1.2 The Jewish Community:
Its Spirit And Organisation

Leslie Fry

Waters Flowing Eastward

In studying the Jewish people, special attention must be given to the Jewish community. This peculiar social order has for twenty centuries impressed its indelible mark on every one of its members in every quarter of the globe; uncrushed by pressure from without, it has administered its affairs according to its own arbitrary laws, often in defiance and to the detriment of the government of the land. The authority of the Jewish leaders, originally derived from the ten commandments delivered to Moses, l had already in the time of Augustus been widely extended 2 by a learned but unscrupulous priesthood 3 over an ignorant, superstitious people. In that age, while a struggle was going on between two rival sects, Pharisees 4 and Sadducees, 5 certain political clubs 6 were formed which concealed under a religious mask the grasping aims of a clique. 7

These clubs were not slow to take advantage of their country's misfortunes. A few years later, during the siege of Jerusalem by Vespasian, they won, by the betrayal of the Jewish cause, the favour of the Roman conqueror, 8 and were subsequently entrusted by the imperial government with the administration of Palestine. 9 Moreover, with the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the death of the patriotic leaders, the common people found themselves utterly dependent, in spiritual as well as civil matters, upon these same self-styled societies of the learned, who alone possessed the secrets of the priesthood and copies of the sacred texts. By interpreting, altering, and augmenting the rules and ritual these texts contained, and by a system of espionage and assassination, 10 the new rulers established a strict control over the daily life of their co-religionists. Thus having taken hold of the Jewish people through the medium of the Roman authority, this clique easily placed its laws above the ten commandments, and formed a government whose control over its subjects was absolute. 11 This government became henceforth known as the Kahal. 12

The dispersion of the Jews which followed in 135 A.D., instead of destroying the Kahal, served on the contrary to set it on a new and firmer basis, on which it has continued ever since. Wherever Jewish emigrants settled, 13 they founded communities apart under the direction of the fraternities, and held to the precepts of the Talmud. 14 Each community had its representative, its rabbi, its synagogue: it was a miniature Kahal. The different aims of these communities always found themselves intimately related with those of the central body upon which their existence depended.

For if the ruling clique or caste had begun by grinding down its own race,"it now saw that, by drafting them into its organization, it could exploit the gentiles on a far grander scale." The number of fraternities was increased by the addition of trade unions, every trade in which the Jews engaged being represented. To strengthen its control and to advance the interests of the Jews as a whole, it developed and perfected that system of espionage which it still maintains.

It sent agents 17 to watch over Jewish affairs at police stations, and, when opportunity offered, distribute gifts to the employees. Other agents were posted at the doors of shops, hotels, business houses, lawcourts, and even in the private households of government officials. These trained agents had each a special field to cover: police, export, import, exchange, government supplies, lawsuits, etc.

The duty of an agents assigned to lawcourts was to keep constantly in touch with the proceedings, or with the official, meet the petitioners and, when practicable, 18 fix the sum they must pay for a favourable judgment. This concluded, the agent took all necessary steps, and often succeeded in obtaining a decision contrary to justice. But in every case, the first duty of the agent was to note all errors and irregularities committed by the court, and all scandals brought out in the course of trial: these, reported and carefully recorded in the files of the Kahal, could be used as weapons against any person involved, who might later wish to act contrary to Jewish interests. Thus the order derived strength from three sources: advance information on trade conditions, bribery, and blackmail.

It is quite easy to understand the reasons of the concentration of trade in the hands of the Jews, wherever they have settled in sufficient numbers. For if on the one hand the individual Jew is the slave of the Kahal, his submission on the other hand is rewarded by its support in his struggle with non-Jewish competitors. He can count on the immediate help of his fraternity, and where necessary of the whole organization, and thus is assured of the victory over any single gentile.

