I can no longer live a meaningful life without my Jewish community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.
Since ancient times, philosophers like Aristotle and more recently, Spinoza have argued that we are social animals. As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:14) In other words, “All Israel are responsible for one another” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39A, Sifra Bechukotai 7:5).
The Talmud actually defined the type of society where scholars were allowed to live: The chosen city had to include a beit din (law court), an honest charity fund, a synagogue, public baths and toilet facilities, a mohel (circumciser) and a surgeon, a notary, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a teacher (Babylonian Talmud, San- hedrin 17b). As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has ex- plained, “in order to be a suitable place to live, a com- munity must provide for all its members’ spiritual and physical needs” (www.myjewishlearning.com).
Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for such community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be bur- ied in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. “We should be buried within the community where we live,” was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne for more than 30 years.
He was espousing the teachings of both Rabbis Hillel and Tzaddok, who urged us not to separate ourselves from the community (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, 4:7). Indeed, Judaism teaches that those who are not prepared to feel their community’s pain and help out when the going gets tough, will not enjoy comfort in the good times either. As the Talmud warns, “The man who secludes himself from the community, which is in distress, shall not see the prosperity of the community” (Ta’anit, chapter 1).
A midrash goes even further, maintaining that removing yourself from the community is like overthrowing the world. It tells the story of the dying Rabbi Assi, who was depressed because although he had been a great scholar and kind and generous man, he had not been involved in communal matters or disputes. As he told his nephew, “I might perhaps have been able to render some service, had I not kept to myself but taken upon me the burden of communal affairs” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2).
Nevertheless, I was touched when Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang sev- eral times to see how I was faring. When upon the first yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father’s death, he offered me the Neuweg Shule for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join Emanuel Synagogue – after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do.
That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year. Judaism ensures that mourners do not grieve alone, stipulating that Kaddish, the prayer for the dead in which God’s name is sanctified, only be recited publicly in the presence of a minyan (ten Jewish adults – the minimum number required for community). Celebrations also become more meaningful when enjoyed together in community.
As our sons have grown older and undertaken prepa- ration for their Bar Mitzvah, our family has come to at- tend synagogue every Shabbat, even though this is going against the general trend – only 7.5 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly. Our service of choice is Masorti: Integrating tradition with modernity, it allows us to sit together as a family.
This egalitarian ethos is particularly important to me as I do not have any daughters and do not want to sit apart from my husband and sons. Nevertheless, it was several years before I felt comfortable being counted in a minyan and agreed to be called up to the Torah. Not that there was ever any pressure on me to do so – our synagogue accepts a certain variety of Jewish practice.
It also gives us the freedom to question and acknowl- edges our right to consider different interpretations and viewpoints. As Robert Gordis, chairman of the Commission on the Philosophy of Conservative Judaism, has ex- plained: “Pluralism is a characteristic not only of Judaism as a whole, but of every Jewish school of thought that is nurtured by the spirit of freedom” (JTS: Emet Ve’Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, 1988, Introduction p14).
According to Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi, “Those who work for the community should do so for the sake of heaven” (Ethics of Our Fathers 2:2). In other words, the early rabbis were urging us
to be ethical when we undertake communal work. As Rabbi Yehudah Prero explains, “We must act with pure intentions, with no ulterior motives” (“Community – Then, Now, and Forever, www.torah.org/learning/yom- tov/holocaust/no3.html).
Humility is also an important factor: The Talmud not only regards leaders as the “servants” of the community (Horayot 10a), but also stresses that they should always carry “a basket of reptiles” on their back so that if they “became arrogant”, they could be told to “Turn around!” (Yoma 22b). In other words, never forget that skeleton hidden in your closet!
Recognizing the frailties of human nature, the ancient rabbis resorted to divine reward and punishment as a means of encouraging ethical communal leadership: those who cause others to do wrong will not be “given the opportunity to repent”, while those who lead others to do good will be credited with their community’s merit (Ethics of Our Fathers, 5:18).
Sure, as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has pointed out, the rab- bis did not think it fair that communal leaders should enjoy heaven while their followers rotted in hell, but is there really no hope of redemption for those who lead others down the wrong path? Here scholars disagreed, with some arguing that while God would not help the wrongdoers, they were still free to repent on their own. In contrast, the medieval scholar and physician Moses Maimonides is much more damning in his assessment: for him, there is truly no hope of salvation for such wicked leaders
(Hilchot Teshuva 4:1, http://blog.webyeshiva.org/tes- huva/inights-in-pirkei-avot-the-implications-of-causing- others-to-sin).
My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just “a group of strangers singing to- gether”. Yet, I have certainly discovered a sense of in- ner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at synagogue services and communal celebrations like the Pesach Seder.
Alain de Botton in his 2012 book Religion for Atheists wrote that the relevance of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism “to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they ... remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together ... or in sitting at a table with neighbors and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together”.
De Botton – who was born Jewish but describes himself as a committed atheist – argues for the removal of religion’s “supernatural structure” before it can help solve “many of the problems of the modern soul”.
My soul, however, does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within Judaism. All I need is my community.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor, a congregant of Emanuel Synagogue, and vice-president on the Board of Emanuel School.