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 Jewish 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 (mikveh); 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 din that arbitrates disputes between members of the community.
Virtually every Jewish community has established charitable organizations that help poor members of the community. The first Jewish immigrants to the United States set up institutions such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Hebrew Free Loan Society, aimed at assisting newer immigrants to gain a foothold in their new country. These organizations, and others like them, continue to operate today.
Since at least the first century, much of Jewish life has focused around the synagogues. In addition to being places of prayer, synagogues are the site of lifecycle events celebrating births, weddings, and b’nai mitzvah (bar and bat mitzvah) celebrations. The communities that form around synagogues generally take care of the members of that community. Community members may prepare meals for those sitting shiva, visit members who are ill, and join in one another’s life cycle events.
Another major institution in most Jewish communities is the mikveh, a ritual bath in which conversions take place, and in which women traditionally immerse after menstruation. Many people also immerse in the mikveh before their weddings, prior to Yom Kippur, and, in some communities, on Friday afternoons before Shabbat. In contemporary times, the mikveh has been used for rituals of healing after sexual abuse, miscarriage, and divorce. The mikveh is considered so central to the life of a community that many Jewish legal scholars mandate constructing a mikveh even before building a synagogue.
In contemporary times, Jewish communities have sprung up around other types of institutions, including Jewish Community Centers, schools, camps, local Federations, and Jewish non-profit organizations. In all of these cases, a building or organization serves as the initial point of contact for a group of people who then begin caring for each other and taking care of one another’s needs.
Community as Obligation
Jewish texts treat participation in communal affairs not as an option, but as a religious obligation. One debate among a number of the early Talmudic commentators and codifiers of Jewish law concerns the question of whether one who is occupied with taking care of a communal need must stop to pray. At the root of this discussion is the legal principle that “one who is occupied with one mitzvah (religious obligation) is exempt from other mitzvot.”
If caring for the needs of the community can be defined as a mitzvah, then a person involved in such work will be exempt from other pressing mitzvot, such as prayer. While early religious scholars take various positions on this issue, one modern authority, the Mishnah Berurah (Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, 1839-1933) virtually closes the question by declaring,”Most later authorities have ruled [that one does not need to stop to pray]” (Orah Hayim 93:4).
Even more strikingly, one midrash likens removing oneself from the community to destroying the world. According to this source:
“With justice, a king sustains the earth, but a fraudulent (terumot) person destroys it.” (Proverbs 29) [What does this verse mean?] With the justice that the king does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one makes oneself like terumah (portion of produce that is set aside as an offering), set aside in the corner of the house, and says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of “the fraudulent person destroys [the world].”
There is a story about Rav Assi, that when he was dying, his nephew entered and found him crying. He said to him, “Why are you crying? Is there any Torah that you did not study and teach to others? Look–your students sit before you. Are there any acts of lovingkindness that you did not do? Furthermore, despite your stature, [you humbled yourself and] you stayed far from disputes and did not allow yourself to be appointed over the affairs of the community.”
Rav Assi replied, “My son, this is why I am crying. What if I am asked to account for the fact that I was able to arbitrate disputes among the people of Israel and did not?” [This is the meaning of] “the fraudulent person destroys [the world].” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim 2)
Though the precise structure of Jewish communities has changed according to place, time and current interests, membership in a Jewish community has always demanded a sense of shared destiny, manifested in the obligation to care for other members of the community, as well as in the joy of partaking in others’ celebrations.
Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.
Pronounced: SHI-vuh (short i), Origin: Hebrew, seven days of mourning after a funeral, when the mourner stays at home and observes various rituals.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.