The medieval roots of the modern Knesset

Zionism did not “invent” a nation. The nation was already there, waiting to be forged into a sovereign state in the Jewish homeland.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
Knesset 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool )
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 Knesset.
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 dramatically.
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 rabbis.
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 state.
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 public morals.
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 system.
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 kehillah.
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 destiny.
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.
As Jews 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.