Exile, Real and Imagined

Holy Israel, the supernatural community that, in the theology of Judaism, takes shape at Sinai in accepting the Torah and so lives in God's kingdom in the here and now, tells the story of its exile in the setting of that theology. By sin, Adam lost Eden; by rebellion against God's commandments, holy Israel lost the land of Israel, its Eden. These theological convictions intersect with the actualities of the everyday. What this meant in Christian Europe made ample sense: Holy Israel lived its life of exile and awaited its redemption; Christianity understood the biblical sources of that conviction, even though it read the record differently. But when the French Enlightenment forced Christianity out of the center of Western civilization, the secular state found its counterpart in the life of Jewry and in the ethnic group, the Jews.

Then what were the Jews, and the secular nation-states that succeeded the Christian empire, to make of exile? The 19th century gave one answer: The Jews were no longer in exile but accepted the tasks of loyal citizens of the nation-state. That is what the French rabbis told Napoleon in 1812 when he asked, Are you French or Jewish? The question carried its own imperative. The 20th century gave another answer: The Jews are not only an ethnic group and are certainly not a religious community; they constitute a people and should form for themselves a nation-state, like other peoples. In that formulation—the...

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