It is widely agreed among scholars of Judaism and contemporary Jewish leaders that the concept of the unity of the people of Israel has been a constant value across Jewish history and culture. While the expressions of this concept may have undergone changes over time, its underlying existence has rarely if ever been questioned. Of course, all are aware that apart from perhaps a brief period in our ancient past, membership in and the nationhood of the people of Israel cannot be defined as a political/locational nationhood. For most of Jewish history, as today, Jews were linked by a complex web of factors that extended beyond living together in a community, to include shared beliefs, practices, ancestry, and/or language—a web which in the modern era we try to capture under the rubric of the term k’lal yisra·el.
By late antiquity—the time of the rabbis who were the authors and editors of the rabbinic canon of midrash, aggadah, and halakhah—the scattered and diverse nature of the Jewish people and the lack of national sovereignty were already well-established facts. Certainly, the rabbis were aware that Jews lived in diverse communities with diverse practices, and they thus allowed that the boundaries of Jewish practice could have room for some diversity in halakhic practice without thereby threatening Jewish unity or the Jewish legitimacy of different sub-communities. Already in tannaitic texts, for example, we find references to minhag ha-m’dinah, local practice, in civil, religious, and family law (see particularly M P’saḥim, chapter 4); the tanna·im even formulated a broader principle, ha-kol k’minhag ha-m’dinah, “all goes according to the local practice” (see M Sukkah 3:11, K’tubbot 6:4, Bava M’tzi·a 7:1 and 9:1, Bava Batra 1:1 and 10:1). [End Page 3] How, then, did the web of Jewish interconnectedness appear to the rabbis, and how did they express their thoughts on Jewish peoplehood in their literature?
This question, posed directly in this way, has not been the subject of much scholarly literature—though relevant material does come up in a variety of works—and so what follows should be understood as only the most preliminary of studies. I will begin by addressing two phrases that are often invoked on this topic—one of them being k’lal yisra·el itself—and propose that the rabbinic literary evidence suggests that these are not the most fruitful places to be looking for rabbinic expressions regarding the unity of the Jewish people and/or the mutual responsibility of Jews one to another. From there, we can turn to other phrases, midrashic motifs, and more subtle means by which rabbinic authors take up this topic.
K’lal Yisra·el, K’neset Yisra·el
The actual phrase k’lal yisra·el appears only once in the Babylonian Talmud, at BT Sanhedrin 58b, and does not in that context carry a meaning that easily presages the later usage familiar to modern Jews:
Rav Ḥisda said: A Canaanite slave is permitted to [marry] his mother and he is permitted to [marry] his daughter—he has exited the community of Cutheans, but he has not entered the community of Israel(k’lal yisra·el).
A slave of non-Jewish origins is supposed to be circumcised (if male) and immersed in a mikveh when purchased by an Israelite.1 These acts become a kind of “half-way” conversion for the slave. That is, by virtue of having been purchased by an Israelite, the slave is no longer a member of his/her people of origin (Cutheans or otherwise).2 As a slave, however, he/she is also not a full Israelite. Belonging to neither category, the slave is apparently not bound to the laws covering either group. Here we mark only the boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out” of the collective, but little about what connects those deemed to be “in.”
It is quite possibly for this reason that the scholar Ephraim E. Urbach focused instead on the term k’neset...