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The Jewish Community


Elka Klein

(Note: for the purposes of this article, the word "community" refers solely to the organized and autonomous Jewish communities of the Middle Ages)

 The Jewish community was the basic building block of medieval Jewish society. For over a millennium the real arena of Jewish power in medieval Europe was the local community. Jewish communities were largely autonomous. They provided services, collected taxes, regulated the lives of their members, and settled disputes between them according to halakhah or Jewish law. These communities were for all intents and purposes cities within cities, self- regulating political units which provided all basic municipal services to their members. Understanding the ways the medieval Jewish community functioned is a good introduction to Medieval Jewish history for several reasons:

  1. The existence of autonomous communities was a defining characteristic of the period, at least for Europe: the institution evolved and grew in the years between the tenth and eighteenth centuries, but it evolved on a common base of structure and precedent; in that sense, it was a constant in the experience of the medieval European Jew.

  3. The local community was the stage on which ideas about everything from politics to morals to philosophy were worked out. For example, when controversy erupted in the 13th century over whether the writings of Maimonides posed a threat to Judaism, the instigators on both side presented their argu- ments to entire communities, not only to scholars; the communities responded with a rash of excommunications and counter-excommunications.

  5. If we want to focus on ordinary lives as well as the ideas and deeds of the scholars the local community is where we find them. In particular, if we are interested in the lives of women as well as men, this is where we find them.

  7. Finally, it was on this level that medieval Jewish life was most closely integrated into the broader medieval world; if we want to move beyond a view of Jews as passive objects of persecution or toleration, or as disembodied intellectuals, we should look to the local level of society.
  Continue reading:  Parameters of Communal Autonomy  Modern Scholarship  Major Issues   Conclusions and Sources
Copyright (C) 1998, Elka Klein. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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