The teaching in the synagogue incited its following to a thorough exploitation of their gentile neighbours, care only being taken not to excite hostility to the extent of endangering the whole community. This doctrine, popular from the start, was eventually embodied in its most concrete form in a book of the Talmud, called the Shulchan Aruk. A few quotations will suffice to show its character: 19

"When a Jew has a gentile in his clutches, another Jew may go to the same gentile, lend him money and in his turn deceive him, so that the gentile shall be ruined. For the property of a gentile (according to our law) belongs to no one, and the first Jew that passes has the full right to seize it." 20

"When a Jew makes a deal with a gentile, and another Jew comes up and deceives the gentile no matter in what manner, whether he give him false measure or overcharge him, then both Jews must share between them the profits thus sent by Jehovah." 21

"Although it is not a direct obligation for a Jew to kill a gentile with whom he lives in peace, yet, in no case, is he allowed to save a gentile's life." 22

"It is always a meritorious deed to get hold of a gentile's possessions." 23

"Marriages taking place among gentiles have no binding strength, i.e. their cohabitation is just as the coupling of horses, therefore their children do not stand as humanly related to their parents." 24

Of the spirit which taught that all non-Jews were animals 25 to be stripped of their property for the benefit of Jewry, and which united the community in a common aim and a common hatred; of the Shulchan Aruk which transmitted this aim and this hatred from generation to generation, Jewish leaders of the last fifty years have written : 26

" The Shulchan Aruk is not the book that we have chosen for our guide, but the book that has been made our guide, whether we would or not, by force of historical development: because this book, just as it is in its present form, with all its most uncouth sections, was the book that best suited the spirit of our people, their condition and their needs, in those generations in which they accepted it as binding on themselves and their descendants. If we proclaim that this is not our law, we shall be proclaiming a falsehood; this is our law, couched in the only form which was possible in the middle ages, just as the Talmud is our law in the form which it took in the last days of the ancient world, just as the Bible is our law in the form which it took while the Jews still lived as a nation on their own land. The three books are but three milestones on the road of a single development, that of the spirit of the Jewish nation."

A Jewish community, in the midst of a gentile population on which it preyed, depended for its success on two things: the absolute subordination of its members and the secrecy of its proceedings. The Kahal concealed its activities from the outside world under the guise of religion. " The Jews were loyal subjects like their neighbours, but to them faith was life, and they were constantly preoccupied with the observance of their ritual ", it told the world. But this was not a sufficient screen. As in all secret organizations there are traitors and renegades whatever the penalty. The Kahal was obliged to shroud itself in mystery and mysticism, 27 even from its members. The multiplicity of the ritual laws, the voluminous civil code, the secret instructions of the fraternities, the continuance of obsolete forms, all served to create such a confusion that no non-Jew confronted with the documents could distinguish what was fundamental from what was prolix ritual or irrelevant. 28 The general scheme of the Kahal, which has been in operation since the second century A. D., remains in force to this day. Its essential characteristics may be outlined as follows:

a) The council of elders or geronsia, 29 presided over by a patriarch or exilarch. Its functions were purely formal; it represented the Jews in official relations with foreign governments, acted as their spokesman when they wished to arouse public sentiment in their favour, but had no directresponsibility in the secret government whose existence it served to conceal. Composed of leading members of the fraternities, it could discuss at secret meetings questions of general interest, leaving their practical solution to the fraternities.

b) The tribunal or beth-din. 30

c) The fraternities.

The beth-din decided all lawsuits and differences arising between individual Jews, and between members and the Kahal itself. It existed in all localities where there were Jews, catered to their commercial needs, and had final jurisdiction in both civil and religious matters. It alone was competent to interpret the spiritual laws of the Talmud. To illustrate the character of this court, the following paragraphs from the Talmudic code 31 may be given:

" No Jew may appeal for justice to any court or judiciary other than the Jewish tribunal. This holds even when the laws of the country bearing on the question at issue agree with the Jewish laws, and when the two parties are willing to submit their differences to the former. Whoever breaks this injunction shall be outlawed; 32 his offence is equivalent to contempt and violation of the law of Moses.

" The beth-din judges cases involving loans, debts, marriages, legacies, gifts, damages, interest, etc.

" Although the beth-din has no right to fine a thief or looter, it may inflict the indoui on him until he makes full restitution. It may inflict fines for the infraction of rules as prescribed in the Talmud.

" When the beth-din notices that the nation is given to disorders, 33 it may, without confirmation by the Jewish authorities, impose fines, death-sentences, and other penalties; and in this connection it may waive the production of testimony to prove the guilt of the accused. Where the latter is a person of influence in the country, the beth-din may use the legal machinery of the country to punish him. His property may be declared outside the protection of the law (guefker), and he himself may be done away with as circumstances require."

It would be erroneous to suppose that all suits between Jews are tried by the beth-din. In many circumstances, and especially in thorny cases where the Jewish law is contrary to common sense, because the form and the terms do not agree with justice and conscience, the case is tried not by the judges of the beth-din, called dayans, but by a special court composed of persons chosen for their knowledge of business practice or other special reasons.

