- AUTONOMY, the religious, legal, social, and cultural self-sufficiency of the Jewish community within the sovereign non-Jewish state or its subdivision; Jewish self-government. Jewish autonomy was conditioned by both external and internal forces. By definition it did not exist during the periods of political sovereignty in the days of the Jewish independent states. During the periods of Persian and Greco-Roman subjugation the Jews enjoyed considerable self-government, especially in the form of polyteuma, an autonomous community within the Hellenistic city, as in alexandria . Throughout the Middle Ages, when European society generally was constituted of distinct corporate groups each with its own way of life, the Jews were also governed by their own laws and institutions. The Christian authority in the lands of Europe, whether emperor, king, pope, duke, or municipality, as well as the Muslim caliph or other ruler, granted them various privileges of serf-rule. These dealt mainly with their rights of commerce, moneylending, or litigation with Gentiles. The internal political and social life of the Jews was left inviolate. The basic Christian legal concept permitted the Jews to live according to their law (secundum legem eorum vivere). In Islam the very idea of the "People of the Book" predicated the toleration of Jews and Christians to live according to their respective sacred scriptures. The trend toward civic emancipation and the onset of the Enlightenment (haskalah ) movement within Judaism in the 18th century tended to curtail group autonomy in favor of the rights of the individual. The tendency was afforded external stimulus by the insistence of the modern state on the complete allegiance of its citizens, demanding the elimination of corporations. The 20th century has seen brief experimentation with a special form of self-rule based on minority rights , only to witness the dissolution of Jewish autonomy in its traditional form in many places. In countries with a pluralistic society, such as the United States, a new, voluntary Jewish internal leadership structure is emerging. Throughout more than 2½ millennia powerful internal forces bolstered the Jewish autonomous institutions. Most pronounced were the religious element and national cohesion. From their law the Jews evolved a unique way of living, a regimen of holiness and pietism; the freedom to practice it was cherished above life. The messianic hope for eventual political sovereignty was never abandoned. The Jews clung to the eschatological vision of redemption from galut ("exile") and of national revival and reunification in Ereẓ Israel. The basic institutions of Jewish self-government were developed in ancient times: the congregation, which enabled ten adult males anywhere to form a viable group; the association (see Ḥevrah ); the court of justice; and self-taxation. According to the formulation of saadiah b. joseph , the Jews formed "a nation by virtue of their laws." No matter how far the Jews exerted themselves to observe the talmudic rule that "the law of the land is law" (BK 113a), they still clung tenaciously to their autonomous institutions. They also preferred physical segregation from the other religious, ethnic, and professional groups among whom they lived. Topographical isolation enabled them to enjoy the religious, educational, and social advantages of contiguous living. Moreover, the instinct for self-preservation dictated communal solidarity, a united front to face the often hostile outside world. Finally, the sense of alienation from the surrounding population engendered primary loyalty to their own community. With all the structural and functional diversity occasioned by the manifold conditions in the countries of dispersion, the autonomous Jewish community succeeded in maintaining a continuity with the past and an essential unity with far-flung Jewry. Three main instruments of Jewish self-government have been the national or regional agency, the local community, and the association. -Centralization When the Arabs conquered Persia in 637 C.E., they maintained there the hereditary exilarchate in its traditional glory (see exilarch , Geonim, academies ). The Jews were responsible for the collection of the poll and land taxes demanded from them by the central government. Otherwise, they were free to govern themselves. They levied taxes for internal needs, regulated imposts on ritually slaughtered meat, and appointed judges. Government of the community was aristocratic. All communal affairs were guided by the leadership strata constituted roughly of (1) a hereditary aristocracy of scholarly families, institutionalized in the academies; (2) the "Davidic" dynasty of the exilarchs; (3) from the tenth century, wealthy and influential court bankers. During most of the Islamic period, Ereẓ Israel formed a kind of center of Jewish autonomy, with geonim of its own; later, with the breakup of the caliphate, provincial leaders, such as the nagid , made their appearance. Medieval European society was structured into corporate groups, each governed by its own laws. Noblemen and serfs in the feudal system, burghers and guild members in the municipality, the clergy and religious orders within the church, all enjoyed some degree of autonomy. The corporate body in turn owed fealty to a more embracing power. Jews were generally under the direct protection of the monarch; they were, therefore, often exempt from obligations to intermediate powers. Christendom kept the Jews apart and in subjection to remain as visible witnesses testifying to the truth and victory of Christianity. These factors favored Jewish autonomy. The synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were protected; litigation among Jews was left to the rabbinical courts, while the community as a whole had powers of taxation, excommunication, and, in some