FOR THE EDUCATOR:
The unit opens up with a piece in which the value of community in Jewish life is examined. The suggestion is made that community has traditionally had an enormous and very central role in the Jewish story. In more recent generations, where modernity has touched, influenced and changed Jewish life, the place of community in Jewish life has become something much more amorphous. Now community is a matter of choice and each individual must consciously decide whether community should play a role in her or his life and what that role should be. It is suggested to discuss the issue in an introductory session using the ideas and the texts brought here.
The Value of Community
Involvement in community is a central Jewish value. For thousands of years, as the Jewish story has been played out largely within a Diaspora context, the importance of Jewish community has grown and developed to an extraordinary extent, creating a framework that has served to a large extent as a replacement for Jewish sovereignty within a state. Encouraged by the Rabbis, the intellectual leaders of the Jewish world since near the destruction of the Second Temple, community has become not only a central factor in Jewish life, but a value that has been treasured and encouraged by generations of Jewish leaders.
The Rabbis did this in two major ways: they made a number of important statements about the value of community and they crafted a way of life which could really only be lived to its fullest within a community context. Let us start by looking at some direct Rabbinic statements encouraging community as a value for Jews. In Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), the ethical section of the Mishna, a classic 3rd century Jewish legalistic work, there appears the following statement in the name of Hillel, seen as a founder figure of Rabbinic Judaism and one of its greatest models:
Hillel used to say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Mishna: Pirkei Avot 2:5
But Rabbinic Judaism went further. It is not just a question of belonging to a community in a technical sense. A Jew should identify with their community and see him or herself as an integral part of it. When the community is in trouble, the individual should feel the pain of their community and show strong identification with the problems of the community to the extent that one should not celebrate while the community is suffering.
When the community is in trouble, a person should not say, “I will go to my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself”. Talmud Babli: Massechet Ta’anit 11a
Another aspect must be understood. Until the onset of modernity, defining oneself as a member of a community was more than a Jewish value, it was a legal necessity wherever Jews lived. Jews were seen by the outside authorities as members of a defined Jewish community, subject to its jurisdiction even if they lived in relative isolation. Their taxes were paid to the outside society, almost always through the intermediaries of the Jewish communal authorities to whom they owed obedience.
In modern times the situation has changed. Over the last two centuries, wherever Jewish life became increasingly integrated within the outside world and Jews became subject to state institutions, Jews ceased to be legally defined as members of the Jewish community and became defined as part of the national community in which they lived. They no longer felt that the Jewish community offered them anything that they might need. All their needs, they felt, could be met within the broader culture. This whole spectrum of relationships could be found within the Jewish world in the 1930s and 40s. The coming of the Nazis, of course, changed the whole situation in a far more drastic ways, challenging and changing Jewish community life in ways never known before.
COMMUNITY IN THE SHOAH
Why examining the subject of the community in the Shoah is important? If it is correct that “community” is an important value and has a central role in the Jewish story, then the Shoah threatened the community structure in a way that is totally unique. Communities had come under pressure before and had been destroyed, but never on the scale encountered in the Shoah. It created many new situations and questions that need to be addressed. What can we learn from this?
We present you here three group activities that exemplified the Value of Community in the most terrible situations ever lived during the Shoah. The activities contain texts, testimonies and questions for discussion.