The Future of the American Jew

By Mordecai M. Kaplan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
COMMUNITY -- THE SOCIAL STRUCTURE OF AMERICAN-JEWISH LIFE

1
WHY JEWS NEED COMMUNITY

Throughout the past, wherever a number of Jews lived within reach of one another, they formed a self-governing community. Each Jew was answerable to his community to a greater degree than is the citizen of a modern state to his government. The only way he could escape such responsibility was by joining the dominant faith. But the very thought of such an escape would never occur to anyone, unless he wanted to settle some grudge against his own people, or he was so ambitious of a great career that he could not but find life among them too cramping.

The self-government which Jews exercised was not granted them as a privilege. It was not even a matter of voluntary choice. It was forced on them by the exclusionist attitude of those among whom they lived, and who refused to incorporate them into their own body politic. To this autonomy, perhaps more than to aught else, Jews owe their survival as a people. It rendered the Jew dependent upon his people for everything he deemed important to his life. It enabled Judaism to function not merely as a kind of avocational interest for most Jews, or as a highly specialized interest of the few, but as the guiding and controlling influence of the every-day existence of all Jews.

Moreover, in those days the few needed the social heritage of his people for his basic literacy and culture. In Christian countries, all education, elementary as well as advanced, was completely Christian in character. Jews were not permitted to avail themselves of whatever educational opportunities then existed. How else could Jews then become civilized human beings, if not by making use of their own cultural heritage? Some knowledge of Judaism was indispensable then to every Jew. It was not optional, as it is today.

In addition, then as now, human beings believed that there was more to life than their humdrum existence. Let us call that more, "salvation." It was then universally assumed that the only way to achieve salvation was to live in accordance with some supernaturally revealed laws or teachings. The Jews regarded those laws or teachings,

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