In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore the role of the value of community in Jewish thought, and specifically the thought of Rabbi Sacks. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one lesson to the topic, then a suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson is provided which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 (11 years old) upwards, but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).
Do the following thought experiment with your students:
Close your eyes and consider the following questions:
- How many followers/connections do you have on your social media accounts?
- How many of them have you met in person?
- How many can you rely on and call in an emergency?
You can also show the following video of Rabbi Sacks talking about this in an interview (watch from 1:40 onward) or use this text from Rabbi Sacks’ book Morality (p. 58):
A 2018 research exercise showed that the average person in Britain had 554 friends online, but only five true and close friends.24 That is a measure of the difference between real and electronic friendship – between people you can turn to for help and who will make some sacrifice for you if you need it and people with whom you merely exchange information. Social media has an enormously positive role to play in allowing people to stay in touch with one another, share experiences and knowledge, and enhance interactions within a real community. But real interpersonal friendship needs an investment of time, intimacy and a degree of privacy.
The following 40-minute interview also deals with many of the issues of technology and community: Technology & Community: A Facebook Live discussion between Rabbi Sacks and Nicola Mendelsohn !!!
- What are the benefits of social media in our lives?
- What are the biggest challenges that we face from the impact of social media in our lives?
- Can social media create community in our life?
- Where else can we find community if not online?
- What can offline community give us that online forums cannot?
- Why is being part of a community important to you?
The first marriage:
- Why is it not good for ‘man’ to be alone? (Do you think this is just men, or ‘humans’?)
- What can we learn from the way Adam’s mate was created?
- What do you think ‘one flesh’ means?
The first command – to be a parent
- What does the command to be ‘fertile’ mean?
- Why do you think this was the very first mitzvah given to humanity?
- Is this a mitzvah just for Jews?
Avraham was chosen because he understood the value of family
- The Hebrew uses the word כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו which could mean ‘because he (Avraham) knows. What does he know?
- What reason does God give here for having chosen Avraham to be the forefather of God’s chosen people?
- What so the wider context of these verses? How are they connected to what God is telling us here?
On Family Tensions in Sefer Bereishit
Families aren’t easy places. They’re full of stress. They always were. Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, is a set of variations on the theme of family, and none runs smoothly. With Adam and Eve comes conflict. With Cain and Abel, fratricide. Abraham and Sarah disagree about Ishmael. Isaac and Rebecca face the sibling rivalry of Esau and Jacob. Jacob has to contend with the jealousy between his sons. And over them all hovers the figure of God, author of life, whom at times we can almost imagine saying: “You think you have problems with your children. What about Me?”
Yet the Hebrew Bible, and Judaism subsequently, never lost sight of the fact that the family is the DNA out of which we build a humane world. There could be no greater contrast than that between the Bible and the world of myth. The ancient epics are about gods and demi-gods whose battles shape the world. They are about cosmic forces and mythic heroes. With Genesis, for the first time in human history, we meet ordinary people living ordinary lives, trying to do their best in a difficult world. That is the great power of the book of books and why it has never lost its hold on the human imagination. It’s about us, people we can recognise and identify with. The Hebrew Bible is the ultimate democratic text, because it tells us that each of us matters. We are each the “image of God”. The real dramas are not the ones fought in court or on the battle field, by military heroes and kings. Nor are they the ones we read about in the press or see on the television news. They are the ones fought and resolved in the home, between parents and children, husbands and wives. No literature more systematically expresses the dignity of the personal, the high moral drama of everyday life.Learning to Love, in Celebrating Life, p.99-100
- Why does the Book of Bereishit spend so much time telling stories about families?
- What lessons can we learn from them?
- What came from these families (clue: the Book of Exodus)? What is the message there?
Parental responsibility to educate children
- What are these texts also known from and when do read them?
- Why do you think educating children is central to them?
- Why is it a parent’s responsibility to educate their children?
The Mitzvah to respect parents
- Why is it important to respect parents?
- How can this be achieved?
- How do you respect your parents?
Talmudic parental responsibilities
- What responsibilities does this text say parents have?
- What do these have in common?
