A Community of Spirit(s)

obican_communityOne of the principal functions of religion is community.  Members of our faith community are there to rejoice in the good times and to provide comfort in the sad times.  They witness our life events from birth to death.  Many of the milestones and achievements in our lives are performed in their presence.

Community is of particular importance in Judaism.  In fact, Judaism can be said to be a religion of community.  Community is so important to Judaism that there are nine (count them, nine) words in Hebrew for “community.” There is very little in the life of a Jew that is not done in community, in the presence of others.  Almost all prayer must be performed in the presence of a minyan. [1] We are only eight days old when we make our first formal public appearance, and even after we die, we are still in the presence of our community.[2]

If we are by nature, like most other primates, social beings, why does Judaism insist on, nay requires, participation in community?  Are we simply performing public declarations of faith?  Why must ritual acts be enacted in front of witnesses?  Why must we be witness the faith rituals of others?  What did the rabbis understand about our human nature that they did not leave it to chance we would form community?

For Abraham Joshua Heschel, the community of Israel is a “spiritual order [emphasis in original] in which the human and the ultimate . . .  enter a lasting covenant.”[3]  As an individual, we enter this “lasting covenant” only as a member of the community.  As Heschel writes, “our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community.  What we do as an individual is a trivial episode, what we attain as Israel causes us to grow into the infinite.”[4] At first blush, Heschel seems to discount the value of the individual, privileging the many over the one.  A closer reading, however, reveals that Heschel is placing the religious action of the individual into a larger context.  He does this by first expanding out conception of “community.”

For most of us, community is a cotemporaneous presence of others, but Heschel’s community is not bounded by time.  To be a Jew, he writes, is “living in [emphasis in original] the spiritual order of the Jewish people, the living in the Jews of the past and with the Jews of the present.”[5]  The community is greater than the individual, and history is greater than the community.  Or, as Heschel describes it, “the meaning of history is to be a sanctuary in time.”[6]

So, the first step in getting at the impact/importance of/emphasis on community in general, and communities of faith in particular, requires a different understanding of what constitutes a community and what is our place within it.  Is a community more than “a body of individuals organized into a unit or manifesting usually with awareness some unifying trait”?[7]  Does our faith community include those with whom we stand today as well as those who came before?  What is our obligation to a community not bounded by place or by time?

Again, it is Heschel who offers the beginning of an answer:

Religious living is not only a private concern.  Our own life is a movement in the symphony of ages.  We are taught to pray as well as to live in the first person plural.  We do mitzvah “in the name of all Israel.”  We act both as individuals and [emphasis added] as the community of Israel.  All generations are present, as it were, in every moment.[8]

In other words, the answer to the question, “are we individuals or are we members of a community,” is “Yes.”  Set aside for the moment the fact that I believe “yes” is always a valid answer to any either/or question, what Heschel is teaching us is that we cannot separate our individual self from our communal self.  This is not to say that the communal self subsumes the individual self, but rather the action of the individual self has greater meaning because the action is performed in the constant presence of a spiritual order.   It is both for our own sake and for the sake of others (past, present, and future) that we act.  It is was makes us members of a community of spirit(s).

[1] Ten Jewish adults.  The number was set by the rabbis as the minimum number of people required for a minyan based, partially on the minimum number of “rightous men” Abraham negotiated with G-d must be present in order to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (Bereishit 18:22-32).

[2] Refers to the Jewish tradition of Shmira, in which a member of the community stays with a body from death until burial.  Performing shmira is considered one of the highest mitzvoth a person can undertake.

[3] G-d in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955).  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York. p.423.

[4] Ibid, p.423.

[5] Ibid, p.423.

[6] Ibid, p.423.

[7] Merriam – Webster Unabridged Dictionary (2015).  http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/unabridged/community

[8] G-d in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955).  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York. pp.423-4.


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