I’ve always been uncomfortable with the relatively new phenomenon of people leaving Israel to begin kollels or perform kiruv in galus. Many organizations are devoted to this. It is a noble purpose in principle – those who sacrifice of themselves to do outreach are kindred spirits – but I have serious doubts about this from a Torah standpoint.
The Gemara at the end of Kesubos has very harsh words for those who leave Israel for virtually any reason. I am well aware that nowadays people leave Israel temporarily for many reasons, and they have halachic authorities upon which they can rely in most cases. I am not here to argue that anyone who leaves Israel except for extenuating reasons should be condemned, and I am not a posek besides.
At the same time, we have to acknowledge that leaving Israel is not a simple matter, heterim to do so are not automatic, and even if a heter can be found it does not mean it should be exercised. The default rule that one should generally not leave Israel must not be cavalierly disregarded in favor of every whim that can be rationalized. That is neither the way of the frum Jew nor intellectually honest.
Many rabbis and educators justify remaining in galus today on the basis of their community work. They are teaching Torah, they claim. They must stay behind for the sake of their flock. Not only that, but young Torah scholars often uproot their families from Israel to go on kiruv missions in galus or strengthen Torah in various communities. Again, these goals are noble and I strongly identify with them, but it is very dubious from a Torah perspective.
One of the heterim to leave Israel is to learn Torah (Avoda Zara 13A). (This is written specifically in reference to a kohen becoming tamei by leaving Israel, and does not necessarily imply that it is prohibited for other Jews to leave Israel. Nevertheless, the general position of Chazal throughout the Gemara and Midrashim is strongly against Jews leaving Israel, not just Kohanim. Again, I will leave it to poskim to determine halacha, but from a philosophical standpoint the position of Chazal is clear.) The Gemara qualifies this heter to apply only when the individual in question will have particular benefit from a teacher who is outside of Israel.
On the basis of this heter, many people today remain in galus or leave Israel to teach Torah. There are two serious problems with this. First of all, it is a heter; it is by no means an obligation. Just because something is permitted does not mean it is desirable or the best decision in all cases.
Second of all, the heter is specifically to leave Israel so that one can learn Torah and then return. Learning Torah is a vital personal need as are the other heterim (earning a livelihood and getting married, after which one is expected to return as well). Nowhere does the Gemara provide a heter for someone to move away from Israel for extended periods of time to teach Torah.
In fact, we find quite the contrary. As I noted in a previous article, Mordechai left a position of great influence in Persia at an advanced age to return to Israel. There was perhaps no one in the exile with his level of importance on the educational and political level – he had every excuse in the book to stay put – yet he jumped at the opportunity to return home. The Jews in exile could join him, or fend for themselves if not.
We also have the striking example of Baruch ben Nerya, the scribe and disciple of Yirmiyah the prophet, and a prophet in his own right. The Midrash questions why Ezra and his colleagues did not go up to Israel with the first wave of Jews – it is taken for granted that they should have. The Midrash answers that he needed to clarify his learning before Baruch ben Nerya, his teacher. (This was particularly important, because Ezra was compared to Moshe for restoring the Torah in his generation.) The Midrash then asks why Baruch did not go up. Chazal explain that Baruch was both elderly and a large man, and it was not physically feasible for him to travel even in a carriage. (Shir Hashirim Rabba 5:1:5)
Baruch was the teacher of the greatest teacher of his generation, one of the foremost teachers in our history, and were it not for physical limitations, the Midrash takes for granted that he would have gone up to Israel. The message is clear: building Israel is more important than staying behind in galus to teach the exiles Torah.
Again, I am sure there is room for this to be allowed depending on the situation, but today it has become a cottage industry for cementing life in exile when we should be encouraging these communities to transplant themselves back to Israel.
Furthermore, for better or for worse, there is enormous opportunity for outreach within Israel. There is no compelling reason for talented educators to leave Israel to inspire people who live in distant lands when the need is so great right in their backyard. Perhaps they have mistakenly understood the phrase kiruv rechokim as a call to perform outreach on those who are physically far away? Perhaps there is something exotic and glamorous about traveling to a distant land to save Jewish souls? Whatever the case may be, the justifications for leaving Israel to do this are dubious, despite the need for inspiration abroad.
The best way to strengthen the Jewish people is to strengthen the resettlement of our land, physically and spiritually. The best Torah lesson our teachers can provide is not to enable never-ending life in exile, but to lead the way home by example. Let the message be unequivocal that the Torah and Jewish life in all its fullness is in Israel, and only in Israel.
The time for planting seeds of Torah in exile is thankfully behind us. The time has come to transplant our existing trees back home where they belong.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org