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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews

On November 12 Alan Wolfe presented his new book At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews, and received feedback from a distinguished panel of respondents. Billed as an “author meets critics” event, Wolfe’s critics for the evening were Ben Birnbaum, editor of the Boston College Magazine; Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College; and Kevin Kenny, professor and chair of the Boston College History Department.

In At Home in Exile, Wolfe argues that there is a bright future for Jewish universalism—a strand of Jewish thought that emphasizes concern for all, in contrast with a particularistic concern for the Jewish people. Jewish life in the Diaspora is vibrant and thriving. The tension between Jewish universalism and particularism is not new but has taken on a new urgency in recent years. With the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel now nearly seventy-five years in the past, Wolfe argues, the Jewish people have reached a moment in their history in which they can once again go beyond the particularism inherent in these events and once more consider their broader obligations to humankind. He suggests that the Jewish people ought to embrace their broad acceptance in Western society and view the Diaspora as a viable and positive site of Jewish existence.

Ben Birnbaum praised the book for being enlightening, well-researched and fair. At the same time, he explained, Wolfe’s argument pitting universalism against particularism ultimately left him cold. Particularism and universalism are, in fact, two sides of the same particularistic coin—universalism maintains the notion that the Jews are the chosen people with an obligation to be a “light unto the nations,” only without God. Birnbaum said he long ago rejected the notion that Jews had some special calling, citing it as onerous. The Jewish people are no more special, with no more obligations, than any other people. All peoples, not only Jews, do best when they live up to their own ideals. He concluded, “I am not in exile, I am not in Diaspora. I am where I was born, and where I want to be.”

Susannah Heschel’s remarks focused on the understanding of exile in Wolfe’s book. Heschel agreed with Wolfe that Jews in America are different than they were even forty years ago, let alone a century and a half ago in Europe: they are more at home with—no longer neurotic about—their Jewish identity. She asked, though: Was it exile they enjoyed, or the benefits of living in a multi-cultural democracy? She also wondered whether Jews in Israel were not still also in exile since, by design, the modern Israeli state was created in a spirit contrary to that of pious Judaism.

Kevin Kenny began his remarks with a careful articulation of Wolfe’s thesis. He then evaluated Wolfe’s book from his perspective as a historian of diaspora. Diaspora involves exile and banishment, but can also entail great flourishing, as in the case of the Jews. In assessing Jewish Diaspora today, assimilation is a factor that needs to be considered; more than half of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States are marrying non-Jews. Kenny noted, moreover, that while Judaism without a state is a concept being celebrated by a minority of Jewish academics around the world, in practice this arrangment brought with it much adversity for the Jewish people. The tragic irony is that the ending of one diaspora (the Jewish) marked the beginning of another (the Palestinian). A diaspora that is to be good for the Palestinians depends on the Jewish universalism that Wolfe advocates.