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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?

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Seventeenth-century woodcut showing various members of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth society, inclduding, top left, the Jew. (Wikimedia Commons)
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At the beginning of this article I asked what circumstances led to the Va’ad’s intervention in the affairs of a community outside of Poland. The examples in Group A offer a clear answer: In every case a community or a faction sought to dominate another community or faction or violate its prerogatives, and the beleaguered party appealed to the Va’ad in an attempt to secure backing in its fight against the “violator.” In no case did both parties decide together to appoint the Va’ad as a mediator or arbitrator in their dispute. The model was that the weaker party always tried to enlist the Va’ad in its struggle against the stronger one. Thus the opponents of the new government-appointed council of 14 in Frankfurt asked the Va’ad to revoke its legitimacy. The Polish Jews in Amsterdam wanted to preserve their separate status in the face of the larger Ashkenazi community’s desire to incorporate them. Rabbi David Lida and his supporters needed to defend themselves from the attacks of dominant leaders of the Amsterdam Ashkenazi community. The Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem needed to undermine the power of the Sabbatian Hasidim who had taken over the community.

It is likely that the weaker party in each of these cases understood that alone it could not successfully resist its stronger, more influential, or more politically powerful rival. Therefore it sought out an independent outside authority that the rival would also have to respect. Notably, in most of these episodes at some point the non-Jewish governmental authorities became involved. In the case of the Sabbatians in Jerusalem, when the weaker party appealed to the Va’ad they also appealed to other communities or rabbis. This implies that when the institutions of the local community were not able to resolve disputes and restore order and stability, the Va’ad was not the sole or default option; it was one of the possible authorities that could be called upon.

Consideration of Group B where, in addition to the Va’ad, rabbis from several other communities interceded as well, also demonstrates that the Va’ad did not interfere on its own initiative. The Va’ad was asked to act by people with a material interest in the outcome of the dispute and the appeal came after other agents had already taken a position. However, the objective of the petitioners to the Va’ad in the Group B cases was not always the same as that of those in Group A.

Rabbi Eybeschutz, who saw himself as persecuted, apparently hoped that the Va’ad would serve as a court that would establish and proclaim his innocence. Here there is similarity with the weak parties of Group A. However, Eybeschutz’s antagonists, Emden’s supporters, and the protagonists in other Group B type conflicts not detailed above did not turn to the Va’ad as a court or arbitrator but as a prestigious institution that was an attractive addition to the list of those who had endorsed their cause. For them, the Va’ad was one ally (to be sure, an important one) among many. Its usefulness was in its presumed influence over others who might join the cause and not in its putative power to issue a definitive ruling that would compel the opposition to give in.

In short, our examples indicate that the Va’ad was asked to intervene beyond the boundaries of Poland-Lithuania either as an independent, outside coercive authority in a local dispute or as the ally of one side in a supralocal controversy. Such intervention was always by invitation of one of the parties and not at the Va’ad’s own initiative. Those who recognized the Va’ad’s right to interpose in matters outside of its geographic purview based their expectations on the greatness in Torah of the rabbis associated with the Va’ad. It was their greatness in Torah that entitled the Va’ad to “join the pieces of the tent into a whole”; that is, to issue binding decisions. As Rabbi Eybeschutz confirmed, the men of the Va’ad were “the most and the greatest in wisdom and numbers.”

Greatness in Torah may lend prestige or attract appeals for support; it is not necessarily a substitute for officially recognized, institutionalized authority. Several of our examples illustrate how this gap bothered the Va’ad. Even as it was mixing in, it would declare that by rights the dispute at hand should remain subject to the local authorities. If, despite this, the Va’ad intervened it was, above all, because it was asked. In contrast to those who appealed to it, the Va’ad did not emphasize its superior Torah standing. In fact its messages contained conventional praise for the Torah honor of Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The Va’ad certainly did not assert that its status in Torah mandated obedience to its word.

As a practical matter, the purpose of appealing to the Va’ad was to elicit a ruling or a ban in the petitioner’s favor and against his rivals. In most of our cases, the Va’ad complied. However, with the exception of the initial 1665 directive to the Sephardim of Amsterdam to support the Polish community there (a position that advanced the Sephardim’s interests), the intervention of the Va’ad in the cases of our sample produced no demonstrable result. The absence of strong sanctions prevented the Va’ad from fulfilling the expectations of those who appealed to it: to force a ruling on the opposing party.

At the beginning of this article I asserted that the Va’ad enjoyed moral authority outside of Poland-Lithuania. Analysis of the cases presented here demonstrates that this authority was anchored in the Torah reputations of the Polish sages. This is somewhat ironic given that, as already noted, the Va’ad was primarily a lay body and its enactments were in the genre of law and not rabbinic responsa. Nonetheless the Va’ad did command a certain moral authority that lent it a status comparable to that of non-Jewish governmental institutions (and certain great rabbis) in the eyes of weak parties in local conflicts. In practice, however, the Va’ad’s moral authority was not sufficient to be able to achieve this aim. Jews the world over may have heard of the Va’ad, admired it, even might try to enlist it in their cause when needed. Their willingness to respect the decisions of the Va’ad seems to have been in direct proportion to the degree to which the Va’ad supported them and their interests.


A longer version of this article appeared in Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, vol. 22 (2010), pp. 83-108.

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Jewish Self-Government in Europe Was Not Just a Dream—It Was a Failure

The Council of Four Lands was the central body of Jewish autonomy in Poland for nearly two centuries. What went wrong?

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