At the Heart of Community ... (July 2008)

One of the most common objections to a specifically solitary Jewish contemplative lifestyle is that it separates one from the Community of Israel. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth.

Just as the Hasidim of the eighteenth century believed that personal petitions should be transformed into “prayers for the needs of the Shechinah” and thus liberated from egocentricity, so the individual contemplative prayer of the (specifically Jewish) hermit or ascetic is not undertaken as some sort of escape into self-absorption, but is itself a form of communal identification and service.

The warning not to “separate oneself from the community” comes from the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5) and is attributed to Hillel. In Teshuva 3:24 it is further developed by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) who classifies a heretic as being “one who keeps all the mitzvot but separates himself from the community.”

It all depends on what one considers the “Jewish Community” to be.

Jewish Community does not necessarily mean a congregation in a building (though they can offer multiple opportunities for mutual support and shared social action). Jewish Community does not necessarily mean a Denomination or a Movement (though membership of both can often sharpen one’s Torah observance). Jewish Community includes all those characteristics and forms, but it is much more than that. We are not a club, we are Israel.

The Jewish Community is the Assembly of Israel at Sinai. That is an eternal community which meets every second of every day in both prayer and action. Now. In the words of Rabbi Richard N. Levy at the Central Conference of American Rabbis:

“Sometimes we call that community Knesset Yisrael—which in the mystic tradition is equivalent to the most approachable of the sephirot, that of Malchut, or Shechina. Sometimes it is called Klal Yisrael—a more secular, worldly, connotation. But whatever name we use., the Community of Israel is one of the sources for our understanding of the will of God. We need to open ourselves to the kedusha be-Yisrael, the holiness of our membership in the Jewish people.”

One of the recurring themes of this website is the suggestion that the internet has an under-used and under-developed role in developing such a broad, inclusive, and ultimately spiritual view of “The Jewish Community”. That has begun to change quite dramatically and rapidly since this website was first created in 2006.

I was particularly encouraged to see that Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand had posted the following on the new website “Faithbook” :

“The creation of websites and on-line communities provides Jews with new ways of constructing communities that can work towards the traditional Jewish agendas.

People will need to relate differently as they are sitting in front of a keyboard instead of face-to-face. However, an on-line community has just as good or better of a chance of repairing the world through a targeted email campaign than a social action group meeting in a synagogue building!”

As a Jewish solitary, I am certainly not separating myself from the Jewish Community.

My prayers are consciously expressed in the plural and I maintain world-wide contact (online) with individuals and communities of all denominations (and none). But that does not change the fact that my own specific path (at the moment) involves a physical withdrawal from many social activities. For those of us who have not attained sufi or vedantic enlightenment, being solitary on a fairly long-term or regular basis can create the space for a human-divine dialogue of greater intensity than would otherwise be possible. It is simply a question of spiritual temperament, character and, sometimes, of need. Some of us need more solitude than others and though we may appear to withdraw we certainly do not wish to be excluded. It may also be that we are fulfilling a small but significant role which is actually at the very heart of the Community of Israel.

In the words of R. Abraham Isaac Kook:-

“One of the ways of studying Torah for its sake, is with the intent to enrich the Jewish People with great spiritual powers. The more the light of Torah, its love and respect, increase in the heart of one Jew, the stronger and more powerful becomes the nation. The individual soul of this person becomes enhanced and more whole, and sends forth branches and roots . . .”