cases, capital punishment. The greater the fiscal contribution to the state by the Jews in comparison to that of the Christian population, the more the rulers tended to rely on the Jewish autonomous organization as their fiscal agents. Jews enjoyed considerable autonomy in the byzantine empire . In Christian spain self-rule achieved heights rivaled only in the Muslim lands and by the Councils of the Lands of Poland-Lithuania. In order to foster strong communal cohesion, the Jewish authorities in Spain were granted wide powers to deal with informers, including the imposition of capital punishment. Jewish autonomy in Spain attained its peak in the 13th century. In Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands the institution of the corporation was particularly developed and powerful. The Jews were increasingly placed outside the framework of Christian society, more so than in Spain. Within this political framework, and against this social and legal background, therefore, the Jewish community in Northern Europe, as in the south, acquired the status of a corporation. The individual communities were governed by a variety of privileges granted by imperial, royal, ducal, episcopal, or municipal rulers. The similar institutions in Poland and Lithuania were patterned after those of Central Europe. Early legislation was modeled on privileges granted to the Jews in neighboring Austria and Bohemia. Gradually, the Polish king expanded the autonomy granted to the Jews. Sigismund II, for example, decreed in 1551 that any Jew who resists "the censures and bans imposed upon him by the rabbi, judge, or other Jewish elders… shall be beheaded." After a certain point in the second half of the 16th century, Jewish autonomy in Poland-Lithuania developed in explicit recognition by the monarch of the fiscal functions of central organs and tacit acceptance of their activities in other fields as well (see councils of the lands ). However, in 1764 the Jewish self-governing agencies were abolished on the express order of the disintegrating Polish state. -Central Organs of Self-Rule The European communities in medieval and early modern times did not perpetuate the hereditary exilarchate, or patriarchate, or the geonate of the earlier period. Central organs of self-rule, however, developed as a result of two factors: (1) the built-in ideological and practical endeavors of the Jews to preserve an inclusive national unity, as far as communications and the respective political framework permitted; and (2) the practice of rulers of imposing a lump sum of taxes upon the Jews of a country. Central agencies were formed in order to distribute the fiscal burden among the provinces and communities. In addition to functioning as an arm of the state, these agencies also regulated the internal affairs of their constituents. The Jewish striving for a central, national, autonomous leadership often took the form of synods . Recourse was also made to the personal authority of a great rabbi, such as jacob b. meir tam . In addition, institutional authority was delegated through the representatives of the leading communities and the congregation of many scholars combined in them. They usually sought some form of confirmation of their resolutions by the secular ruler. The earliest Jewish synods on record are those held by the French and Rhenish communities; they were later convened from time to time in various countries and in various periods from the Middle Ages to early modern times. The synods generally attempted to deal with the whole gamut of problems relevant at their time of meeting, even though a single central problem often seemed to dominate their deliberations. Sometimes the synods were coterminous with a national framework and boundaries (see bohemia -moravia ; Aragon; italy ); sometimes they were regional only (see germany ). (In the modern period the synod form of communal leadership has been revived by the Jewish reform movement.) -The Local community (Heb. קְהִלָּה, kehillah) The kehillah, the cell of Jewish societal life and leadership, was based on the concept of partnership shared by the Jews as inhabitants of a certain locality. Much as the individual Jew was affected by his national or regional autonomous institutions, he enjoyed the fruits of self-government directly only through his own local community and the various associations within it. The foundations of the local community are to be found in the early days of the Second Temple, when the congregation took root and every town had its administrative machinery. The hallmarks of community life evolved as communal prayer, charity, mutual aid, a judiciary, and the power to enforce communal decisions. The kehillah did not figure prominently in the days when the exilarchs and geonim appointed local functionaries. It came into its own again in North African and Spanish communities and in those on the Rhine in the second half of the tenth century. The kehillah acquired a legal character with the right to judge and to impose taxes. The rabbis of that age reinterpreted talmudic law in the responsa to strengthen the autonomous institutions by giving them authority over the individual. In time, marked similarities developed in the widely scattered communities in regard to both structure and function. Nearly every kehillah possessed written takkanot, many of them of a constitutional character. There were regularly scheduled meetings of the entire membership, as well as of the elected elders to the kahal ("community board"), who were usually drawn from the aristocracy of wealth or learning. The elders were designated by a variety of titles in Hebrew or in the local vernacular. Each community was served by paid communal officials, such as the rabbi, dayyan, or preacher, who offered religious, educational, judicial, financial, and welfare services to the