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It is no accident that the Jewish people call themselves “Am Yisrael“–“the people of Israel”– rather than “Dat Yisrael,” or”the religion of Israel.” A sense of peoplehood has long been the defining characteristic of the Jews. Accordingly, the central experience of Jewish history–the only event that demands an annual retelling–is the exodus from Egypt. Though wrapped up in an encounter with divinity, the exodus was primarily an experience of national liberation, rather than a moment of religious awakening.
On the everyday level, this focus on peoplehood is translated into an emphasis on the community as the primary organizing structure of Jewish life. Wherever Jews have lived, they have built synagogues, established communal organizations, and created systems of communal governance.
What Makes Community?
One Talmudic text offers a working definition of the concept of community in Jewish life:
“A talmid haham (Torah scholar) is not allowed to live in a city that does not have these 10 things: a beit din (law court) that metes out punishments; a tzedakah fund that is collected by two people and distributed by three; a synagogue; a bath house; a bathroom; a doctor; a craftsperson; a blood-letter; (some versions add: a butcher); and a teacher of children” (Sanhedrin 17b).
In other words, in order to be a suitable place to live, a community must provide for all of its members’ spiritual and physical needs. The presence of a beit din helps to protect residents from falling victim to crime. A tzedakah fund under appropriate supervision aids community members who have fallen into poverty.
A synagogue offers a place for prayer, as well as for communal gatherings. The bathhouse, bathroom, doctor, craftsperson, blood-letter and butcher provide for the physical needs of residents. The teacher ensures that the next generation is versed in Jewish tradition and prepared eventually to assume leadership of the community.
The sense that the community is responsible for the physical and communal needs of its members has manifested itself in different ways throughout Jewish history. In late antiquity and in the medieval period, many Jewish communities were semi-autonomous. Though ultimately subject to the laws of the place in which they lived, these communities governed themselves and cared for the needs of their members. Even as these semi-autonomous local authorities have disappeared, many Jewish communities to this day maintain a beit dinthat arbitrates disputes between members of the community.
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