Thriving in the Diaspora

Persian Jewry can serve as a role model for Jews who live outside of the Land of Israel.

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God's Role in the Diaspora

By expanding the history of Jewish redemption to include Diaspora experiences, the Book of Esther opened up Judaism to the world. Once the Megillah made clear that God's redemption operates in Diaspora as well, Judaism became an option for those who never lived or have no intention of living in the land of Israel. The Book of Esther tells that many of the peoples of the land became Jews or passed themselves off as Jews. While the obvious motive for this behavior was fear of the new Jewish power, the result was that people now saw Jews as a religious community that all could join, not just a tribe living in a certain land.

The Book of Esther communicates a new sense of triumph, of an optimistic, self-confident Jewish Diaspora that can boast of one of it own as prime minister, a community fully able to defend the Jew from further attack. Yet in its narrative, the scroll reminds Jews that they are permanently vulnerable in Diaspora. (Perhaps one should say that as long as the world is unredeemed, Jews are vulnerable, for today even the rebuilt land of Israel is also not totally secure.)

Persian Jewry can serve as a model for a Diaspora Jewry that strives to be powerful yet live without illusions, one that enjoys prosperity and freedom yet is aware of the risks of history. To affirm the centrality of Zion and the unity of the Jewish people while living one's own good life and striving to maintain Jewish loyalty is not easy, although the Book of Esther suggests that it is possible. But those who choose this way should never forget the Talmud's wistful comment: Had all the Jews returned to Israel from the first Exile, the Jews could never have been thrown off the land again.

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Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).