- Do these still apply today? Would you add anything to the list?
Step-parents and other legal guardians have the same responsibilities
- Why does the Midrash have to clarify this?
- Do you think children have the same responsibility to respect their guardians if they are not their biological parents?
- Do you think we have more responsibility to our biological children than others?
Faith Lives in Communities
Judaism is an insistently communal faith. There have been belief systems that emphasised the individual… For them the primary religious experience is the private communion of the soul with God. That has never been the Jewish way. To be sure, we have had our share of mystics and contemplatives. But the greatest challenge as Judaism has seen it is not to ascend from earth to heaven through the journey of the soul, but to bring the Divine presence from heaven to earth and share it with others. That is an essentially collective task, which is why the covenant at Mount Sinai was made, not with individuals but with an entire people. In biblical times it was the task of a nation. In the Diaspora it became the function of communities.
So we pray together, celebrate together, confess our sins together, even mourn together. The holiest prayers in Judaism require a quorum, minimally defined as ten men. The Sages ruled that “one who separates himself from the community” forfeits his share in the world to come. Moses Maimonides defines this as simply living apart from others, not sharing their burdens or their grief. One who separates himself from the community may lead a life of righteousness. But he or she leads it alone, and that is not the Jewish way.
It’s at moments of distress that you understand why. To face crisis is one thing; to face it alone is another. There is by now an enormous literature spreading across several disciplines to show how important it is to wellbeing to be surrounded by friends. Merely having people to talk to makes a difference. We speak of “unburdening” ourselves to others, and the metaphor is exact. There is something about human nature that makes troubles shared easier to bear. We are, as Aristotle and Maimonides said, social animals. What distinguishes homo sapiens from other life-forms is the extent and complexity of our sociality.
One of the researchers who discovered that regular attendance at a place of worship added years to life-expectancy hazarded a guess as to why. People who do so, he said, “have friends and a sense of importance in the scheme of things”. He’s probably right. Faith makes a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is sustaining the bonds between people. Faith lives in communities. They are the human face of the Divine reality that tells us we are not alone.Community, in Celebrating Life, pp.136-137
Despite its insistence on the dignity of the individual and the infinite value of a single human life, Judaism sees the person within the network of relationships, as part of a family, a community and a society. It is society as such that must be sanctified if the individual is to find God in the daily life of the world He created and pronounced good. The great symbol of Jewish spirituality is the tabernacle, a fragile sanctuary made by human hands and placed at the centre of the camp as a visible reminder that God is in the midst of the community as well as in the secret spaces of the soul.
Judaism is of its essence a collective endeavour, and as a result it is deeply communal in its spirituality. Its most sacred prayers cannot be said in private. The liturgy, other than occasional meditations, is written in the first person plural, not the singular. When we pray for an individual we include him or her amongst ‘all others in Israel’ who need healing or consolation. We confess our sins together. When a couple stand under the bridal canopy, the blessings said on the occasion, the sheva berakhot, speak of ‘Zion rejoicing in her children’ as if the whole Jewish people past and present joined in the celebration. Jewish mourning customs draw the bereaved gently back into the ambit of community at the very time when they feel most alone. Even the Jewish home is not a closed institution, a ‘haven in a heartless world’. Jewish teachings emphasise the open house, the extended family, and welcoming the stranger. Hospitality is ‘greater than welcoming the Divine presence’. We discover God in our togetherness, not our isolation. Martin Buber misdescribed the faith of Judaism when he spoke of I-and-Thou. The primary relationship in Judaism is We-and-Thou, the Jewish people standing collectively before God.Community of Faith, pp. 92-93
Questions to Consider:
- How is Judaism a “communal faith”?
- Why do you think this is critical to Judaism as a faith system?
- What impact do you believe this has made on the Jewish people throughout their history?
