Either Community or Death!
Either community or death!
This popular saying is quoted at the end of a fascinating myth in the Talmud about Honi the Circle Drawer, a magical rainmaker. Honi falls asleep for seventy years. Brush grows around him so no one notices, and his “death” is reported so no one questions his absence. When he awakens, he discovers that no one recognizes him and that seventy years have passed. He goes to his home and asks if the son of Honi the Circle Drawer is still alive. The answer is no, but his grandson is. Frustrated, he goes to the bet midrash (house of study) and announces himself, but no one believes him. Not receiving the respect and camaraderie of his colleagues, Honi the Circle Drawer asks to die, and he does. The Rabbis then repeat the popular saying, “Either community or death!”
The phrase is often quoted without the context because it stands by itself. Its meaning is plain and clear and almost needs no commentary. We can hardly participate in Jewish study without companions with whom to share ideas, debate issues, and act as sounding boards. Among Judaism’s many wise and well-tested practices is the custom of studying Talmud with a partner—called a hevruta. Anyone who has ever seen a bet midrash will have memories of a cacophony of pairs throughout the room reading, reciting, correcting, testing, reviewing, and repeating. It’s fairly amazing how dozens—and sometimes hundreds—of people can sit in the same room and talk to one other person about a serious issue in the Talmud with so much noise all around them.
In short, study of Jewish texts is a community enterprise, not a solo venture. But there is a broader meaning to this statement, for it is not only Jewish study that requires community. So, too, do prayer and a plethora of other Jewish religious, cultural, and social acts. A Jew cannot truly live out the mandates of Jewish life without sharing important spiritual experiences with like-minded individuals. Being Jewish requires community. Every Jew knows what a minyan is, and likewise, every Jew knows that prayers such as Mourner’s Kaddish cannot halakhically be recited without one. We could make a very long list of Jewish activities, in addition to study and prayer, that simply are not the same without the participation of other Jews: observing Shabbat and festivals (in home and synagogue), doing acts of tikkun olam (social action, or, literally, “repairing the world”), educating our children, promoting the welfare of Israel, and so on.
“Either community or death!” can be taken literally, but its deepest meaning is that there is no life without sharing our most important, meaningful moments with other like-minded people. Without the intense give-and-take of collegial interaction on a significant level, life becomes either impossible or dull and tedious. Conversely, for people who live by common ideals and a dream of a shared destiny, study, prayer, and the pursuit of meaning are some of the most exciting things a human being can experience.