Our parasha’s name, Vayakhel, comes from the same root as “kehillah” (“community”), and begins with Moses assembling the “community.” In Biblical times we repeatedly hear about the “nation,” and all its members are expected to observe Judaism alike. The Bible shuns the concept of discrete Jewish communities, each one observing Judaism according to its own priorities and traditions, each a little differently from the next.
The Mishnah is where we are finally introduced to distinct Jewish communities; each one entitled to expect its members to conform to its particular policies and interpretations. The community was defined geographically. If you lived in a certain town, you were a member of the Jewish community of that town, and were expected to live according to its standards, irrespective of what traditions you may have grown up with elsewhere, or came to believe in based upon your own study.
Eventually the question arose as to whether or not it would be possible to have multiple communities, or rabbinic courts, in a single town. One opinion allowed divergent courts with jurisdiction over their respective communities to coexist side by side. (Yevamot 14a) This view is challenged by the medieval commentators, Rashi and Rambam, on grounds that legitimizing diversity in the same locale would lead to the intolerable impression that there is more than one “Torah,” or that the ensuing rival practices in close proximity to one another would inevitably lead to friction over whose way is superior. Regardless of the objections of these two Torah giants, the view permitting multiple courts (and with them multiple versions of Judaism) ultimately prevailed.
Jewish history can be divided into 4 periods corresponding to four phases of the essence of the Jewish community which laid claim to the loyalty of its individual members. First, we have the period of all one nation of Israel, followed by residency in a particular town coming to the fore. This was followed by the rise of ethnic Judaism, where one’s Jewish practice was mediated through membership in an ethnic group, such as “Ashkenazi” or “Sephardi.” In the fourth phase we organize our communities ideologically. For purposes of identifying my religious community, it became more important if I am affiliated Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. than if I live in a particular city or that my ancestors came from a particular region of the globe.
Today, the movements seem to be on the wane, and new, independent expressions of what it means to be a part of a Jewish community have begun to emerge. At first, this may seem a bit unsettling but, from the perspective of Jewish history, it is not altogether unexpected. What’s important is where we began, long ago at the beginning of this week’s parasha, and that we continue the holy work of “vayakhel” – that we make community.
Rabbi Mitch Levine