Communities are the human expression of Divine love
The psychologist Abraham Maslow [says] we have physical needs, for food, shelter and security. Above these we have psychological needs, the deepest of which is to be recognised, known and valued for what we uniquely are. Eventually I realised that this was a major part of my work, to communicate not only ideas but also a sense of worth to the many people who make up our communities. There may be several hundred people in the room, and I may have only an hour to spare, but while I am talking to someone he or she must be the one person in my universe. That may be the most important thing I can give. Ideas can be found in books. But a sense of value and recognition can only be had from other people. It matters. It gives us the strength to continue. It’s a source of moral energy, perhaps the most powerful there is…
It was only after my experience of visiting communities that I understood the last of [the priestly] blessings. What does it mean for God to “turn His face towards you”? And how does that “give you peace”? What’s revolutionary about the Bible is the idea that God is a person, not a power. That means that He knows us, values us, cares about us. There’s a line in the Psalms that says, “He counts the number of the stars and gives each a name.” A Big Bang could give rise to a near-infinity of stars. Only a person can give something a name.
God knows us not abstractly but personally and intimately. He knows our name. He turns His face towards us. There is no greater source of peace – peace of the soul – than this, knowing that we are known, recognising that we are recognised. Then I understood how community is the human expression of Divine love. It’s where I’m valued simply for what I am, how I live, what I give to others. It’s the place where they know my name.Where They Know My Name, in Celebrating Life, pp. 147-149
Questions to Consider:
- Why is it a basic emotional need to ‘be seen’?
- How does being a part of a community provide for this need?
- What is the connection between community and Divine love?
Communities are the Architecture of Jewish Values
Jews cared about institutions. They rather than the buildings in which they are housed are the true vehicles of the Divine presence, and they have an architecture – a shape, balance and structure – of their own. Institutions are more than meets the eye. They embody values, principles and ways of life. Their day to day functioning can often be depressingly routine. But beneath the service, they are our most powerful way of turning our abstract ideals into tangible and living relationships. Through families, associations and communities, a civilization passes on its values from one generation to the next in the most vivid and comprehensible way, through patterns of behavior learned and internalised until they become, in Alexis Tocqueville’s phrase, ‘habits of the heart’. If we seek to understand a faith or culture, it is to these institutions that we must turn, listening attentively to their spoken and unspoken language, their distinctive rhythms and nuances. It is here that we will learn what makes a group something more than the individuals who comprise it at any given moment – what makes it a community of memory and character, or in Hebrew a kehilla.
It is in its institutions – the Jewish home, the house of study and place of prayer – that Judaism’s unique religious genius is best expressed. The Torah is a code of great ideals: freedom, responsibility, justice, compassion, family, community and the fellowship of man. But it is in everyday life that the dry bones of abstract ideas take on flesh and begin to live and breathe. In Judaism emunah is not faith contemplated but faith lived, in specific ways and particular relationships. It exists not in books of theology but in the deeds we do and the words we say, in actions, transactions and conversations. It is easy to find God in heaven, harder to make space for Him on earth, but that is what Jews have been summoned to do, and our institutions are of the essence of that project.Community of Faith, pp. 5-6
Questions to Consider:
- How do institutions embody values, principles and ways of life?
- How are the values of your community expressed in its institutions?
- Where has your community ‘made space for God’?
Being Rich in Social Capital
Jews like my parents were poor, but they were rich in social capital. They had strong families and immensely supportive communities. They had an almost Calvinist ethic of hard work, together with a strong respect for scholarship and study. These values were embodied in the communities they made or joined. People helped one another.
Judaism tends to have a strong communal dimension… This may be true generally of minority faiths, and especially of immigrant communities. In a profound way, religion is the consecration of community, the place where our togetherness under God is given shape and strength.
In practical terms, our human connections shape us in ways of which we are not always consciously aware. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have documented the enormous impact social networks have. If our friends are overweight, so probably will we be. If they don’t smoke, the likelihood is that neither will we. We are affected not only by our close friends but also to a surprising extent by our friends’ friends. Indeed, most job opportunities come our way through these second-order networks, which are vastly more extensive than our close friends. Community plays an important role in the way our lives unfold, and is the living face of a shared moral order. All of which makes the breakdown of community deeply problematic at both a personal and societal level. Once we feel that we are really alone and cannot call on neighbours for help, then we are part of a new social poverty, which can be demoralising and debilitating.Morality, pp.34-35
A decade later [after the publication of Bowling Alone], however, in a book entitled American Grace (2010), Putnam documented the good news. He discovered that a powerful store of social capital still existed in religious environments: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people – defined by regular attendance at a place of worship – actually do make better neighbours.
