Yehoshua Twenty-Two: Diaspora Judaism

Every inch of the land has been given, to the tribes and the clans and the families within the tribes. The work is done. “Then Joshua called the Reubenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Menashe. And he said to them, ‘You have kept all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, and have obeyed me in all that I commanded you (Joshua 22:1-2).'” Now, it’s time for these tribes, who have been fighting alongside their brethren in spite of their own land already being secured, to return to the other side of the Jordan. These are about to become the first Diaspora Jews, full members of the tribe who (by choice) decide to live outside of the land given by God. Joshua gives them a commandment and a blessing before they leave. “Only take diligent heed to do the commandment and the Torah, which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all His ways, and to keep His commandments, and to cling to Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul (Joshua 22:5).” I love this commandment. It’s so powerful to me that the verb for to do is used, meaning the people aren’t being told to remember or study the Torah, but to take action, literally doing Torah. It’s not meant to be theory but practice, and something that should be done every day.

The tribes cross back over to the far side of the Jordan. Their first act is to build an altar. Big mistake. The rest of the people hear about this, and immediately assemble to go to war against their own brothers because of this. The altar is seen as treasonous and is viewed as a rebellion against God. However, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe, have a response. “God, God, the Lord, God, God, the Lord, He knows, and Israel, he shall know if it be in rebellion, or if in transgression against the Lord, save us not this day (Joshua 22:22).” They explain that the logic behind building this altar was so that their children would remember their commitment to God, and so that future generations born within the land wouldn’t be able to say that their children were any way less committed or connected to God. This has such relevance today when I think about Israel-Diaspora relations. In so many areas, the rabbanut in Israel seems to think that it has a monopoly on what constitutes proper Jewish practice, not just for the Orthodox, but for all streams of Judaism both in Israel and around the world. There’s often discouragement of autonomous Diaspora Jewish actions, which are too regularly treated with distrust and skepticism. Like the tribes on the other side of the Jordan, committed Diaspora Jews want to make sure that they are viewed as equally contributing parts of the Jewish people, whether or not they are within the land of Israel. It’s an ongoing struggle to balance this dichotomy, and clearly it has deep roots. In this case, Joshua and the priests understand, and leave the altar standing. I’m wondering how that would work today, and what markers current Diaspora Jews are creating to demonstrate their continued active commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.

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