THE WORD ‘exile’ has unmistakably negative connotations in the English language, but its Hebrew equivalent, galut—or in the Ashkenazi and Yiddish pronunciations, golus—is even bleaker, evoking associations with a dismal reality all but devoid of redeeming characteristics. There is a geographical component: Jews forcibly displaced from their ancestral homeland, scattered, dispersed, wandering, homeless, unable to find rest. In addition, the word suggests subjugation and oppression at the hands of the Gentile nations: as a classic study formulates it, ‘persecution, outrage, and injustice from which specious privileges give no relief’.
There is a psychological element as well. Galut suggests feelings of shame; humiliation; suppressed anger before the taunting of enemies and rivals, so poignantly expressed in the mocking challenge of the Babylonian conquerors: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’ (Ps. 137: 8); and guilt, because of the sinfulness that, in accordance with the terms of the covenant brutally enunciated in such passages as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, initiated and prolonged the exile. There is also a theological dimension. As one celebrated Jewish preacher put it: ‘the essence of our exile, that which pains our souls, is the departure of the Holy Spirit from among us, leaving us unable to sense the presence of our Creator; that is the ultimate anguish and burden of exile’.2 This negative ambience of galut in traditional Jewish literature has been highlighted and accentuated by influential Zionist writers, who used it as a foil to delineate all that they rebelled against, the antithesis of their goals and aspirations.
While there is little question about the authenticity of such associations, the actual treatment of exile in Jewish literary texts reveals more nuanced and multivalent aspects. The familiar geography of the traditional concept—exile as forced removal from the Land of Israel and the end of exile as return to that land—is occasionally subverted in unexpected ways. Perhaps even more surprising is a revalorization of the concept, in which living in the ancestral homeland is no longer automatically identified as good, and living outside the land as bad. In this chapter, I will attempt to illustrate some of the permutations of this central concept through a literary and conceptual analysis of three pre-modern passages from Jewish literature, chosen for their range and their intrinsic interest.