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Commentary on Tanakh Class June 14, 2021

Don Perlmutter

Hillel: "Do not separate yourself from the community."
This advice became a springboard for a thoughtful exploration of the meaning and implications of community in our lives. A question before us was:

"What do you look for in a community?"
Our group offered several responses such as: common values, people in a similar stage of life, and a sense of family among diverse backgrounds.

Who Benefits from Community?
We were reminded of the evil or rebellious son (Rasha) in the Passover Seder who asked “What does this ritual mean to you?” He is considered evil because his perspective is from outside the community. So, the Jewish perspective affirmed by Hillel is that community is essential and the benefits between the individual and the group are reciprocal.

Advantages of community membership to the individual include companionship, a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, strength in numbers when promoting a point of view or defending a position. These are obvious benefits.

What is not so obvious is what we owe our community or put another way, what benefits does the community derive from its members? The Orthodox approach is that an individual’s actions are tightly linked to the community (their community). One owes it to the community to behave according to the prescribed laws to avoid a shonda for the neighbors.

Libertarian thinking extols the virtues of “rugged individualism." They decry regulations, limitations on freedoms, and controls on the free market. Progressives, on the other hand, make the argument that even the most strident libertarian is dependent on the community (government) for basic services, infrastructure, and defense. The social contract between the society and its individuals dictates that we must contribute back.

The interesting question was posed as to how tikun olam relates to our obligations to community. Does the notion of being “the chosen people” run counter to sharing responsibility for those outside our own close circle? “Repairing the world” is generally used in reference to the world at large and has been adopted by socially and environmentally conscious Jews. It is rarely invoked by orthodox who tend to be insular and not concerned with the affairs of the world at large. We were reminded by one of our group that generations of oppression and enforced separation contributed to this insularity.

The concept of concentric circles of community can serve to resolve these questions: Those who are close to us form the smallest circle and have priority. These are concrete relationships and are part of our daily reality. Larger circles will include people we do not know, and the relationships will, therefore, become more abstract. It is our obligation to those in the larger circles that defines our humanity.

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782