Jews in the middle ages lived a balancing act, juggling loyalty to the Jewish faith and survival both personal and as autonomous communities within the Christian or Moslem world. It was a time of strong communal institutions and philosophical debate as Jews tried to comprehend and articulate (primarily to themselves) their continued exile and persecution as well as the basic tenets of their faith which set it apart from the surrounding religions that saw it at best as ”primitive” or forsaken by G-D if not downright corrupt and evil. Always at the mercy of Christian or Moslem rulers who intermittently sought forcibly to convert them, Jews suffered discrimination, persecution, and exile after exile. Despite these hardships in Diaspora, or perhaps because of them, there was no mass movement to “return” to the land of Israel. That land too was under foreign rule (alternatively Moslem/Christian/Moslem as the Crusaders came and went) and there too Jews suffered. Although there was a continued, tiny and impoverished Jewish presence in the land of Israel, for the majority of Jews the land of Israel was always present in the liturgy (piyutim, kinot) as a cornerstone of faith but not as a physical alternative. The Holy Land acquired an almost mythical nature in Jewish consciousness as an unattainable paradise. Even the numerous false messiahs that surfaced in different countries throughout the middle ages remained localized phenomena never succeeding in enflaming the masses to actually consider moving to Israel (until Shabbetai Zevi). Paradoxically though, throughout the era there was a continuous flow of individuals including scholars and leaders making the difficult journey at least to die if not to live in the Holy Land.
This lesson will study some of those individuals, their stories and their writings, examining their varied motivations to “go up” to Israel. Are these individual responses to each one’s specific circumstances or a reflection of the ongoing relationship between the Jew and the land of Israel? How do their responses compare to the feelings of Diaspora Jews who “make aliyah” today.