Contained within these words just might be the most daring and necessary claim of Judaism: Vayakeil Moshe et kol adat B'nei Yisrael — "Moses assembled the entire community of Israel." This first word should sound familiar to you because it is arguably the foundation upon which the entire structure of Judaism is affixed. You should hear the word kehillah — roughly translated as "community" or "congregation."
The foundational and fundamental imperative of being a Jew perhaps rests with this notion. We are first and foremost a corporate, collective people. Dare I say that the mosaic people are themselves a grand mosaic. No other people has such an acute and evolved sense of community, I believe, as do the Jews.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that "the audacity of Judaism is that it makes the individual the mirror of the community." When the eminent Catholic historian of the Jews, Paul Johnson, was asked what it was that he most admired about the Jewish people — and what it was that gave a sense of vibrancy to their history — he responded: "No other faith or culture has managed so well the balance between individual and collective responsibility as the Jews."
But it is the description found in the latter part of the verse that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik finds to be the more audacious claim of Judaism. The word is edah, also translated as "community" or "congregation." (In the verse, adat is the construct state of edah.) So how is an edah substantially and substantively different that a kehillah?
In his essay, "Kol Dodi Dofek — Listen, My Beloved Knocks," Soloveitchik writes: "Destiny is the foundation of an edah. An edah congregation is a collection of people with a single past, a common future, shared aspirations, and identical yearnings for a world that is totally good and pleasant." In a word, it is not just history that binds an edah community, it is also destiny.
As opposed to kehillah, which connects individuals to the here and now, edah is a more daring notion. It carries, what some scholars have termed, a vertical valence. How so? The rabbi continues: "The edah encompasses not only those who are alive today, but everyone who has lived and who will live in Jewish history from the dawn of our people until the end of days."
Tapping Into the Past
I just recently returned from Israel and was reminded of an amazing story as I walked down Tabenkin Street. One could garner magnificent lessons in Jewish history and Jewish values by merely reading the street signs in Israel — they are a veritable "who's who" in the pantheon of Jewish thinkers, leaders, places and events. So who was Yitzchak Tabenkin? He was a Zionist leader and member of the Knesset from 1948 to 1959.
In 1947, as David Ben-Gurion convened his provisional government to discuss the merits of the U.N. Partition Plan, Tabenkin, a member of that provisional cabinet, requested an adjournment. He opined that since this was such a heavy matter effecting the Jewish people, he needed some time to consult with a few people.
When the cabinet reconvened to vote — a vote they ultimately approved — Tabenkin was adamant in not wanting to accept the partition plan. After everyone left, Ben-Gurion called him over and asked what had happened.
This is more or less what he said: "I spoke with two people last night. My grandfather and my grandson." Ben-Gurion was further intrigued as his friend declared, "You see, my grandfather died 10 years ago, and my grandson is not yet born."
That is the quintessential message of being part of an edah. It means keeping faith with those who came beforehand, and laying down as wide a path of Jewish life and living for the generations yet to be. u
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.