Community, Controversy, & Cooperation

The tension between individual and communal needs cannot be resolved, but the two must be balanced.

Strife and contention were no strangers to the Jewish community. Wherever there are two Jews, the wry saying has it, there are three different opinions. All the more reason why the Jewish teachers, often not averse to a good dose of controversy themselves, repeatedly stressed the importance of communal harmony and cohesion, especially when the community was attacked from without.

In rabbinic and medieval times, the Jew who was disloyal to his community or who deserted it when it was in trouble or, worst of all, who sought to curry favor with the governmental authorities by pointing to the faults of its members so as to endanger their lives, was treated as an outcast. Within the community the danger was ever present of powerful leaders taking unfair advantage of the other members or seeking to lord it over them.

In a Talmudic saying, no man should be appointed a community leader unless he has behind him a box of vermin, presumably meaning that ideally he should not have an aristocratic background, so that when he seems to be getting beyond himself his followers will be able to remind him of his base ancestry.

Rabbinic Sayings on Communal Undertakings

Going back at least as early as the second century C.E., Ethics of the Fathers (Mishnah tractate Avot) has a number of acute maxims on the subject of Jews working together in a community. Attributed to Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince–a communal leader himself who knew where the shoe pinches–is the saying: “Let all who labor with the community labor with them for the sake of Heaven [not for personal advantage]. For the merit of their ancestors is their support, and their righteousness endures forever.”

[The early Mishnaic sage] Hillel is quoted as saying: “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which may have been directed against the sectarians of Hillel’s day, although Travers Herford, in his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, is too conjectural when he understands Hillel as referring to the Essenses.

An anonymous saying in Ethics of the Fathers is: “Anyone who makes many virtuous, no sin will result from his actions. But anyone who makes many sin, no opportunity will be given him to repent.”

The Talmud contains a virulent denunciation of those who have abandoned the ways of the community; those who “spread terror in the land of the living” (based on Ezekiel 32:2 and referring to leaders who are tyrants); and those who sin and make others sin. These will go to hell to be punished there for all generations.

Unity in Distress

When the community is in trouble the individual should participate in its distress even if he himself is not affected. In another Talmudic saying: “If an individual separates himself from the community when it is in distress, the two ministering angels that accompany every man place their hands upon his head and say, ‘Such and such a man has separated himself from the community, let him not live to witness the comfort of the community.'”

A good example can be given of the way in which Jewish teaching seeks to achieve a proper balance between the needs of the individual and those of the community to which he belongs. Taking the verse “And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came” (Genesis 41:59) as the key, the Talmud states that conjugal relations must not be engaged in in time of famine, which is understandable not only because there will be less mouths to feed but also because personal pleasure of the more intense kind should be avoided when the community suffers. However, the passage goes on to say that people who have no children may perform their marital duty even in time of famine.

It can generally be said that the tensions between the individual and his community have been resolved neither in Jewish thought nor in Jewish practice, yet Jews have always felt the need to belong to a community and, on the wider scale, to the whole Jewish community, even when to do so was costly.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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