Who Makes Decisions for a Jewish Community?

In terms of Jewish law, exactly what is a kehila (community)? Jewish residents of modern cities like London or Toronto will generally identify with each other only in the loosest of terms. Formal relationships, in non-chassidic communities at least, are usually limited to synagogues and educational institutions of various kinds. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Kehilos in Europe often submitted to the authority of a single rabbi, rabbinical court, and council. It wasn’t uncommon for consumption taxes – typically on the purchase of meat – or membership dues to finance communal services. 

A model based on direct communal responsibility is probably closer to the Torah ideal. But that begs the question: who got to choose the rabbi and his court, and whose voice determined the tax rates everyone else had to pay?

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch once publicly addressed a horrendous lapse of communal authority in which the Hamburg Kehila permitted the remarriage of a woman whose first husband was still alive. In the related chapter in his Collected Writings (Vol. IX 182-3), Rabbi Hirsch goes some distance to define the single and ultimate source of authority: the collective consent of all citizens:

“A community that does not elect its own representatives, does not have any say in their actions, is unable to voice opinions or have any influence, but is taxed and obliged to pay a board not of its own choosing – that is not a Jewish congregation. It is a community of voiceless people and in no way a Jewish congregation.

“But if this congregation is not a proper congregation, then its board members are not officials. They are nothing but “tax masters” – שרי מסים – as in the time of a malicious Pharaoh in Egypt, or of a more benevolent European government which imposes taxes on its subjects without any representation. 

The references to taxation without representation and the limited accountability of contemporary European governments suggest that Rabbi Hirsch might have been inspired by the American experiment with democracy. But was that the expression of his personal political and historical feelings, or of his objective sense of hard Torah law?

Later in the article, Rabbi Hirsch does strengthen his position with reference to some precedents, pointing out that: 

“God did not insist on the authority of His statutes until the entire Jewish community accepted and submitted to the obligations of His Laws.” 

And that the:

“…foregoing applies to legislation, but the same applies to administration: אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן נמלכים בציבור” [“Do not appoint a communal leader without first consulting the community” – Berachos 55a]

He further finds a source that extends authority to all members:

“All independent members have a vote; and all decisions are made by majority vote in a general meeting. Those whose financial situation does not allow them to pay dues can also make their voices heard (חו”מ קסג).

But it’s difficult to be sure that those sources affirm the kind of comprehensive and fully binding legal structure Rabbi Hirsch envisions. And that’s a problem, because the validity of changes to community practises (מנהגים תקנות וגזירות), social coercion (חרמים), taxes, and the appointment of functionaries will depend on clarity in these issues. Let’s see how such matters have been addressed historically.

A Halachic Source

The Pischei Teshuva (Rabbi Avraham Tzvi Hirsch Eisenstat, 1813-1868) to Choshen Mishpat 163:4 offers a lengthy and practical discussion on the subject. Here are some of the key excerpts:

ועיין בתשו’ צ”צ סי’ ב’ אודות קהל שהיה מנהגם מעולם שכל הסכמת הקהל בקבלת רב וחזן ושמש וכן ברירת ראשים וגבאים ודיינים היה נעשה ע”פ הסכמת כל פורעי המס ועתה רוצים מקצת נכבדי העיר לתקן שמהיו’ והלאה לא יהי’ ע”פ כל פורעי המס אלא ע”י אותן שיש להן מעלה או שנותני’ מס הרבה כפי השיעור שרוצים לקבוע לזה או שיש לו מעלה בתורה שיהא מוסמך לחבר ולאפוקי אותן שאינן בני תורה וגם נותני’ מס מעט לא יהיו מן המנויים ונותני’ טעם לדבריה’ מחמת שרוב צורכי הקהל על עסקי הוצאת ממון ואיך יתכן שדעת העני תהא שקולה כדעת העשיר ואיך יתכן שדעת ע”ה תהא שקולה כדעת החבר אם אין לו מעלה בעושר ועוד מחמת שכל קהלות חשובות נוהגים כן

