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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Community I

February 22, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

A learned person ( talmid chacham ) is not permitted to live in a city that does not have the following ten things: a court; a tzedaka fund; a synagogue; a mikveh; sufficient bathroom facilities; a doctor; a blood-letter; a scribe; a butcher; a Torah teacher for children… [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b]

Zionism can be seen as a response to a number of different historical developments at the end of the 19th century. According to the classic story of Herzl’s epiphany at the Dreyfus trial, Zionism was a way to deal with the intractability of European antisemitism – and the collapse of the enlightenment dream of a neutral society. A more sociological analysis sees the movement as a synthesis of traditional messianism, secular humanism, and European romantic nationalism. From a different angle, Zionism appears to be a response to the breakdown of the traditional Jewish community. The rise of the modern state meant the end of the semi-autonomous Jewish community, ruling itself largely by Torah law and rabbinic authority. Jews became individual citizens of the state, without the mediation of the community, and the community thereby lost its authority and its centrality in Jewish identity, contracting to the status of a voluntary association with minimal powers, dealing mainly with peripheral aspects of life.

The Zionist response to the collapse of community was twofold. On the one hand the state was seen as the replacement for community. If the traditional European ghetto was “a state within a state,” the Zionist dream was a state in its own right. In the Zionist state we would have not just autonomy but full sovereignty and independence. Combining nostalgia for the biblical image of a Jewish state with an idealized view of the ethnic nation states of early 20th century Europe, we imagined ourselves liberated from the ghetto/community, into the new, redeemed reality of the Jewish state.

On the other hand, from the beginning of Jewish settlement here in the late 19th century, we have seen a constant series of experiments in the creation of communities that would restore aspects of what was lost in the transition to the modern state. The best known of these, of course, is the kibbutz. We tend to think of the kibbutz as an experiment in pure socialism, but the economic structure was only part of the story. The debates that raged through the kibbutzim and their associations over the century have dealt less with economics than with social issues: the optimum size for the community; the status of women; the status of family obligations; the responsibility for raising the children. And while the kibbutz movement was struggling to define its ideal community, other models were created: the moshav shitufi , in which the economy is communal, but the family unit remains largely autonomous (there is no communal dining room or laundry – or children’s quarters); the moshav ovdim , a farming village, where only certain equipment and services are communal; and now, the ubiquitous yishuv kehilati , or “community settlement,” which is essentially a residential village – usually with only minimal employment opportunities, so that most residents commute to work elsewhere.

Today, the kibbutz is struggling to define itself anew and privatization seems an irresistible force sweeping through all the forms of collective communities. And yet, Jewish religion is turning out to be better suited to the sustenance of communities than to uniting the citizens of a modern state. But what, exactly, is a community? How do we build and preserve them - and prevent them from being divisive and exclusionary? How should we divide functions between state and community? I will explore these questions in the next few entries.


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