The explanation of the mass of lawsuits between Jews before non-Jewish courts is as follows. For the most part, these have to do with drafts presented for payment and drawn on Jews who have incurred penalties at the hands of the beth-din. The laws of the country are thus used to execute the decisions of the Jewish tribunal. The beth-din makes a practice of binding the two parties in a suit submitted for its decision, by having them sign blanks before the trial. If, afterward, the party who has lost the case refuses to abide by the decision, the blank bearing his signature is converted into a draft and put into circulation.

Turning to the fraternities which are the sinews of the organization, one finds their outward form strictly innocuous. The rules are nearly all on the same model, and fix the annual dues, the place and date for the regular meetings, the duties and obligations of members, and the penalties if disregarded; the latter range from small fines to expulsion from the fraternity. A member expelled from a fraternity found himself cut off from the community and generally died an outcast. Each fraternity has a religious or charitable purpose, connected with such worthy objects as the following:

a) Reading from the sacred texts, 34

b) Burial of the dead,

c) Ransoming of prisoners,

d) Free loans, help for poor girls, aid for the sick, clothing for the poor, etc.

It should be noted that these objects were not entirely disinterested: the fraternity charged with reading the texts, distorted them; those who buried the dead received fees, not only for that care, but also for plots in the Jewish cemetery, for the purification bath prescribed for Jewish women, for seats in the synagogue. 35 The fraternity for ransoming prisoners was composed of the most influential members of the community; as its chief concern was the freeing of delinquent Jews from gentile courts, it had to bring pressure to bear on police and government officials. 36

An excellent illustration of a Jewish community in the twentieth century is found in the account of the organizing of the Kehilla 37 in New York City in 1909 and of its subsequent operation, - published in the Jewish Communal Register. 38

The purpose of the Kehillah is to " weld Jewish interests and develop community conscientiousness "; the immediate cause of its creation was " the statement of the police commissioner, General Bingham, that the Jews contributed fifty per cent, of the criminals of New York City." 39

The first step taken by the constitutive convention was the election of an executive committee and an advisory council of seventy members; the latter is the council of elders or gerousia, and its duty is to " make its voice heard and its opinions felt (sic) in all questions affecting the Jews the world over."

The next thing of importance is the creation of a beth-din or court of arbitration, by the board of authoritative rabbis (vaad harabbonim) already charged with the regulations of marriage, divorce, circumcision, and ritual bath. 40 The beth-din will undertake to settle all disputes between labour and capital. 41

Further on, the purpose of the Kehillah is made clearer: it is for the " coordination of the existing communal agencies 42 to save the synagogue from impending ruin," to which end all the material and moral resources of the entire community are to be drafted. 43 In other words, the hierarchy of fraternities for which Judaism serves as a cloak and the synagogues as a lodge-room, is endeavoring to strengthen its hold on its members, among whom there is a tendency towards emancipation.

Finally, mention is made of some of the fraternities, under the title of benevolent societies: the burial clubs and the visitors of the sick. It is particularly interesting to note that these orders assess their beneficiaries: that is, they operate as life insurance companies. 44

So well is the question of ritual meat (kosher) regulated by the Kehillah, that " all the meat slaughtered in New York city and vicinity, whether for Jewish consumption or not, is slaughtered by schochetim under the supervision ofauthoritative rabbis.' 45 Of New York's sixty per cent gentile population, none can buy meat not prepared according to Jewish ritual. But this paternal interest of the Kehillah for its members and for the whole gentile population is not entirely unmotivated; for the Register goes on to explain that meat so killed brings " prices far in excess of those paid for ordinary meat." It pays the slaughter-houses to employ schochetim and contribute to the welfare of the authoritative rabbis.

Thus the Jewish fraternities through the ages have kept their typical character of a secret government, disguised under the form of synagogues and schools.

The life of the people, too, has changed little from generation to generation, and from one country to another: they are always and everywhere the tools of the ruling clique; to it they pay heavy, indirect taxes, and in return receive help in exploiting the land which harbours them. They have a heavy heritage, a Jewish conscientiousness, a hatred of non-Jews, a love of deceiving; all this they cannot easily shake off, and with it the yoke of the Kahal.

