Someone asked in a comment on The Queer Diasporist facebook page whether or not Jewish communities try to control the lives of its members. Here’s my attempt at an answer:
Jewish communities are very diverse in how they resolve the dialectical tension between individual autonomy and communal norms. Some are almost Protestant in their emphasis on the individual, while some are so controlling as to be cultish. Traditional communities certainly don’t share the Western ideal of the individual… The important thing is that where Rabbinical Judaism evolved is the Exile. In the Exile Jewish communities did not have the kind of power that state sponsored churches have to enforce their hegemony. Israel is the only place this is not the case and it’s a very recent phenomenon. So while Judaism strives to guide the life of the community member to the smallest detail, membership is perforce consent-based; and the rules are seen not through the lens of control but through the lens of guidance. There is, for example, a prohibition to make rules that will not be followed volunrarily.
The argument in Jewish law is typically ethical and not theological or dogmatic, and Jews are traditionally encouraged to study and debate the laws rather than blindly follow them. That’s why Jews have had such high literacy rates compared to our host communities in the pre-modern era. The preoccupation with ethics over dogma, what’s sometimes called Jewish Materialism, was used by antisemites for centuries as proof that Jews reject God in favor of the material world and its concerns.
So, does this answer your question? I don’t know. Does it? I feel that control is not the correct lens through which to analyze Jewish communal life—if one’s goal is to understand rather than to judge.