An extensive survey carried out throughout the United States between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue- goers are more likely to give money to charity, regardless of whether the charity is religious or secular. They are also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, give excess change back to a shop assistant, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, spend time with someone who is feeling depressed, allow other drivers to come out in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger, or help someone find a job.
For some minor acts of help, there was no difference between frequent and non-churchgoers. But there was no good deed among the fifteen on the survey more commonly practiced by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, not only within but also beyond their own communities.
Their altruism exceeds this. Frequent worshippers are also more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, health, arts and leisure, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. Within these organisations they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They take a more active part in local civic and political life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. They get involved, turn up and lead. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large.
Tested on attitudes, religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. On the basis of self-reported life satisfaction, religious people are also happier than their non-religious counterparts.
Interestingly, each of these attributes is related not to people’s religious beliefs but to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Religion creates community, community creates altruism, and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. Like Durkheim, he came to the conclusion that religion, as a moral force, is more about belonging than believing.
There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious congregation that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness. Religions in liberal democratic societies are our ongoing tutorial in the ‘art of association’ that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as our apprenticeship in liberty. Religion creates communities, and communities create moral people.Morality, pp. 297-299
Questions to Consider:
- What does it mean to be ‘rich in social capital’?
- How have you been impacted by the people in your community?
- Why do you think being part of a community is more likely to mean you are an altruistic person?
From Am to Eda: The Covenantal Community of Faith
Jews and Judaism combine two phenomena that nowhere else coincide. Jews are a nation, and Judaism is a religion. There are nations that contain many religions. There are religions whose adherents are spread across many nations. What is unique is the way in which Judaism combines both.
Jews, ‘the children of Israel’, are described in the Bible as both an am, a people, and an edah, a religiously constituted congregation. They are both an extended family with the same biological ancestor, Jacob/Israel, and a community of faith bounded by the covenant they made with God at Mount Sinai. We catch an intimation of this in the words Ruth spoke to Naomi when she insisted on accompanying her mother-in-law to Israel: ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16). ‘Your people will be my people’—that is a bond of nationhood. ‘Your God will be my God’—that is the adoption of a religious faith.Future Tense, pp. 35-36
They [must] become not just an am but also an eda, a congregation, a community, from the word ed, “witness,” and y-a-d, “to designate, specify, arrange.” There must be more than fellow-feeling and kinship. There must be an act of shared testimony and commitment to work together for the sake of the common good.Pesah: Finding Freedom, in Ceremony & Celebration, p. 238
For the Bible, the key example of a covenant is marriage, understood as a bond of identity between husband and wife. A marriage is held together not by power or mutual advantage but by a moral bond of love and fidelity. Virtually all the prophets compare the bond between God and Israel to a marriage. The significance of Sinai is that, long before the Israelites had a state, they had a society, and they did so because they had a social covenant before they had a social contract. That is why, uniquely, Jews remained a nation even in exile and dispersion. Though they had lost their state, they still had their eda, their community of faith. Though they had lost the land, they still had the law.Shavuot: The Greatest Gift, in Ceremony & Celebration, p. 295
Not only did the synagogue represent the moment of the revelation at Sinai when Jews were transformed from an am to an edah, from a community of fate to one of faith. It also served as a recreation of the Mishkan or tabernacle in the wilderness, Israel’s first house of collective worship. Unlike the Temple in Jerusalem, the tabernacle had no fixed address. It was erected wherever they made camp, and dismantled and carried when they moved on. It became a symbol of Israel’s journey as an ever-moving people, and of the fact that wherever Jews went, the Divine presence went with them. The tabernacle at the center of the camp defined Israel as the people in whose midst is the space we make for God.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 131
Questions to Consider:
- What is the difference between an am and an edah?
- What can we learn about community from marriage?
