I don’t need a synagogue, but is there a community garden?

Rabbi Justin Goldstein
June 27, 2014
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Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12
:ר’ חזקיה רבי כהן בשם רב: אסור לדור בעיר שאין בה לא רופא, ולא מרחץ, ולא ב”ד מכין וחובשין. אמר ר’ יוסי בי ר’ בון אף אסור לדור בעיר שאין בה גינוניתא של ירק

Rabbi Hezekiah and Rabbi Kohen in the name of Rav said: It is forbidden to live in a city which has no healer, no bathhouse and no court which administers lashes and prison sentences. Rabbi Yossi said in the name of Rabbi Bon: It is even forbidden to live in a city which has no vegetable garden.

In this month’s print edition of Sh’ma, Dennis Prager offers an impassioned and spot-on critique of the insularity of many Jewish communities. What is reflected here in the teaching from our Sages comes not so much in what is stated as what is not stated. They make no mention of a synagogue, a study hall, a Jewish school for children, a Jewish charity fund - just the basics: health, wellness and civility.

What is also fascinating is comparing this tradition to a correlating teaching in the Babylonian Talmud which stipulates the necessities for the chosen dwelling place of a Torah scholar, and in this list we do find a synagogue, a school for children, a charity fund and so forth. So what can we make of this discrepancy? This need not be seen as a contradiction, but rather as complimentary teachings directed at two different audiences.

Torah scholars represent experts in a specialized field, whereas the tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud seems to be focused on the general population. The more specialized a community becomes, the more insular it will become. Many of the customs and laws of our tradition were designed to keep Jewish community separate from our non-Jewish neighbors and there was, in all likelihood, two practical measures in this type of regulation: 1) to keep outside influence to a minimum (the “…leads to mixed dancing” argument) and 2) to protect Jewish individuals from harm (our history is not secret).

However, as Prager so aptly describes, the world American Jewish communities live in is much different than those of our ancestors and while there is a romantic draw to shtetl life, it comes with noticeable downsides. And this gets to the challenge of building local communities that support the global whole.

In order to be focused on global sustainability, we must focus our energies towards sustainable local communities. In Prager’s words:

Leaving the shtetl (whether Pico Robertson, Crown Heights, Square Town, or Bnei Brak) is not only good for the moral and intellectual development of individual Jews; it is good for Judaism and the Jewish people. Isn’t the greatest mitzvah kiddush haShem — sanctifying God’s name before non-Jews? And aren’t we going to make a lot more friends for the Jewish people — certainly in America — if we socially interact with others? (Most Jews are unaware how negatively many good and decent non-Jews regard Jewish insularity.)

A significant component of global sustainability is not just about how we consider our economic or environmental impact, but it comes down to what the Rabbis called derekh eretz, respectful behavior. Being a part of encouraging diversity in communities will have an undeniably positive impact not only on how others view Jewish community, but also how Jewish community views others.

There are aspects of Judaism which make living in diverse community challenging - Shabbat observance and Kashrut observance are the two most obvious examples. How can we build community together if we cannot eat together? The answer is not to abandon our dietary practices, but rather to make those dietary values part of the diverse communities in which we live. What is more, eating with one another is fine and nice, but much more important in building sustainable community is in living with one another, learning about and respecting our differences and celebrating our similarities.

The benefits of living in close proximity to people with different cultures will help promote a more sustainable global community if only because the more we know about others the less we fear them. The regions of the world with the most ethnic and religious hatred are those which tend towards insularity. Likewise, it has been seen that diversity lends itself towards acceptance. Perhaps it is time we shift our priorities and see the benefits of Jewish schools, charities, and synagogues not as necessities, but as luxuries; and we focus our priority instead on being integrated into diverse communities where we not only have the opportunity to teach others about our culture, but will benefit from learning about others as well.

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Rabbi Justin Goldstein Ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, CA, Justin serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, NC. Rabbi Goldstein was selected as a 2012-2013 Fellow with Rabbis Without Borders. His writings can be found in various books, at the Jew and the Carrot - Hazon's blog at the Forward and at On1Foot.com . Find Justin at rabbijustingoldstein.com, on Twitter @RabbiJDG and at facebook.com/rabbiJDG

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