The Covenant Community

Rabbi Aaron Alexander
October 10, 2012
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Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be a part of the Sh’ma blog team this year.  This publication never ceases to deliver thought-provoking and timely Torah.  Since my passion is the study of Judaism’s legal tradition (halakhah) I am going to focus my blogpage on a particular genre of halakhic literature about which I am very passionate, responsa material (she’elot u’teshuvot).  For each edition I will choose a traditional (usually old) legal question & response that is, 1) probably somewhat obscure, and 2) directly or tangentially related to the current topic. Then I’ll highlight a couple of points that I hope will influence the general conversation.

This first contribution navigates Jewish communal life and membership, a core concern throughout our storied history. Let’s look together at excerpts from a responsum (teshuvah) by Rabbi Moses ben Joseph Trani, who lived from 1500-c.1585. He was born in Salonika, Greece, eventually settled in Safed, Israel, and became the Av Bet Din(head of rabbinical court) after the death of Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the famous Shulhan Arukh. Here is the question posed to Rabbi Trani (1:151):

Question: On the matter of an oath agreed upon by people to create a unified group (hebrew: b’lev shalem) and to pray together in a particular location at set times. And [as part of the agreement] none of them could separate themselves from this prayer group. Not even because of hostility or conflict. Rather, they should seek peace and provide support for one another. They should share each other’s joys and conversely, provide honor and assistance in times of sorrow….

Now, one of the member of this group wants to separate from the group [to join another] because he claims in a moment of distress others did not provide him the support he desired…please tell us if a) is he is permitted to leave, and b) what should his punishment be, and c) may another community accept him as their member?

Answer: The essential agreement was that all the members would pray in a particular place and time even if one of them was embroiled in contempt, just as the agreement laid out explicitly. It would be impossible for such a situation (internal strife) to not occur. [Therefore], even if he has a legitimate claim about not receiving support in a time of need, his oath still currently stands and he may not be released and leave the prayer group. (Rabbi Trani goes into a lengthy discussion about the intricacies of such agreements before he ffers his final decision.) Ultimately, the matter should be brought before a Bet Din (rabbinic court) to decide which party is at fault. If the prayer community broke their agreement they must be punished and he will be permitted to join another community.  But until the Bet Din deliberates he may not join another community….

This responsum, navigating a pre-modern version of an independent minyan, evokes for me three core ideas about membership and belonging vis-a-vis religious community (though I recognize this was likely not the intent of the author) :

1) The desire to non-organically form a small sub-community of pray-ers that share common goals, aspirations, and all-encompassing life events is hardly novel.  Religious peoplehave always craved intimate spiritual contact, where we can at once look one another in the eye while still directing our hearts heavenward.

2) Even in these smaller communal groupings, some kind of binding covenant is required to ensure it not only lasts, but forces each member to tangibly recognize they are aravin zeh la-zeh, inextricably bound together. Sacred community, in my opinion (as well as Rabbi Trani’s, in a legal way) demands nothing less. In our world this shouldn’t necessarily negate exploring beyond one’s primary association, but it does ask us to consider all the implications of our wander-lust.

3) Finally, the loss of any member of a spiritual community has the potential to create a rupture that requires intervention (in R. Trani’s estimation, a Bet Din). This ought to remind each of us that it is too easy to blind ourselves to those who don’t squarely fit into our usual circles of family and friendship. And when that happens, often people want to leave and find something new. Should we blame them, or turn inward and reevaluate what brought us together in the first place?  I hope we at least incline towards the latter.

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Rabbi Aaron Alexander is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School and Lecturer in Rabbinics and Jewish Law. Along with his academic teaching he gives an early morning class in Halakhah that is recorded for Jewish learners worldwide and posted to Rabbi Alexander teaches Talmud and Rabbinical Literature throughout Los Angeles to students of all ages and all walks of life, including a regular class at Ikar. He was a founding staff member at Camp Ramah Darom in 1997, where he worked 10 summers and served on the Board of Directors. He is a certified mashgiach (kosher supervisor) by the the Conservative Movement's Rav Hamachshir program and currently serves on its Committee for Jewish Law and Standards.


  1. Rabbi Alexander once again does an exceptional job making medieval teshuvot clearly relevant to today’s issues. The questions he raises and the conclusions he draws from the R. Trani are compelling and speak directly to us.

    Rabbi Alexander’s comments about a member of a spiritual community leaving, the need for introspection raise another important question that the community in question should be forced to consider beyond that of what brought the group together in the first place. Namely, what conduct on the part of the group caused the individual to want to leave in the first place? Put another way, what part of the problem does the tzibbur own in this case? It is always easier to look at the individual and place blame. It is a far greater challenge to look at one’s own conduct and take ownership.

    Thank you Rabbi Alexander for this thoughtful halakhic explication.

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  2. Thanks. And agreed. If covenant is to be a useful term for community membership than it means real responsibility and introspection from both sides, community and individual.

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