- What values are the basis of a Covenantal Faith Community
The Community moving us from ‘I’ to ‘We’
Our social ecology must include strong third-sector institutions. Families are where we discover the bonds of love and trust. Schools are where we learn the collective story of which we are a part. Communities are where we are there for other people at times of need, and they for us. Congregations are where we join our prayers to those of others, making their hopes our own. Collectively they are the places where we learn to speak the language of ‘We’ as well as ‘I’. They are where we learn moral literacy, ‘habits of the heart’, the give-and-take of rights and responsibilities, the grammar of reciprocity. Without them, society is too abstract to be real. Community is society with a human face.The Politics of Hope, p. 3
Morality achieves something almost miraculous, and fundamental to human achievement and liberty. It creates trust. It means that to the extent that we belong to the same moral community, we can work together without constantly being on guard against violence, betrayal, exploitation or deception. The stronger the bonds of community, the more powerful the force of trust, and the more we can achieve together.Morality, p. 13
Questions to Consider:
- How does membership of a community move us from focusing on the ‘I’ to the ‘We’?
- What other kinds of communities are there apart from religious communities?
- How can we replicate the benefits of a community at a societal level?
Rejoicing as an act of community-creation
Nowadays we tend to make a sharp distinction between religious ritual and social inclusion. Yet the two are often intimately intertwined. The Bible says, for example, about religious festivals: ‘You shall rejoice on your festival, you, your son and daughter, your male and female servant, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns’ (Deut. 16: 14). On this Maimonides, the twelfth century codifier, writes: ‘As well as eating and drinking, it is your duty to feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and other poor and unfortunate people, for if you lock the doors of your courtyard and eat and drink with your wife and family without giving anything to the poor and bitter in soul to eat and drink – this is not rejoicing as a religious commandment but mere gastronomic pleasure . . . Rejoicing of this kind is a disgrace to those who indulge in it.’
What we see in these texts is that the festivals are not just religious rituals. They are acts of community-creation. A decent society, the Hebrew Bible implies, is one in which people at the margins, the poor, those from fractured families, and the ‘stranger’ (what we would now call a member of an ethnic minority) are not to be excluded from communal celebrations. It is not only their legal and economic situation the Bible cares about, but also their psychological needs for friendship and inclusion.The Home We Build Together, p. 127
Questions to Consider:
- Why does the Torah link the festivals to social inclusion?
- How do festivals lead to community-creation?
- Can the opposite of rejoicing have a similar effect?
- The Meaning of Community
- Technology & Community: A Facebook Live discussion with Nicola Mendelsohn !!!
- On Community Conflict (JInsider) !!!
- Rabbi Sacks speaks in the House of Lords on the contributions of faith communities
Further articles from Rabbi Sacks exploring the value of Community
- The Spirit of Community (Covenant & Conversation, Vayakhel 5775) !!!
- Three types of Community (Covenant & Conversation, Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773) !!!
- Individual and Community, (Covenant & Conversation, Massei 5768) !!!
- The Jewish community could not exist for a day without its volunteers (The Times, 29th October, 2012) !!!
- A Community of Communities – BBC Reith Lecture 1990 (Lecture 6/6) on BBC Radio 4 !!!