residents. Notwithstanding the underlying uniformity of autonomous practices in the countries of the dispersal, the councils, kehalim, and associations were not all of one cloth. In Central and Eastern Europe there was only one kahal for every local community. On the other hand, the advent of refugees from Spain in Italy, Holland, and the Ottoman Empire sometimes produced differentiation within each community on the basis of the country or city of origin, or by Sephardi or Ashkenazi descent. On the other hand, in some places the various elements, while maintaining separate religious institutions, were treated as a corporate body vis-à-vis the outside world in relations with the government. -The Association The smallest cell of Jewish communal life was the local association (ḥevrah). Whereas the community board had powers of taxation and legal standing, the association was a voluntary membership group. Throughout the Middle Ages it was controlled by the kahal to serve the public weal. As the kahal dissolved in the Emancipation era, the association often took over its essential functions. A major characteristic of most ḥavarot was the assurance to every member that upon his death the survivors would intercede before God for his soul through prayer and study. The four major categories of associations were (1) religious, to maintain synagogues or chapels, or for worship or mystical activities; (2) educational, for provision of school facilities for the poor, or adult study groups; (3) philanthropic, for visiting the sick, or care of paupers; and (4) vocational, mainly consisting of craft guilds. Outstanding among the philanthropic associations was the burial society, ḥevrah kaddisha gomelei ḥasadim, which often achieved wide powers through its monopoly over the cemetery, a major source of secured income. In Central and South America the ḥevrah kaddisha gomelei ḥasadim for many years also controlled most other communal activities. In the United States it lost its power as two of its functions were commercialized; funeral parlors passed to private ownership and cemeteries to landsmanschaften and congregations. -Decline of Autonomy The era of civic emancipation ushered in a gradual dissolution of the self-governing community. The evolution of centralized monarchies, the crumbling of the medieval social structure, the harnessing of Jewish leadership in the service of the state, Enlightenment as an inner solvent, early capitalism with its emphasis on individualism, loss of status of the rabbinical courts, financial bankruptcy – these were some of the powerful internal and external factors that spelled the doom of Jewish autonomy. Many declared that emancipation and autonomy were inherently contradictory; that once the individual Jew is granted equal civic rights he can no longer claim group privileges. Between the two world wars, efforts were made in Eastern European countries to grant Jews, along with other nationalities, certain minority rights . In Russia, Alexander Kerensky's short-lived provisional government of 1917 stirred Jewish hopes for national self-determination. Upon seizing power the Soviets too proclaimed the rights to autonomy of territorial nationalities. For a while autonomous regions and soviets enjoyed linguistic, judicial, and educational self-rule. birobidzhan was proclaimed such a region. However, atheistic and assimilationist trends as well as the incipient anti-Jewishness gradually eradicated Jewish communal life. The claim for minority rights was based on the ideology of Diaspora nationalism, or autonomism , which demanded from the state group rights along with individual equality. The experiment did not last long. Intense nationalism among the ruling states and the force of economic rivalry between the Jews and the local populations tended to shatter all good intentions. In Ereẓ Israel the central and local self-government granted by Turkey and by the Mandatory power offered the Jewish community wide autonomy, which was used constructively to help prepare for eventual independence. Only one community, the Keneset Israel, was recognized, the exception being the separate Orthodox community network (see agudat israel ). -The Voluntary Post-Emancipation Community Hardly any trace is left in the post-World War II period of either state-enforced group autonomy or of the minority rights program. Emancipated Jewry developed wholly voluntary associations and communal organs. These serve a wide variety of purposes, mainly religious and social organizations abound for cultural, recreational, and social services. There have also arisen societies for the defense of Jewish rights and for developing institutions that serve both the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the state on a non-sectarian basis, such as hospitals, recreational centers, and universities, as well as employment and vocational agencies. The board of deputies of british jews , the american jewish committee , the american jewish congress , and many other national bodies specialize in defense or in broader community services. The Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform religious groups in Western Europe and the United States each have their own network of local congregations and of regional and national institutions. See also sections on Minority Rights in articles on various European countries. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Baron, Community (1942), includes bibliography; Finkelstein, Middle Ages; Baer, Spain, 1–2; M. Wischnitzer, History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (1965); I. Levitats, Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (1943); M. Burstein, Self-Government of the Jews in Palestine since 1900 (1934); J. Katz, Tradition and Crisis (1961), 79–134, 157–67. (Isaac Levitats)
Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.