Community is an integral part of the Jewish experience.
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. 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.
An Obligation, Not An Option
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].'
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