamed and fearful of expressing certain Jewish ideas that might not go over well with his gentile neighbors. They can afford to offend the Jew without fear of reprisal. The Jew cannot take the chance.

He is a stranger in a strange land, no matter what.

He does not worship idolatry, but he dare not say boo about it.

Today we see Jews kneeling to show solidarity with people who hate them. They pay homage to a man who was murdered not because they are leaders in social change, but because they must follow. The same rabbis who compose eloquent expositions about the responsibility of the Jew to speak out (after seeing how the winds were blowing) have nothing to say about fifty million abortions in America, nothing to say about gay parades and the war on the nuclear family, nothing to say about religious business owners under attack by the anti-God movement, nothing to say about men dressing up as women and forcing others to play along with their charade.

But a man is murdered thousands of miles away, and suddenly the Jew must speak out!

The Jew in exile is a shmatta. This is what the Gemara is telling us. A Jew who lives in Israel – even if he must live among heathens – is still in his home. His mere presence in Israel is a powerful theological statement that cannot be ignored. Even if he must fear the heathen, the heathen is the stranger.

The initial comparison in the Gemara of a Jew in exile to one who has no God is not inaccurate, either. We see this illustrated in our time as well. The Jew in exile claims that he cannot earn a living in Israel; God cannot and will not support him there. He is afraid that there is not enough water; God will not send enough rain for His people. He claims that there is not enough room in Israel to accommodate all the Jews; God gave them a home that is too small. He fears that one missile could wipe out the entire country; God's chosen land for His chosen people is a death trap.

Is this not someone who can be likened to one who has no God?

Perhaps the Gemara backed away from this initial comparison only because for thousands of years it was unfair. The land of Israel was closed to the average Jew. He simply had no choice. It would be unfair to liken this Jew to one who has no God, for this Jew devoutly yearned for the day when he could return, and made the best of the curse of exile until then. He is likened "only" to one who worships idols, for he must remain in the good graces of his host.

Today, however, we see that both comparisons of the Gemara ring true. The Jew in exile licks the boot of his gentile host because he must, no matter where he dwells, and he does not speak up about social issues unless it is expected of him.

But the Jew in exile also does not believe that God will sustain him anywhere else. God has already brought back many millions of Jews just like him, defeated their enemies over and over again with miracles, and sustained his people despite their best efforts to sabotage themselves. God has enough water, and food, and money, and land, and protection for all His people. The Jew in Israel knows this, even if he is secular, for he lives it every day of his life.

The Jew in Israel who keeps no mitzvos has a closer connection to God than a devout Jew in exile, for he is home. He can also speak up about any social issue he pleases – and he does so loudly and proudly – because this is his home.

We are long past the stage of arguing over whether a Jew has a religious obligation to live in Israel, or whether God wants the Jews to be here, or whether the right time is now or some distant future. It is time for all the Jews in exile to thank their gentile hosts for their hospitality, let them sort out their own social issues, pack their bags, and return home.