What is the Knesset? Is the Knesset, the parliament of the State of Israel,
modeled solely on the democracies of ancient Athens or modern Britain? The
Jewish state’s parliament is a political body comprised of Israelis who
determine the day-to-day operations of a modern nation-state and decide the
larger issues of war and peace and the Jewish identity of the state. Yet, these
realities are not the only ones that determine the Jewish nature of the
We do not need to reach back to ancient Jewish sovereignty in
the Land of Israel to legitimize the Knesset’s existence. The Knesset is rooted
in all of Jewish history, even that of the Diaspora.
More than three
centuries before the Knesset’s historic opening session, a Jewish parliament in
exile was meeting in Poland. This “Council of the Four Lands” influenced the way
Jews organized their lives from day to day.
The council was a significant
and important body.
Since the middle of the 1200s, the Jews of Christian
Poland enjoyed communal autonomy. The autonomous community embodied Jewish
status as a separate religious and ethnic minority.
The “kahal” or
“kehillah” – also the title of the rabbinic and Jewish lay leadership – had its
roots in Germany of the Middle Ages. The Ashkenazic kahal leaders established
special regulations and even exercised the threat of excommunication to maintain
discipline within the community. Each kahal had a judicial court. The court
rooted its authority in the rights accorded the ancient Sanhedrin, as well as
the courts of the rabbinic elite of Babylonia.
After Jews from Germany
immigrated to Poland and Lithuania in the medieval period, the power, size and
influence of the rabbinic and lay leadership of the kahal increased
The local self-governing networks in Poland and Lithuania
took the responsibility to collect taxes for Christian rulers, insured that
Jewish education was regulated, and had a staff of paid officials, including
This system impacted all aspects of Jewish life in Eastern
Europe, including the social, economic, and religious domains. The leaders of
these autonomous communities were not the leaders of a sovereign Jewish
But they were certainly political figures who exerted authority
over the lives and destiny of their followers.
TOWARD THE end of the
1500s, the Polish kings further centralized Jewish communal autonomy. This made
it easier to collect taxes from the Jews.
For a period of almost two
centuries Polish Jewry was ruled by a group of rabbis and laymen known as the
Council of the Four Lands. These lands were Great Poland, Little Poland, Red
Russia (East Galicia and Podolia) and Volhynia. Originally, Lithuania had been a
fifth “land” in the council.
However, by the beginning of the 17th
century, it had its own central organization.
The council consisted of
distinguished rabbis and lay leadership. It met twice a year, at the commercial
fairs in Lublin in the early spring and Yaroslav in the late summer. The Council
of the Four Lands imposed tax burdens on the local kehillah branches, selected
and financed shtadlanim – the Jewish intercessors who negotiated with the Polish
court on matters important to the Jews – and issued ordinances for the Jews of
Poland in matters of qualifications for the rabbis, education of children, and
The Council of the Four Lands, according to historian
Jacob R. Marcus, “was practically a Jewish state in Poland.” The council
“controlled practically every phase of the fiscal, economic, administrative,
religious, cultural, social and spiritual life of the greatest Jewish community
in the world.”
The Cossack slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine and in Poland
in the 17th century marked the beginning of the end for the council. The costs
of protecting the Jews from the pogroms burdened the whole kehillah
Jews also resented the council because its elite and wealthy
leadership had lost touch with the needs of the masses of poor Jews. Artisans
and craftsmen among the Jews complained that they had been left out of the
running of communal affairs.
The Polish kingdom declined in the 18th
century, and the Council of the Four Lands declined with it. The Polish
authorities dissolved the governing body in 1764. A more effective system of
direct taxation was put in place that would not involve the
Zionists have painted a portrait of Jewish life in the Exile as
powerless and anti-political. According to the Zionist narrative, the collapse
of an independent Israel under Bar Kokhba in the second century marked the end
of all Jewish political expression. Jews were supposed to have been deprived of
all forms of politics and to have no longer determined their own
We have no need to return to the past. In fact, the attempt to
use kehillah-style negotiation with the Nazis was a tragic failure. Jewish
autonomy in the Diaspora under pagans, Christians and Muslims was certainly
inferior as a political system to a sovereign Jewish state in the Jewish
homeland. But we would be the victims of national amnesia if we did not realize
that such bodies as the Council of the Four Lands were important expressions of
Jewish political life.
Today, the Israeli Knesset’s legitimacy is not
just based solely on Western forms of modern parliaments. In a Jewish state, the
government of Israel is the inheritor of such bodies of Jewish self-government
as the Council of the Four Lands. Rather than viewing Zionist politics as a
total rejection of Diaspora passivity, we should recognize that our ancestors
were often able to have significant control over their own lives.
in Israel do today, the Jews in these autonomous communities – from ancient
Alexandria to medieval Spain to early modern Poland – debated many issues
related to the way they lived their lives. Zionism inherited its legitimacy, in
part, from the national aspects of ancient and medieval Jewish self-government
in both the Land of Israel and the Diaspora.
The Zionist project could
not have succeeded had Jews not already forged a sense of national destiny in
more than 2,000 years of Diaspora history.
Zionism did not “invent” a
nation. As a dispersed nation united by covenantal faith and Jewish law, we said
“Next Year in Jerusalem!” The nation was already there, waiting to be forged
into a sovereign state in the Jewish homeland.
Autonomy was a dress
rehearsal for sovereignty.The author is rabbi of the Beth Ami
Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.