Israel and Bavel: Two Centers of Jewish Life

About The Author

Jordan Shaner

Jordan Shaner is a cantor and rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York. He is also part of the inaugural ARZA HUC-JIR Fellowship class, designed to encourage an in-depth understanding of the American-Israeli relationship and related institutions.

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Imagine for a moment that Jewish history had developed along slightly different lines. Imagine that alongside Zionism, a modern movement dedicated to the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland, another movement flourished that was focused on building Jewish life outside the Land of Israel. This other movement would serve as a counterpart to Zionism, one that helped establish a second center of Jewish life.


This thought experiment is actually not so hard to picture, considering that throughout much of Jewish history, our people had two centers of civilization: Eretz Yisrael, the land of origin, and Babylonia, the center of Talmudic learning. This is why today we have both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian one.


If such a movement had developed alongside Zionism, how, instead, might we now think of the experience of Jews living outside of Israel? How would we describe the Jewish people so as to include both its parts? Rather than picturing our people as a wheel with spokes (the Diaspora) radiating out from the center (Israel), we might think of two centers, unfailingly connected but equal. One center of Jewish life in Israel, and the other in North America, a dynamic not unlike that of Talmudic times and the early Medieval period.


During that period, the great rabbinic academies were in urban Babylonia, although great scholars remained connected to the Land by traveling back and forth between Eretz Yisrael and Bavel. Back then, the two communities held on to their distinctiveness even as they looked to one another for support, learning, and growth. Over time the historical Babylonian community indeed became the more politically important, the wealthier, the more influential— but the community in Eretz Yisrael remained connected to the Land, connected to its deeply rooted traditions.


If we were to look to the two-centered model of the past as a paradigm for our current moment, what would we call the counterpart to Zionism, the movement to revitalize Jewish culture, learning and commitment outside of the Land of Israel? Why not Bavelism? Bavelism would embrace the differences between world Judaism and Israeli Judaism even as it deepens connections between these two centers of Jewish life.


A successful Bavelism would do the following:

  • Embrace Zionism’s gifts without conceding the fullness of world Jewry’s experience. The modern conception of Jewish identity is strengthened by Zionism; Bavelism is not a rejection of Zionism but an attempt to appropriate its tools for the purpose of improving Jewish life outside the state of Israel. Therefore, any attempt at Bavelism would entail an enduring commitment to both cultural Zionism and to the existence of the modern Jewish State.
  • Take mutual responsibility for the Jewish future. Our connection to Israel may be important, but it is not sufficient. Most importantly, we cannot use Israel as an excuse to avoid the responsibility to engage with our own Judaism. Bavelism encourages us to take responsibility for our own Jewish future, live Jewish lives and teach Jewish values where we are.
  • Reject the wheel-and-spokes model of Zionism and embrace a world Jewry with two major centers. Bavelism promotes the reality that we are one people, rather than a central and marginal community. It accepts that those who live in Israel have much to teach us, but also affirms that we outside the Land have a Torah to teach our Israeli siblings.
  • Build a strong, modern Jewish identity based on religious pluralism, openness, fellowship, and interaction with non-Jews. North American Judaism’s pluralism, cooperation, and openness are its greatest strengths, not a dangerous path to assimilation. Because we live in lands where Jews are not the majority, we are able to absorb new ideas, share connections across the boundaries of religious and cultural identity, and live rich, full, modern Jewish lives. We Bavelians bring these strengths to the Jewish people as a whole.
  • Embrace the strength and resilience that comes from working hard to affirm our Jewish identity in a non-Jewish context and make a commitment to living as Jews. Further, by not taking our Jewish identities for granted, Bavelian Jews have built a resilience and strength in our commitment to Jewish life. We acknowledge that living as Jews outside of Israel means making sacrifices and working hard to affirm our religious, cultural, and communal commitments.
  • View Judaism as the eternal inheritance of every Jew, and not the exclusive property of a certain kind of Jew. Bavelism does not treat Judaism as the exclusive property of those Jews who refuse to engage with modernity; rather, it accepts all Jews as inheritors of the wealth of tradition and accepts their potential to impact the future of that tradition.


Imagine what the future of the Jewish people could be if such a movement existed. What would Israelis be able to learn from Bavelians, if we would take ownership of our Jewish identities where we are? What would Bavelians be better equipped to learn from the experience of Israelis, if they didn’t feel their Jewish identity was at risk of disparagement or irrelevance? How much stronger would the relationship between these two centers become?

As Mordecai asks his cousin Esther in the biblical book named for her (Esther 4:14): “who knows? Perhaps you have attained your position, precisely for a time like this.”