See Teshuvos Tzemech Tzedek #2 concerning a community whose ancient practice had been for all communal decisions for choosing a rav, chazan, shamash, leaders, gabayim, and judges to be decided through the consent of all taxpayers. Now, however, some of the honored citizens wanted to impose a change from this day on that decisions would not be made by all taxpayers, but through individuals of stature or who pay significant amounts of tax (of an agreed level). Alternatively [this would apply to] individuals with great Torah knowledge with the status of “chaver” – all to exclude those who were not scholars or who paid only modest tax amounts who would not be included. The logic behind the proposal considered how most communal matters required financial experience: how could opinions of the poor compare to those of the wealthy, and how could the opinions of those ignorant of Torah carry equal weight with those of a chaver? And besides [the “powerful lobby” argued] other important communities already used such voting mechanisms. 

The question is clear: is it permitted for an existing community to bestow full decision-making powers on only individual subsets of the population? Here’s how those without wealth and influence are reported to have responded:

והעניים המון עם צועקי’ למה יהא נגרע זכותם אחרי שגם הם מפורעי מס ועליה’ קשה המעט שנותני’ יותר מן הרב שנותני’ העשירי’ ועוד שכן המנהג בקהלת’ מימי עולם והשיב שטענת העניים טענה מעליותא היא ולא שפיר דמי לדחות העניים הנותני’ מעט

But the poor masses cried: why should their merit be reduced since, after all, they, too, paid taxes and paying their relatively small amounts caused them greater hardship than the larger amounts paid by the rich. Further, this had been the way in their community forever. 

That second argument is an important point: the absence of any historical consent should block unilateral changes reducing individual rights. One might infer, however, that these people would not be able to object to a similar proposal within a community that had, at some point, adopted a restricted representation model. 

At any rate, here’s the response recorded by the Pischei Teshuva:

And he responded that the poor people’s claim is correct. It’s not appropriate to push off the poor who pay only small amounts in tax…

The Pischei Teshuva then addresses a possible conflict from an authoritative responsum from the Rosh. His resolution introduces a formula that ensures a weighted system where everyone is guaranteed at least some representation:

ואף דהרא”ש בתשובה כתב כ”ד שגובין לפי ממון הולכין אחר רוב הממון כו’ הא כבר פי’ הסמ”ע שלא כ’ הרא”ש כך אלא שאין העניים הרוב יכולי’ לגזור על העשירי’ שלא מדעתם אבל לא שהעשירי’ יהיו נחשבים כרוב לגזור על רוב הקהל כו’ והיינו משום ששקולין הם הני תרי רובא רוב הנפשות ורוב הממון ולכך המנהג ברוב הקהלות שיהא בהסכמה אחת מרוב מנין ומרוב בנין היינו רוב הנפשות ורוב הממון כו’ וזה הוא מנהג כשר

Even if (it’s true) that the Rosh wrote in a responsum that (decisions concerning) communal taxes that are paid according to one’s wealth are made based on (voting patterns reflecting) each individual’s wealth, the Sema already explained that the Rosh only meant that a majority of poor residents should not be able to outvote the wealthy minority. But that is not to say that the wealthy minority should be considered a majority with the power to overrule the (true) majority. And that is because they’re equal (in power). There are two majorities: the “majority of individuals” and the “majority of wealth.” Therefore, the custom in most communities is for (decisions to require) the agreement of most wealth AND of most individuals. And this is an appropriate custom. 

While there’s much more to this topic than the few sources I’ve presented, what we’ve seen is nevertheless significant. For one thing, there is – as Rabbi Hirsch claimed – solid legal precedent protecting the representation of all members of a Jewish community. But there’s also the suggestion that communal decisions cannot be made without universal consent. No one can be left out. 

Of course, such a system would quickly become unworkable, especially within larger communities. So a group may agree to submit their authority to an elected council. But even then, as the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 18:1) rules, all council votes must be unanimous: 

הגה: קהל שבררו ד’ או ה’ ברורים אין הולכים אחר הרוב שאין רוב אלא בבית דין

A council of four or five members selected by the community may not follow a majority vote (among themselves), as “majority” rulings apply only to a law court (beis din).

How all of this would apply to our large and diverse modern communities is way beyond the scope of this article. But this isn’t a bad baseline on which to begin the discussion.