Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies

Studying the Constitutional Documents
of American Jewry

Daniel J. Elazar

Constitutionalism has been a preeminent aspect of the Jewish political tradition from earliest times. While the fundamental constitution of the Jewish people, the Torah, is traditionally viewed as God-given, albeit accepted by the Jewish people with their free consent through a series of covenants, this has not prevented the Jews from engaging in a considerable amount of constitutional design and redesign through Jewish history. The Torah itself seems to have passed through several such stages. In addition, the Bible records several constitutional reform movements of importance, including the establishment of mishpat ha-melukhah (the constitutional law of the kingdom) at the time of the introduction of the office of melekh, the Josianic reform, and the recovenanting under Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Mishna and Gemara are both massive examples of constitutional redesign which contain within them the accepted principles of constitutional change established by the sages to be applied within what came to be known as the halakhic framework. The transfer of the focus of power in the Jewish world to local communities in the Middle Ages led to a period of great constitutional creativity, led by the major rabbinical posekim of the time who became the architects of a new constitutional law based on the Torah and talmud which enabled the local communities to function as autonomous entities with full powers.

The modern epoch in Jewish life, beginning in the mid-17th century, is conventionally viewed as a time in which this whole constitutional apparatus broke down. This is true enough as far as it goes, but what is often overlooked is the degree to which the Jewish people did not abandon constitutionalism, but tried new experiments in constitutional design, reflecting new conditions of modernity and emancipation. While some of theses experiments were very visible and represented grand efforts, others were very local efforts to constitutionalize new or redesigned institutions whose prospect was to accommodate the ideologies promulgated in the larger arenas and to give them a constitutional framework through which organized Jewish life could function. This process intensified after World War I and again after World War II as the focus of Jewish life completed its movement from older centers which had been organized under traditional constitution to the New World and the new state of Israel.

It is our contention that Jewish institutions and communities have developed important constitutional documents which reflect the way in which they now function. More than that, out of all this experimentation there has emerged a major constitutional movement in Jewish life, one reflected in new efforts at constitutional design to confront new situation. We further contend that this thrust will, within the next few generations, emerge as a common constitution (or at the very least a common set of constitutional principles) for a postmodern Jewish people.

In light of the foregoing, we undertake a project to study the constitutions and contemporary Jewish institutions, beginning with the constitutions of American Jewish institutions which, taken together, represent one of the cutting edges of these new forms of Jewish constitutional expression. The first stage of this project was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Community Studies and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Center for the Study of the American Jewish Experience of HOC-JIR in commeration of the bicentennial of the US Constitution of 1787. We examined synagogue constitutions, constitutions of Jewish community federation, and other local and countrywide Jewish organizations as appropriate, looking for patterns of development from colonial times to the present. We discovered the material available is quite rich indeed, and produced significant results in understanding such processes as the democratization of Jewish life, the changing basic norms of Jewish affiliation and public behavior, the development of new institutions suitable to the demands of modern republicanism, and the like. We believe that it is important to examine these documents even thought they are not necessarily treated with any special reverence within the organizations they serve or are even much noticed except when constitutional issues arise, because we are convinced that they do at the very least reflect Jewish constitutional expectation, the changes which have occurred in theses expectation as a result of modernization, at the degrees of continuity which has survived change.

The first stage of the project resulted in the publication of A Double Bond (Lanham, MD: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and University Press of America, 1992) by Professors Daniel J. Elazar, Jonathan Sarna, and Rela M. Geffen. It consisted of five analytic articles plus a selection of constitutional documents collected. In addition, we established an archive of the constitutional documents of American Jewry with copies deposited at the American Jewish archives in Cincinnati, the Center for Jewish Community Studies in Philadelphia, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in Jerusalem.

The success of the first project demonstrated that despite the relatively prosaic character of any single one of the constitutional documents collected, taken together and examined over time and space much can be learned from the documents in question about the accommodation of American Jews to the American environment while at the same time seeking to preserve aspects of Jewish tradition.

As a result of the first project, we have determined to continue the effort to examine the constitutional documents of other Jewish communities in the modern and post modern worlds and to apply the same methodology to study constitutional documents of Jewry in early modern and premodern times. Professors Elazar, Sarna, and Geffen will continue to share responsibilities for the project. In addition, while Professor Elazar was a visiting scholar at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard in the Fall and Winter of 1992-1993, he had extensive discussion with Dr. Charles Berlin, Lee N. Friedman, bibliographer and head of the Judaica collection at Harvard University Libraries, regarding Harvard's collection of materials and its interest in participating in the project, discussions culminating in a meeting between Professors Elazar and Sarna and Dr. Berlin in which it was agreed that the Harvard University Libraries would help us identify the materials they have in their very extensive collections, particularly 19th and 20th century western European materials. We would deposit photocopies of the materials we collected, at certain stages of the project, in the Harvard Libraries while receiving photocopies of the material they have collected. As we prepare a second volume of world materials in the manner of the first on the United States, the Judaic division of the Harvard Libraries would mount a public exhibit of these constitutional documents, and what they teach us about Jewish life.

The second stage of this project initially involves collection of 19th and 20th century documents of the Jewish communities of Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa, explore the constitutional documents of Italian Jewry in 3 periods: the twentieth century, the early modern epoch, and, we hope, selected medieval constitutional documents: the constitutional documents of modern and post-modern French Jewry, the selections of the constitutional documents showing the revival of organized Jewish life in the now ex-Soviet Union, the documents of the other communities in Eastern Europe before and after World War II and in their Communist regimes, and the constitutional documents of Latin American Jewish communities.

We propose to follow the methodology originally developed by Professor Elazar in his studies of American constitutional design, federal and state, which he and his colleagues at the Center for the Study of Federalism have already tested and refined. These methods will be used in conjunction with models developed by Professors Elazar and Stuart A. Cohen in their study of constitutionalism in Jewish political history.

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