Neither the individual nor the state is where we discover who we are and why… Beyond the most basic rules necessary for the maintenance of the most rudimentary social order, morality lives in communities and the traditions which sustain them.The Persistence of Faith pp. 14-15
Morality can no longer be predicated of the state, for we have become too diverse to allow a single morality to be legislated. Nor can it be located in the individual, for morality cannot be private in this way. We have neglected the third domain: that of community.The Persistence of Faith p. 45
Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, how I live and what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name.Celebrating Life p. 149
Community is society with a human face – the place where we know we’re not alone.From Optimism to Hope p. 14
A community of faith cuts across boundaries. It brings together what other institutions keep apart.Celebrating Life p. 145
A community is like the ark of Jewish tradition. We lift it and discover that it is lifting us.Celebrating Life p. 141
Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people at any one time are a paragraph. The Jewish people through time constitute a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 31
At Sinai, the Israelites were transformed from a community of fate into a community of faith, from an am to an edah, meaning a body of politic under the sovereignty of God, whose written constitution was the Torah.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 96
Moral education is not simply learning to make choice. It is becoming part of a community with a particular tradition, history and way of life.The Persistence of Faith p. 44
The fear of living is what we experience in early childhood, namely separation anxiety. The young child knows how vulnerable and dependent he or she is, especially in relation to the mother. We fear being alone. We need the protective embrace of human others. It is for this reason that we seek to identify with a group, a team, a community or a nation. We merge our identity with theirs. It is the anxiety about being singular, different, individuated.Succot: Season of Joy, in Ceremony & Celebration, p. 136
In practical terms, our human connections shape us in ways of which we are not always consciously aware… Community plays an important role in the way our lives unfold, and is the living face of a shared moral order. All of which makes the breakdown of community deeply problematic at both a personal and societal level. Once we feel that we are really alone and cannot call on neighbours for help, then we are part of a new social poverty, which can be demoralising and debilitating.Morality, p. 34-35
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the community in Judaism?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
The main distinction between the natural community of Adam the first and the covenantal faith community of Adam the second becomes clear. The first is a community of interests, forged by the indomitable desire for success and triumph and consisting at all times of two grammatical personae, the “I” and the “thou” who collaborate in order to further their interests. A newcomer, upon joining the community, ceases to be the anonymous “he” and turns into a knowable, communicative “thou.” The second is a community of commitments born in distress and defeat and comprises three participants: “I, thou, and He,” the He in whom all being is rooted and in whom everything finds its rehabilitation and, consequently, redemption. Adam the first met the female all by himself, while Adam the second was introduced to Eve by God, who summoned Adam to join Eve in an existential community molded by sacrificial action and suffering, and who Himself became a partner in this community. God is never outside the covenantal community. He joins man and shares in his covenantal existence. Finitude and infinity, temporality and eternity, creature and Creator become involved in the same community. They bind themselves together and participate in a unitive existence.Soloveitchik, J. B. Lonely Man of Faith, 31
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook
The relationship between the Jewish people and its individual members is different than the relationship between any other national group and its members. All other national groups only bestow upon their individual members the external aspect of their essence (a title such as American). But the essence itself each person draws from the all-inclusive soul, from the soul of God, without the intermediation of the group… This is not the case regarding Israel. The soul of the individuals is drawn from … the community, the community bestowing a soul upon the individuals. One who considers severing himself from the people must sever his soul from the source of its vitality. Therefore each individual Jew is greatly in need of the community. He will always offer his life so that he should not be torn from the people, because his soul and self-perfection require that of him. (p. 144)Kook, A. I. Orot, p. 144
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
One of the ideas that was shared was that Torah study “is only acquired through study in a group.” Furthermore, based on a passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (50:6), the Gemara concludes that a curse was placed on scholars who sit alone and study Torah who ultimately grow foolish because of their solitary study.
In his Ein Ayah, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook explains that the Holy Torah is a Torah of life. It does not guide its followers towards a life of asceticism or a rejection of the wholesome pleasures of the world that can raise the spirits of an individual. Therefore, the Torah anticipates that those who walk in its path will be members of a community, whose support and encouragement will help facilitate their spiritual growth and development. Moreover, an essential aspect of a Torah scholar is the role that he plays in improving the world around him. To accomplish this, the scholar must develop an appreciation for opinions that are at variance with his own, both in the realm of halakhah and in the realm of ethics. That kind of openness comes about only by means of group study, in the course of which one becomes accustomed to hearing opinions that are different from his own. When one chooses to limit debate and to remain secluded within his own closed community, he is unable to learn the ideas and thoughts of his peers and will consequently be unwilling to accept dissenting positions. Isolation inevitably leads to intractable disagreements and, ultimately, to bitter fights and arguments.Steinsaltz, A. Brachot 63a-b: Learning Alone
Rabbi Ezra Bick
I think there is a deeper meaning to the value of the community of knesset Yisrael, based on the concept of the “image” of God, tzelem Elokim. The Torah tells us that God made man in His image. What does this cryptic expression mean? The answer to this question will involve us in a rather difficult theological discussion, which I shall attempt to present as succinctly as I can.
