Community, Controversy, & Cooperation

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

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Unity in Distress

When the community is in trouble the individual should participate in its distress even if he himself is not affected. In another Talmudic saying: "If an individual separates himself from the community when it is in distress, the two ministering angels that accompany every man place their hands upon his head and say, 'Such and such a man has separated himself from the community, let him not live to witness the comfort of the community.'"

A good example can be given of the way in which Jewish teaching seeks to achieve a proper balance between the needs of the individual and those of the community to which he belongs. Taking the verse "And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came" (Genesis 41:59) as the key, the Talmud states that conjugal relations must not be engaged in in time of famine, which is understandable not only because there will be less mouths to feed but also because personal pleasure of the more intense kind should be avoided when the community suffers. However, the passage goes on to say that people who have no children may perform their marital duty even in time of famine.

It can generally be said that the tensions between the individual and his community have been resolved neither in Jewish thought nor in Jewish practice, yet Jews have always felt the need to belong to a community and, on the wider scale, to the whole Jewish community, even when to do so was costly.

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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.