Community, Controversy, & Cooperation

The tension between individual and communal needs cannot be resolved, but the two must be balanced.

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Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press. 

Strife and contention were no strangers to the Jewish community. Wherever there are two Jews, the wry saying has it, there are three different opinions. All the more reason why the Jewish teachers, often not averse to a good dose of controversy themselves, repeatedly stressed the importance of communal harmony and cohesion, especially when the community was attacked from without.

In rabbinic and medieval times, the Jew who was disloyal to his community or who deserted it when it was in trouble or, worst of all, who sought to curry favor with the governmental authorities by pointing to the faults of its members so as to endanger their lives, was treated as an outcast. Within the community the danger was ever present of powerful leaders taking unfair advantage of the other members or seeking to lord it over them.

community dividedIn a Talmudic saying, no man should be appointed a community leader unless he has behind him a box of vermin, presumably meaning that ideally he should not have an aristocratic background, so that when he seems to be getting beyond himself his followers will be able to remind him of his base ancestry.

Rabbinic Sayings on Communal Undertakings

Going back at least as early as the second century C.E., Ethics of the Fathers (Mishnah tractate Avot) has a number of acute maxims on the subject of Jews working together in a community. Attributed to Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Prince--a communal leader himself who knew where the shoe pinches--is the saying: "Let all who labor with the community labor with them for the sake of Heaven [not for personal advantage]. For the merit of their ancestors is their support, and their righteousness endures forever."

[The early Mishnaic sage] Hillel is quoted as saying: "Do not separate yourself from the community," which may have been directed against the sectarians of Hillel's day, although Travers Herford, in his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, is too conjectural when he understands Hillel as referring to the Essenses.

An anonymous saying in Ethics of the Fathers is: "Anyone who makes many virtuous, no sin will result from his actions. But anyone who makes many sin, no opportunity will be given him to repent."

The Talmud contains a virulent denunciation of those who have abandoned the ways of the community; those who "spread terror in the land of the living" (based on Ezekiel 32:2 and referring to leaders who are tyrants); and those who sin and make others sin. These will go to hell to be punished there for all generations.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.