13 Pages

Medieval Jewish Political Institutions

The Foundations of Their Authority
ByRobert Chazan

Medieval Jewish communities were hardly independent and sovereign, as is the contemporary state of Israel; at the same time they were also not voluntary associations, as are contemporary diaspora Jewries. In fact, the considerable authority of the medieval Jewish community drew its strength from three separate but intertwined sources: the support of the non-Jewish political establishment, the needs of the Jewish community as a minority group living in threatening circumstances, and the sanctions of Jewish religious tradition. In a society in which many groups enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy, substantial Jewish political separatism fit in well with general norms; Jews had to receive no special dispensations for controlling their own affairs. As a result of these two broad characteristics of society and government, Jews were empowered to control many facets of Jewish communal life, with the understanding that the authorities would stand behind the decisions of the duly empowered agents of the Jewish community.