Every object is made according to a plan, a sketch, or a design. That is the image of that object. The image defines the limits of the object’s potential, for it is the exemplar, the platonic ideal, as it were, which each particular object strives to emulate. What, then, was the plan, the ideal version, according to which man was created by God? The Torah answers that man has no fixed final limiting plan, for the image of man is the image of God. There is no final, perfect man – man’s potential, and hence his goal, is to reach up and become as like God as he can, without any cap on his potential development.
Now every man reflects the perfection of God, in his own imperfect development, in a different way. Judaism expresses this by speaking of the “midot” of God, of the divine attributes, and assigning these middot to different figures. Abraham, for instance, is described as exemplifying the attribute of “chesed,” of giving and caring. Isaac his son is described in terms of “gevura,” of strength and self-control. This is trying to say that every individual is different, not because one is necessarily better, closer to God, but because even in the imitation of God each one follows his own particular image, which is the image of God, who exemplifies perfectly all the values.
But this means that even the most perfect man imitates God well only in one particular aspect of the divine infinity. Judaism believes that value is plural; there are multiple values which are one only in God, but which are different, even contradictory at times, from our perspective. The sentence which closes the “shemoneh esrei” prayer – “He who makes peace in his heights, let Him make peace among us and among all Israel” – was interpreted by the Sages to mean: He who makes peace in His world, in His Divine being, between the attributes of mercy and justice, of love and truth, may He bring this peace to us, where those attributes contradict and even war on each other, at least at times. If value is multiple, no one person can embody all perfection, as God does. But the injunction to imitate God (“You shall be holy, for holy am I, HaShem your God”) calls for not only the individual perfection that is every man’s singularity, but in the fullness of all perfections. How can this be done, if each person has a particular distinct personality? The answer is that we are also part of a community, a combination of individual values. The community, the knesset Yisrael, fulfills that aspect of divine perfection, of imitatio Dei, rooted in the multiplicity of values which no single individual can ever embody. This is the deeper meaning of the point of R. Nissim – each person contributes his singular values. The result is a greater degree of perfection than could ever be achieved by any single person, and in this is achieved a greater degree of godliness, for unity from within multiplicity is the image of God.
This then is the value of community. One who cuts himself off from the community, no matter how great his individual merit and qualities, has cut himself off from the fullness of the image of God, and therefore has cut off his personal qualities from the root of value, making them merely human achievements rather than part of the image of God. Writes the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 3,11):Bick, E., Synagogue and Community
These sources were referenced by Rabbi Sacks in the following books:
- The Enforcement of Morals, Patrick Devlin (Morality p. 26)
- The Constitution of Liberty, Friedrich Hayek (Morality, p. 26)
- Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam (Morality p. 35 & 270; The Dignity of Difference, p. 153
- The Third Pillar: The Revival of Community in a Polarised World, Raghuram Rajan (Morality, p. 296)
- The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community, Philip Selznick (Morality, p. 300)
- The Age of Access, Jeremy Rifkin (The Dignity of Difference, p. 142)
Suggested Lesson Plan – Community in the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
The following lesson plan is a suggestion of how some of the resources contained in this unit could be incorporated into a 60-minute class period for a high-school age class. This will focus solely on one particular idea within the thought of Rabbi Sacks. There are many other themes found in this unit which would take more classroom time to explore with your students.
Community in the Thought of Rabbi Sacks
Download our 60-minute class designed for high-school aged students.
Bet Nidrash on Community
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
One of the themes that features in Rabbi Sacks’ writings on community is the difference between an Am (people) and an Edah (community). An Edah is an inclusive community of faith based on shared values that are both inward and outward looking. Ask your students to create a community event that reflects this approach to community building. This events should reflect the values of your community, whether it be focused on chesed or tzedaka of some sort within the community or looking out towards the wider community beyond your own Jewish community, with some kind of social action component. Encourage your students to make sure the event has the following components:
- Inclusive to the whole community (encourage people from across the community to participate)
- Be based on the core values of the community, which should be expressed in the language used for marketing the event.
- A report on the event (or plan for the event) where a clear connection to the ideas of Rabbi Sacks is articulated.