For thousands of years, Jewish life has essentially developed within the framework of individual communities and their institutions. Jews have resorted more to these institutions than to any others. However, whatever the time or the place, these communities have been part of a wider context whose two essential parts can be defined as internal/cultural and external/political.
We see the internal and cultural dimension in the development of Jewish communities as part of a wider Jewish cultural context, as defined by custom [minhag]; prayer formulae [nosach]; literature; rabbinic sources of authority and historical memory that linked them back to their particular historical roots. Over the centuries, some communities were more linked historically and culturally to Eretz Israel, while others were linked more strongly to Babylon. Spain and the Spanish Diaspora developed a whole host of communities that considered themselves Sephardi, while others connected themselves to the communities of the Germanic lands [Ashkenaz] and came to see themselves as Ashkenazi. Some communities such as Italy and Yemen were part of the first set of links (Eretz Israel and Babylon) but not the second (Sepharad and Ashkenaz). In this way, a complex set of cultural interconnections developed within the Jewish world as communities in certain places considered themselves connected with particular sub-cultures of Judaism. In more modern times, the growth of Chassidut in Eastern Europe and beyond set up an entirely new series of connections within the Ashkenazi world, defined by loyalty to a specific Chassidic Rebbe and tradition.
In modern Jewish communities, we must add to these cultural affiliations a set of ideological frameworks that are derived purely from the Jews’ collision with the modern world. Some of these are religious groupings, each of which demonstrates a different interaction between Judaism and modernity. We include among these groups Haredi Judaism (subdivided according to the pre-modern cultural affiliations mentioned previously); Modern Orthodoxy; Conservative Judaism; Reform Judaism; Liberal Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism. In addition there are a host of ideological secular divisions, which tend to be in two main directions, according to a general political ideology (socialism or communism) or Jewish ideology (especially Zionism). All of these divisions, then, be they pre-modern or modern, represent the first way in which individual communities or groups within communities define themselves and are, in turn, defined by a wider set of cultural Jewish perspectives.
The second way is external and political. Apart from periods in the Land of Israel (and a few obscure stories of sovereignty in the Diaspora, of which the best known is the Khazar Kingdom of the early Middle Ages), Jews have always lived under the sovereignty of others. This means that Jews in different communities have almost always been defined in terms of the general unit to which they owe loyalty (and taxes), that unit having the power to decide many different aspects of the Jews’ fate. This unit often changed while the Jews stayed in the same place. For example, four times in the last three hundred years Jews in Strasbourg or Metz in Alsace-Lorraine have seen their general unit change hands between France and Germany.
In the pre-modern world, although such changes or political developments could have far-reaching implications for the security of the Jewish community, their influence was almost always external and did not strongly affect the Jews’ actual identity within the community. This changed with the advent of modernity, as many Western Jews started to identify with their ‘host nation’ while continuing (most of them) to consider themselves Jews. For example, Jews on each side of the border between France and Germany continued to consider themselves Ashkenazi Jews, but some saw themselves as French Ashkenazi Jews while others saw themselves as German Ashkenazi Jews.
The change was deeply significant. The various Jewish subgroups responded differently to the challenge of how much ‘external’ identity they were prepared to mix with their Jewishness. This identification of Jewish communities with each other as part of a common group, according to the political framework in which they live, is the second aspect of individual communities’ living within a larger framework.
One final factor should be emphasized at this point. We have already mentioned in Part One that a significant part of the modern Jewish world is based on stories of migration, sometimes across many lands and oceans. Whole communities have sometimes transplanted themselves from one continent to another. This has created a situation in which, far more than ever before, it is possible to find in one geographical location a wide range of different groups. One contemporary community may include three or more separate sub-communities that may co-operate with each other or live in mutual tension.
Examining all of these factors, we understand that there are great complexities at work in the Jewish world. We have already met some of these factors in our examination of individual communities. For assessing the fuller implications of this situation, however, we need the Jewish community in its relationship to the wider national Jewish community. It is to this that we now turn.