What does it mean to be a nomadic people? For most of our long history, Jews have been nomads. It’s only recently that we’ve started to settle down. But have we lost something in that process? Has Judaism lost some of its vitality in the absence of movement, which has defined so much of its history?
In a challenging essay in the academic journal Sh’ma titled “I Wander, Therefore I Am,” professor Shaul Magid confronts these questions and explores the essential role the nomadic life has played in the Jewish experience.
Naturally, in his portrait of the wandering Jew, Magid starts with the Bible: “Abraham is called ‘to go out.’ Jacob, Joseph and Moses become who they are by wandering, by being homeless. Think of the names of the portions in Genesis: ‘Go out’ (Lekh lekha) ‘He sent’ (Vayishlakh), ‘He went out’ (Vayetze).
“Homelessness, being always in search of a home,” he writes, “becomes the very trope of Israelite existence. The Israelites become a people as they wander in the desert. In the final portion of the book of Numbers (33:1-36:13), every time the Israelites get settled, God commands them to move, to uproot, to decamp. Their identity is forged in motion.
“Israel experiences God while wandering in the Sinai Desert, homeless. Even when Jews stay in one place, they are always prepared to move, always on the precipice. Their ‘house of God’ (the Mishkan/Tabernacle) is a portable dwelling.”
After the destruction of the Second Temple, this biblical impulse of being on the move follows the Jews into exile.
“The Wandering Jew,” Magid writes, becomes “one of the oldest Jewish stereotypes, one that was used by Christians to define Jews’ centuries of exile and dispersion. The stereotype renders the Jew a perennial wanderer who learned the hard lesson of survival while ‘on the road.’ ”
These lessons of the road, however, didn’t just help the Jews survive — they seeped deeply into the Jewish psyche and helped shape the collective Jewish identity.
We often talk about the pain of Jewish exile. What Magid probes in his essay is what Jews gained in exile.
“So much of Jewish life and creativity,” he says, “have been about wandering, homelessness, and exile. While there has been pain and oppression, there was also magic, mystery, and energy. Motion has been the engine of Jewish creativity.”
Intuitively, this feels true. There’s an edge to being “on the road” that makes one more creative and resourceful. Once you settle down and feel safer, it’s natural to become more complacent.
So, it’s worth asking: Now that Jews have become settled as never before and are embracing the power of nationhood, do we risk losing this magic, this energy, this creativity?
There certainly are troubling signs. Just look at the power-hungry Chief Rabbinate in Israel. You can make a strong case that their heavy-handedness is directly related to how “safe” they feel now that they have a home in Israel and the authority to wield enormous power. The arrogance of ownership has replaced the humility and nimbleness of exile.
But, as Magid reminds us, “God promises settlement, but infuses our blood with the desire to wander.”
That’s why it’s not surprising that a spiritual renaissance in Israel is being sparked by a new generation of wandering Jews — young Israelis who trek off to the Far East after their army service. Desert festivals, which have sprung up in Israel during the Jewish holidays and share a mystical bent with Eastern spirituality, are the fruits of this wandering.
Here in America, our sense of physical permanency has contributed to a loss of Jewish identity and growing assimilation. The safer Jews feel, it seems, the more they lose their uniqueness.
As the Jewish story moves forward, then, Jews will face this challenge: How do we stay planted in one place without losing the special edge of the wandering Jew?
In other words, if we assume that we’ll stay relatively settled, can we take the positive attributes of the wandering Jew and internalize them as a mindset?
Maybe it’s one of history’s great coincidences that after centuries of wandering the globe, Jews finally unpacked their suitcases just before the digital revolution.
Could this be the modern tool that re-energizes our wandering character? Could technology that allows us to interact in real time with anyone on the planet be the new tonic that nurtures Jewish restlessness and creativity?
It’s an enticing thought.
In Israel, for example, there is a growing movement to introduce more religious pluralism; just as in America, we’re seeing a major wake-up call to strengthen Jewish identity. These movements, and many others, are in part being fueled by the instant access of the digital revolution — by Jews wandering off into digital lands like Google, YouTube and Facebook and encountering new ideas, new communities, new problems to fix and new ways of challenging the status quo.
How this digital wandering will shape the Jewish story is an open question. What we know for sure is that in the era of the post-wandering Jew, there is nothing we can’t see — if we care enough to look.