  1. Exodus xx.
  2. The Gospels themselves bear witness to the distortions of the divine law of Moses by the human additions of the rabbis. Cf. Matthew xv. 2: "Thus you have destroyed the commandment of God by your traditions."
  3. Compare Matt. xxm. 14-36.
  4. Lit. the "separated".
  5. From Sadoc, Greek form of Zadok (lit. "the just"), founder of the sect.
  6. Known as Imburah from habor, "join together".
  7. Graetz, iv. History of the Jews, p. 85.
  8. Vespasian appointed Rabbi John Ben Zakkai, chief of the haburah, ruler of Jamnia: Jost, i. History of the Jem, p. 210.
  9. Brafmann, Jewish Brotherhoods, (Vilna, 1868) par. 18.
  10. The clubs were secret fraternities, each member binding himself by an oath; the penalty for disobedience was exclusion or death: Jost., op. cit.
  11. "Every day, and every hour of the day, and every act of every hour, had its appointed regulations, grounded on distorted texts of scripture, or the sentences of the wise men, and artfully moulded up with their national reminiscences of the past or their distinctive hopes of the future, -the divine origin of the law, the privileges of God's chosen people, the restoration to the holy city, the corning of the Messiah." Milman, n, History of the Jews (Everyman Library, 1923 edition p. 165).
  12. Literally, "community" or "commonwealth".
  13. Nearly every province of the Roman empire had at least one colony of Jews at the end of the second century A.D.
  14. Talmud Torah, lit. "study of the law", name for the agglomeration of rabbinical works.
  15. Contemptuously termed am-ha-aretz, lit. "people of the soil", and debarred from bearing witness, etc.: Talmud Pessashim 98. They had to "submit to the haburah or perish". Talmud Tainot 23.
  16. "The hatred of the am-ha-aretz towards the learned societies was so great, that, if we patricians had not obtained for them some material advantages, they would have killed us." Talmud Pessashim 49.
  17. Called factors: Brafmann, Book of the Kahal, ch I.
  18. Depending on the character of the suit, judges, etc.
  19. The Shulchan Aruk is a manual of Jewish laws, drawn from the Talmud, and compiled by Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575).
  20. Loc. cit., Law 24.
  21. Ibid., Law 27.
  22. Ibid., Law 50.
  23. Ibid., Law 55.
  24. Ibid., Law 88.
  25. Goyim, lit. "animals".
  26. Quoted from Asher Ginzberg's reply to Rabbi Lolli, in 1897.
  27. The part played by the Jews in the founding and spreading of gnostic sects is not treated here.
  28. "The Mosaic law, intricate enough, is woven into an inextricable network of decrees (in the Mischna)... The Mischna fully admits polygamy... Capital punishment is of four kinds: stoning, burning, slaying by the sword, strangling... The sixth book is on the subject of uncleanness and ablution: it is rigid and particular to the utmost repulsiveness... The object of this work was to fix on undoubted authority the whole unwritten law. But the multiplication of written statutes enlarges rather than contracts the province of the lawyer; a new field was opened for ingenuity, and comment was speedily heaped upon the Mischna, till it was buried under the weight, as the Mosaic law had been before by the Mischna... Those ponderous tomes, at once religious and civil institutes, swayed the Jews with uncontested authority." Milman, op. cit., pp. 174, 175.
  29. A revival of the old Sanhedrin which governed Palestine.
  30. Lit. "house of religion": see Brafmann, Bk. of the Kahal, ch. 8.
  31. Hocher-Hamichot. "The synagogue with its appendant school or law court, became the great bond of national union." Milman, pp. 160, 161.
  32. Viz., the indoui or the herein, corresponding to excommunication and expulsion from the community.
  33. The meaning seems to be, "rebelling against the Kahal".
  34. There were four fraternities or learned societies having this as their object: they were composed exclusively from the upper caste. For this and the following, see Brafmann, Jewish Brotherhoods, p. 21.
  35. Ibid., p. 38.
  36. Ibid., p. 33.
  37. Diminutive of kahal.
  38. New York, 1919.
  39. Jewish Communal Register (New York, 1919) n. If Bingham's statement were without foundation, would it have aroused so much indignation?
  40. Ibid., p. 50.
  41. Ibid., p. 52.
  42. Ibid., p. 55.
  43. Ibid., p. 120.
  44. Ibid., p. 732.
  45. Ibid., p. 312.

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