The following article has emerged from an experimental, interdisciplinary course, co-taught by the authors in the fall of 1996, entitled “Exile: Jews, Literature, and History.” From the dozens of primary texts used in the course, we have selected six to illustrate the literary-conceptual analysis employed. Beyond the intrinsic aesthetic appeal of the passages, they have been chosen to exemplify the diversity of relevant material: in genre (poetry, disputational and homiletical literature, drama, fiction, memoir), cultural-historical context over the past millenium (Muslim and Christian Spain, eastern Europe, twentieth-century Egypt and Israel), community (Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Middle Eastern Jews) and language of authorship (Hebrew, Arabic, and English). Starting with one of the most familiar texts of post-biblical Jewish literature, we move in the modern period to decidedly less-known works, challenging simplistic assumptions about “canon” in research about the Jewish past. The juxtaposition of pre-modern and modern texts is intended to highlight both the continuities and the ruptures brought by the twentieth century. *

While the word exile has unmistakably negative connotations in the English language, its Hebrew equivalent, galut—or in the Ashkenazic and Yiddish pronunciations, golus—is even bleaker, evoking associations with a dismal reality all but devoid of redeeming characteristics. There is a geographical component: Jew forcibly displaced from their ancestral homeland, scattered, dispersed, wandering, homeless, unable to find rest. In addition, the word suggests subjugation and oppression at the hands of the Gentile nations; as a classic study formulates it, “persecution, outrage, and injustice from which specious privileges give no relief.” [1] There is a psychological element as well. Galut suggests feelings of shame, humiliation, suppressed anger before the taunting of enemies and rivals, so poignantly expressed in the mocking challenge of the Babylonian conquerors: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:8); feelings of guilt because of the sinfulness that, in accordance with the terms of the covenant brutally enunciated in such passages as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, initiated the exile and prolonged it. And there is a theological dimension; as one celebrated Jewish preacher put it, “the essence of our exile, that which pains our souls, is the departure of the holy spirit from among us, leaving us unable to sense the presence of our Creator; that is the ultimate anguish and burden of exile." [2] This negative ambience of galut in traditional Jewish literature has been highlighted and accentuated by influential Zionist writers, who used it as a foil to delineate all that they rebelled against, the antithesis of their goals and aspirations. [3]

While there is little question about the authenticity of such associations, the actual treatment of exile in Jewish literary texts reveals aspects more nuanced and multivalent. The familiar geography of the traditional concept—exile as forced removal from the land of Israel, and the end of exile as return to that land—is occasionally subverted in unexpected ways. Perhaps even more surprising is a revalorization of the concept, in which living in the ancestral homeland is no longer automatically identified as good, and living outside the land as bad. The three pre-modern and three modern passages that follow illustrate some of the stunning and perhaps surprising permutations of this central concept.



* The authors would like to express their gratitude to the William T. Kemper Foundation for sponsoring the Faculty Award program at Washington University in St. Louis that supported the development of this course

[1] Yitzhak Baer, Galut (New York: Schocken, 1948), p. 10. Cf. Arnold Eisen, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflections on Homelessness and Homecoming (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 99, characterizing Yehezkel Kaufman’s monumental Golah ve-Nekhar: galut is “a set of interrelated processes that includes hurban (destruction of the Temple and, by extension, of the Jewish community), subjugation, wandering, confinement to ghettos, and (the most recent development) assimilation.”

[2] Jonathan Eybeschuetz, Ya‘arot Devash (Jerusalem: Lewin-Epstein, 1968), 2: 74a. This is not to deny that rabbinic literature contains statements recognizing the potential advantages of demographic dispersion among the nations, whether for security reasons (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 76,3 on Gen. 32:9) or to attract proselytes from among the nations (e.g., b. Pes. 87b on Hos. 2:25), or that medieval Jews used such statements to develop theories of exile as providing opportunities for atonement or even special mission. See Shalom Rosenberg, “Exile and Redemption in Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century: Contending Conceptions,” in Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 399–430. Nevertheless, such statements seem anomalous and marginal in rabbinic literature, as they are far outweighed by material such as that presented in Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah (Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends [New York: Schocken, 1992], pp. 377–86). Note the conclusion of Isaiah Gafni, after reviewing all the rabbinic sources: “However, despite the statements we have cited, and especially the tradition in Pesahim 87b attributed to R. Eliezer, it does not seem that the idea of mission to the Gentiles acquired primary standing in the totality of what the sages said about the reasons for the dispersion.” “Onesh, Berakhah o Shelihut: Ha-Pezurah ha-Yehudit bi-Ymei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni u-vi-Tequfat ha-Talmud,” in Aharon Oppenheimer et al., eds., Ha-Yehudim Ba-Olam ha-Helenisti ve-ha-Romi (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 1996), pp. 246–47.

[3] E.g. A. B. Yehoshua’s characterization of galut as “a national disaster, a temporary situation, a fall, and the root of all evil.” “Exile as a Neurotic Solution,” in Diaspora: Exile and the Contemporary Jewish Condition, ed. Etan Levine (New York, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv: Steimatzky, 1986), p. 22. For examples of other Zionist writers on exile, see Joseph Brenner, “Self-Criticism,” in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzberg (New York, Atheneum, 1975), pp. 307–12, esp. p. 310; Jacob Klatzkin, “Boundaries,” in Hertzberg, pp. 316–27, esp. pp. 322–23; and the position taken by the character Yudka in Haim Hazaz’s “The Sermon,” in Modern Hebrew Literature, ed. Robert Alter (New York: Behrman House, 1975), pp. 271–87, esp. pp. 279–82. It has been noted that some extreme Zionist characterizations of Jewish life in the Diaspora have much in common with the literature of late-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century antisemites. This case was made in 1934 (in a Zionist context) by Yehezkel Kaufman, “The Ruin of the Soul,” reprinted in Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy, ed. Michael Selzer (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 117–29, and has been further developed by contemporary scholars.