It is possible to suggest a number of different reasons for the extraordinary, unprecedented phenomenon of Jewish survival in the Diaspora in such varying circumstances over so long a period. If we were to search for one factor that may explain this tenacious survival, some would choose the Jewish belief in one God. Others might choose a book - the Tanach or the Talmud. Others again might choose the memory of Eretz Israel as something which kept the Jews from disintegrating, assimilating and disappearing. These are all possibilities, and it may be in the unique combination of these three elements that the secret of Jewish survival can be found.
A strong case can be made, however, for the idea that - without one additional factor - all the above factors together would have been inadequate to keep the Jews together through history. One addition element that has kept the Jews together is the fact that, throughout history, they have generally taken care of each other and tried to help each other in diffciult times. It is to this factor, and its presence in the life of the modern community, that we now turn.
We do not want to idealize reality. Jewish history is full of tensions between different groups of Jews. Any close examination of the reality of Jewish life will reveal cases of callousness and harshness within each specific Jewish community and between different communities. The prophets may have been among the first witnesses of class differences between rich and poor within the Jewish community and to rail against the hard-heartedness of the former towards the latter, but they were not the only ones. Many places and periods have seen full-blown class tensions breaking out within Jewish communities. Such differences have always existed among all societies and nations.
Nevertheless, there is a strong counter-tradition within the Jewish story that has softened the effects of these tensions. A central core of concern for the unfortunate and the weak runs throughout Jewish history that, if it has not eliminated tensions and brought equality within the community, has alleviated considerably the natural harshness of life as it is lived everywhere. It is possible to make a strong case for the fact that - in comparison to general society - the situation of poor Jews has been made much more bearable by a number of specific community mechanisms and institutions.
We must search for the roots of these mechanisms and institutions in the earliest of Jewish texts, the Torah. The books of Vayikra and Devarim are especially full of social legislation aimed at softening the harsh lot of the less fortunate elements in society. Here we find a entire series of laws incumbent upon the individual Hebrew (Jew), commanding the individual to take care of his fellow Jew who is less fortunate. The fact that these are commandments is significant. The whole approach to helping the unfortunate that would develop among Jews throughout history would be based only partly on the appeal to conscience. The idea that the Jew is commanded to help others is a value that would essentially become internalized, and helps to explain the extraordinary tradition of aiding the less fortunate of the community that has become a byword for Jewish community in almost all times and places.
The primary word that is used by Jews to indicate the value of helping others, tzedakah, is derived from the word for justice. The Jew is not told to be nice to others: he or she is told to be just, to right the wrongs of the world and to create a more just situation. According to Jewish tradition, the world is an imperfect place and it is up to the Jew to do something towards altering the situation. It is the Jew’s responsibility to try and create Tikkun Olam - a repaired world. This complex idea has been expressed in many different ways throughout Jewish history, and with particular strength in individual Jewish communities. Let us examine some of the forms that this took in pre-modern communities. We will mention four different expressions of these social ideas.