Let us begin the transition from the individual’s family to the community. We have already touched on the subject in a number of the activities outlined above, but let us now introduce the community, both as a concept in Jewish history and as a reality in the participant’s present life.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of community in the Jewish story. All nations and peoples sub-divide into individual geographical communities that form the substructure underpinning the national framework. However, the peculiarity of the Jews as a people who have spent most of their history in Diaspora has caused the community to become a substitute for the nation. That is, many generations of Jews throughout history have experienced their nationhood through life in their specific Jewish community. In the absence of national structures, the community not only replaced the nation; to a large extent, it became the nation.
The transition to a nation based around the individual Jewish community came about in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. With the destruction of all the symbols of its former sovereignty, largely based around the Temple and the cluster of institutions associated with it, there was a need to reorganize the Jewish people in a new manner. If this had not occurred, it is difficult to see how the Jews could have survived as a collective, with the center of the nation ripped out of the national fabric. The people who provided the rescue plan, allowing the nation to move forward, were the group of scholars based at Yavneh, under the leadership of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and, later on, Rabbi Gamaliel.
The story of the setting up of the new center at Yavneh is familiar and does not need to be told again here. What is important for our purposes, however, is to understand the changes that were introduced by the new Sanhedrin (the leadership counsel) at Yavneh. These scholars laid the basis for the new forms of Rabbinic Judaism, subsequently codified in the Mishnah, which would form the basis for Jewish survival in a post-Temple world.
The new survival plan had many different aspects, but one of its central pillars was the emphasis on community. The individual community based around the central institutions of Beit Knesset and study house was now to be the conduit for Jewish values and the physical basis for Jewish life. With the texts as a guide, the general Jewish community would be drastically decentralized, removed from its dependence on the Temple and the sacrificial framework.
Large numbers of Jews had lived in the Diaspora prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, but the situation had changed. Jewish communities now took on a centrality in national Jewish life that they had not previously enjoyed. They were expected to fill all the many and various needs of the individual Jew living within them.
Let us look at seven of the needs of an individual Jew that the historical Jewish community in the Diaspora would have been expected to try to fulfill.
1. Physical Security
In an environment that was often hostile, the Jew’s most paramount need was for physical security. The most likely guarantee of security - and no less important than real security, the feeling of security - would have been found within the Jewish community. Sometimes, in the larger communities, there would be strong buildings where an individual could find refuge in time of need. Even where these did not exist, a feeling of ‘safety in numbers’ would have been strong. There were a number of cases in which the community formed the basis for some kind of self-defense group. Needless to say, there are many cases in history where reliance on the community for physical safety turned out to be a tragic illusion, but in the reality of the Diaspora, it was the best that could be expected.
2. Economic Security
The fortunes of the Jews in the Diaspora were largely tied up with the economic role that they played within the framework of the outside society. In general, it can be said that the more important the role that the Jews played, the better off they were, guaranteed by the goodwill and protection of the rulers of the lands in which they lived. Conversely, the Jews often came under pressure from economic rivals, especially in the towns, who tried to push them out of an important economic role in general society. In this situation, it was vitally important for the Jews to act in an organized manner to hold off the outside threat to their economic position. The institutions of the organized Jewish community were in the best position to try and fight for Jewish rights. Sometimes this was done through the services of a specific Jewish official, often known as a shtadlan, who worked as a kind of lobbyist for Jewish rights with the outside authorities. Sometimes communities took steps to avoid friction and minimize tension with economic competitors by limiting their economic activity to certain fields.
3. Religious Life
As we have already mentioned, Jewish religious life was predicated on the existence of a community. A Jew needed a minyan to meet prayer needs, a shochet to meet kashrut needs, and a burial society and cemetery to provide for the needs of a bereaved family. In short, the various needs of Jewish life could only be met properly within the context of the community.
Let us take a slightly deeper look at one of these examples, the minyan. This is a rabbinical creation, necessitating a quorum of ten men for some of the most vital and central aspects of prayer such as kaddish; repetition of the Amidah with the kedushah; reading from the Torah scroll, the priestly blessing and the saying of Barechu. As prayer in Judaism is theoretically a matter of personal communication between a Jew and God, the necessity of a minyan offers us an interesting insight into this new form of Judaism. The most central aspects of the prayer service, those that should demand the isolated concentration of the believer while communicating with God, are precisely those that necessitate a community of Jews (i.e. a minyan) around the believer.
A comparison with Christianity is instructive here. The supreme model of prayer in Christianity is the lonely monk, isolated in his monastic cell, pouring out his heart to God: in Judaism, it is the believer surrounded by his community. At precisely that moment during which the believer is in the most intense contact with God, he is also in the strongest symbolic contact with his community. This is a great illustration of the importance of community in Judaism, without which it is impossible to live the traditional Jewish religious life.
Education, constructed around a series of texts, was at the center of Jewish life. A Jew was expected to know these texts and understand how to apply them to everyday life. Only a community could adequately supply the full educational needs of the individual. Only a community would have the institutions - not to mention, in many eras, the books - to allow adequate development of the educational process: places of learning for the young and the not-so-young; a study house full of books where the individual could come and study with others or by himself. Private tutors and individual study could supply some of the needs of individual Jews, but they could only go so far: Jewish study was based around collective learning with others. For this, you need a community.
5. The Needs of the Less Fortunate
This was always central for Jews. The traditional Jewish community was a veritable beehive of activity as it attempted to meet the needs of the poor and the infirm. Sometimes this was done through the activity of a community official who would take on a particular sphere of activity. More often, however, a specific group of community members would volunteer to respond to a particular need. Between these two mechanisms within the context of a Jewish community, an attempt would be made to provide for those in need of various kinds of assistance.
6. Emotional Needs
Perhaps above all, a Jew living in a land where he/she felt they did not really belong would need to feel that there were other Jews around for support. Life is never easy for those who constitute a minority. It is even less easy for those whose way of life is so different from the dominant majority and sets them apart. It can be particularly difficult for those who try to live their way of life in an environment that is frequently hostile. In such circumstances, living an isolated Jewish life could prove almost impossible. On the psychological and emotional levels, the need for other Jews would be acute. Answering such a need would be one of the main functions of a Jewish community.
Finally, the Jew needed continuity. Whereas an isolated Jew would find it difficult to find matches for children, a Jewish community would supply a range of possibilities with regard to future marriage partners. The range of social activities such as different life cycle events or festive celebrations would allow some opportunity, however limited, for social interaction. These are key factors in our discussion about a minority group for whom continuity was extremely important.
Suggest these seven needs of the individual Jew as the key reasons why the Jewish community would become such a central factor in our people’s history. For a scattered people such as the Jews, it is inconceivable to think of a stable and continuous existence outside of the necessary framework of community.
The effect on the community was clear. A set of walls developed around each Jewish community that separated the Jew from the outside world. The form of the walls differed with regard to time and place. In some times and places, they were physical; at other times, they were emotional and psychological. At all times, however, the walls were based on lifestyle. The halachic lifestyle would, in itself, provide a great barrier to the outside world. People who observed kashrut, for example, would be very limited in their ability to socialize with non-Jews, since eating together would be next to impossible. At all times there was interaction between Jews within the Jewish community and the outside world. More often than not, the interaction was of an economic nature, as the Jews served some of the economic needs of the surrounding society. In one way or another, however, the walls remained.