The Council of the Four Lands

Israel's government is an inheritor of Jewish self-government in the Diaspora.

Knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Knesset held its first session on February 14, 1949 in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem. On the agenda of this landmark gathering was the election of the country's first president. Mapai put forth Dr. Chaim Weizmann's name for the post. The Revisionist candidate was Prof. Joseph Klausner. Although the session was a stormy one - the rift between socialists and Revisionists in the Zionist movement was deep and continues to this day - the Knesset elected Weizmann president by 83 votes to 15. "It was a very special occasion in Jewish history," writes Sir Martin Gilbert in his chronicle of the State of Israel, "the first Jewish parliament in a Jewish sovereign state." Indeed, the convening of the first governing body of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael in almost 2,000 years was, and remains, a cause for celebration. The absence of a sovereign homeland would haunt the Jewish people for centuries in exile. Certainly, after the tragedy of the Holocaust, the urgent need for a Jewish homeland with a Jewish governing body and a Jewish army is indisputable. That does not mean, however, that the history of Jews in the Diaspora was a chronicle of endless suffering and political impotence. In fact, 300 years before the Knesset's first session, a Jewish parliament in exile was meeting in the heart of Poland. It was known as the Council of the Four Lands, and its influence on the way Jews lived their daily lives was immense. SINCE THE MIDDLE of the 13th century, the Jews of Christian Poland enjoyed communal autonomy as a separate ethnic and religious minority. The autonomous community, known as the kahal or kehilla - also the title of the Jewish lay and rabbinic leadership - had its roots in medieval Germany. The Ashkenazi kahal leaders established their own special regulations and exercised the threat of excommunication to maintain order within the community. Each kahal had a judicial court that based its authority on the rights accorded the ancient Sanhedrin, as well as the courts of the great rabbis of Babylonia, the geonim. With the emigration of Jews from Germany to Poland and Lithuania in the Middle Ages, the power, size and influence of the rabbinic and lay leadership of the kahal increased dramatically. The local kehilla networks in Eastern Europe took the responsibility to collect taxes for the Christian authorities, insured that Jewish education was regulated and maintained, and often had a staff of paid officials, including a rabbi. This system affected every aspect of Jewish life in Poland and Lithuania, including the religious, social and economic arenas. The leaders of these autonomous communities, although not the leaders of a sovereign Jewish state, were certainly political figures who exerted authority over the lives of their followers. TOWARD THE end of the 16th century, the Polish kings wanted to further centralize Jewish communal autonomy to make it easier to collect taxes from the Jews. For a period of almost 200 years, beginning in about 1582, Polish Jewry was ruled by a group of rabbis and laymen known as the Council of the Four Lands - Great Poland, Little Poland, Red Russia (East Galicia and Podolia) and Volhynia. Originally, Lithuania had been a fifth "land" in the council. However, by 1623, it had its own central organization. The council was made up of the most distinguished rabbis and lay leaders. It met twice a year, at the important commercial fairs in Lublin in the early spring and Yaroslav in the late summer. The council assessed tax burdens on the local kehilla branches, selected and financed the Jewish intercessors who negotiated with the Polish court on matters important to the community and issued ordinances in matters of qualifications for the rabbinate, education of the young and public morality. According to historian Jacob R. Marcus, the Council of the Four Lands "was practically a Jewish state in Poland." It "controlled practically every phase of the fiscal, economic, administrative, religious, cultural, social, and spiritual life of the greatest Jewish community in the world." The council faced its greatest challenge after Cossack slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine and Poland in the 17th century. The kehilla system was burdened by the cost of trying to protect the Jewish community from attacks. As well, many Jews began to look upon the council as a small group of wealthy families with strong connections to the Polish ruling authority and who had lost touch with the needs of the poor masses. Guilds of artisans and craftsmen complained that they had been left out of the running of communal affairs. As the Polish kingdom declined in the 18th century, the council declined with it. In 1764, the Poles abolished the governing body, preferring a system of direct taxation that would not involve the machinery of the kehilla system of collecting taxes. ZIONIST THINKERS and ideologues have painted a portrait of centuries of Jewish life in exile as apolitical and powerless. They have argued that since the collapse of an independent Israel under Bar Kochba in 135 CE, Jews have been deprived of any form of political expression. Although 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, we should acknowledge that such bodies as the Council of the Four Lands were significant expressions of Jewish political life. The legitimacy of the Knesset is not just based on modern, Western forms of parliamentary democracy. Israel's government is an inheritor of such bodies of Jewish self-government as the Council of the Four Lands. Rather than viewing Zionist politics as a complete rejection of Diaspora quietism and passivity, we can take pride as Jews and Zionists that our ancestors were, for the most part, able to have partial control over their own lives. As Jews in Israel do today, the Jews in these autonomous communities - from ancient Alexandria to medieval Spain to early modern Poland - debated a whole host of issues related to the way they lived their lives. One hundred years ago, as the Zionist movement struggled to assert its identity and authority amid severe criticism by most Jews, it was critical for leaders of the movement to paint a bleak portrait of the exile. In fact, the early Zionist leadership in its actions and rhetoric was reacting to the decline and stagnation of Jewish life in the Russian Pale of Settlement, as well as the failure of Jewish emancipation in Central and Western Europe. Their rejection of the Diaspora was based, in large part, on their own experiences of life either in crumbling traditional societies or in nation-states where Jews failed to assimilate despite the government's granting of citizenship. Today, however, we can afford to take a more mature and balanced view of the history of the exile. Jewish communal autonomy was for many centuries a legitimate expression of national life, although the Jews had no national homeland. With the failure of emancipation in France and Germany, the Zionist movement revived the national agenda that had been so much a part of Jewish life for centuries. The Zionists, however, were far more ambitious than their predecessors in the Council of the Four Lands. A Jewish self-government that derived its legitimacy partly from non-Jewish authority and which resided outside of Eretz Yisrael was inadequate. Yet, that rejection of the Diaspora does not mean we should forget that Jewish autonomy in exile was a dress rehearsal for Jewish sovereignty in a Jewish homeland. Yes, the modern State of Israel is, in part, rejecting the Jewish politics of the past. At the same time, the state is the culmination of all that came before it in Jewish history. Zionism must divest itself of its short-term memory of a 150-year-old modern national movement and find an identity rooted in 3,000 years of Jewish history.