“The Torah was commanded to us from Moshe; its inheritance is the community of Jacob’s.”
— Devarim 33:4
Near the end of the Torah reading cycle, we are reminded that this holy, rich, and complex text is the inheritance of “kehillat Yaakov,” the community of Jacob. An interesting mashal, or tale, in VaYikra Raba explains that the “community of Jacob” is the community of all Jews (meaning, it was not limited to the elite scholarly class).
Prior to the printing press, mass communication, and the Internet, the Torah, Mishnah, and Gemara (albeit its two versions) bound the global Jewish community together, despite the great distances separating them. Beyond the central texts, local knowledge and interpretation are what nurtured the development of minhagim, or local customs, many of which have sustained the test of time.
Now that the distance between communities is merely geographical, and as communication flows from all ends of the earth with rapid speed and response, it seems that our lack of isolation is preventing local minhagim, customs indigenous to a community, from arising. On the other hand, globalization has helped to spread unique practices — as demonstrated by the profusion of women’s Megillah readings in Orthodox communities.
If customs are not generated and nurtured in isolated locales, is it viable for unique customs that arise from multinational cross-sections of “kehillat Yaakov,” the Jewish people, to be sustained for generations?
— Ravit Greenberg
Ravit Greenberg marks a historical shift in interpreting the word vkhve(kehillah/qehillah/kehiloh). Traditionally rendered as “congregation” or “assembly,” Greenberg translates this keyword as “community,” reflecting a strikingly contemporary idea about Jewish self-conception. Her translation also reveals the nebulousness of the word “community,” whose usage spiked after the 1960s.
In antiquity, qehillah referred to a call to assemble, gathering flocks of sheep as well as people around a shepherd. For most of the post-diasporic period after 70 A.D., it designated Jewish self-government, with Jews running their own local affairs, often with elitist, class-based authority. Historically, kehiles in European cities and shtetlach and their official leadership (the kohol) were not associated with the warmth, hominess, or creativity now implicit in American notions of “community.”
Greenberg expresses an anxiety about the dissolution of distinctiveness and novelty in a globalized age. Yet, in her imagining of the biblical “congregation of Jacob” as a distinct, egalitarian formation, we see how those who seek particular Jewish togetherness continue to create new assemblies, calling them sometimes “kehillah” or sometimes “community,” or occasionally both interchangeably. These shouldn’t be mistaken for the ancient, imagined convocations, but rather as something new — new institutions rooted in their particular time and place.
— Robert Adler Peckerar
The dictionary defines “custom” as “convention” or a practice so long established that it has the force of law. So, to speak of “customs” is to assume practices that do endure. Perhaps we might better ask what motivates the development of new customs. And what do minhagim, which have stood the test of time, have in common? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism, saw minhag as an expression of the desire to connect with the divine, surpassing even the bond achieved through the letter of the law.
Consider some widely accepted customs initiated in the last century: Rabbi Meir Shapiro in the early 1920s instituted the study of Daf Yomi; the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, taught that young girls should light Shabbat candles in 1974 and, also, in 1983, began the custom of parents bringing children to shul on Shavuot to hear the Ten Commandments. Nurturing new customs as a means of self-expression has its appeal, but, historically, those that assumed the force of law and were sustained for generations arose out of a concern for the integrity of “morasha” — the legacy of Torah m’Sinai — ensuring the perpetuation of the divine covenant by which the Jewish people are a “holy nation.”
— Baila Olidort
Seven years ago, I moved from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the Upper West Side, in large measure, in order to live in a vibrant, dense, and diverse Jewish community. I have not been disappointed. My new neighborhood features established congregations diverse in theology, style, and formality. We have the Diaspora’s largest concentration of independent minyanim; kosher eateries are abundant; and several institutions — new and old — provide a wide range of formal and informal educational opportunities for children and adults. We find truly variegated Jewish life spanning just three urban zip codes.
And yet, the neighborhood’s rich tapestry of Jewish life belies any concerns for the homogenization of Judaism. Here, we also find deeply rooted differences in religious orientation, politics, demographics, cultural style — and in their approaches to being Jewish.
In short, despite the advances in high-speed communication and social media, the cultural homogenization of Jewish life and minhagim has yet to happen. And the Upper West Side remains distinctively Upper West Side — its assorted communities remain varied and distinctive in their own right. Since the onset of modernity, commentators have predicted the end of localism and the triumph of globalism. The world is waiting for their predictions to come true, and so are the Jews.
— Marion Lev-Cohen