Editor’s Thoughts: Is there an Ideal Jewish Community?

The fourth Mishnah in the second chapter of Pirkei Avot teaches “al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur- do not separate from the community.” Community is an integral aspect of Jewish practice and we have mitzvot such as those that fall under “devarim she-bikedusha” that cannot be done by individuals. Judaism does not allow us to live in isolation. The gemara in Taanit says, “When the people find themselves in trouble, let not a man say, I will go into my home and eat and drink, and all will be well with me.”[i] As members of a community we are obligated to care for one another. Rav Yisrael Salanter explained that people should view their fellow Jews’ physical needs as their own spiritual needs[ii]. Perhaps, this is one way to interpret Hillel’s statement, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” When your community needs help you must help them. However, an alternative interpretation of Hillel’s statement is reading it as an admonition to not veer from normative communal practice.

What makes a particular practice normative? The designation “normative” implies behavior that is standardized and anticipated. The constant struggle between individual values and traditional Orthodox Judaism provides fertile ground for this debate on both uptown and downtown Yeshiva University campuses. “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur” and similar sources are often used as the basis for an argument about why practices should not change. However, it is important to ask ourselves who is the tzibbur referred to in these discussions? For instance, when Women’s Tefillah Groups were first becoming popular, a major objection to them was that women who participated would be separating themselves from the tzibbur. Rabbi Avraham Weiss in his book, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups makes the argument that to solve the issue of “al tifrosh” Women’s Tefilah Groups should meet in a separate room but in the same building as the regular minyan. This essentially ameliorates the problem of separating from the community. The borders that define where a community starts and ends can be murky; often we find ourselves being part of more than one community whose values may or may not harmonize.

This issue of Kol Ha-Mevaser attempts to tackle some of the challenging questions that come up when talking about the concept of Jewish community. While reading this issue and reflecting on our community, let us try to remember that the exhortation not to “separate from the community” also carries the reverse message. We must strive to ensure that we don’t make a community that people want to separate themselves from. Midrash Bamidbar Rabba teaches, that there are “shiviim panim la-Torah.” The phrase literally translates “there are seventy faces of the Torah,” and this principle is classically used to explain the myriad of explanations and interpretations that can exist for one source.[iii] This idea that Judaism is a religion of multiple truths implies that a Jewish community does not need to have one uniform practice and hashkafah; therefore, one must wonder: is there really a singular ideal Jewish community? I think the ideal community is one where multiple opinions and practices are studied, respected and examined, through lenses that foster spiritual growth and a positive sense of belonging.

Shoshana Halpern is Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser. She is a senior at Stern College majoring in psychology.

[i] Taanit 11a

[ii] http://www.mussarinstitute.org/

[iii] Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 13:15-16