Q. Is a Jewish community halachically bound by decisions of the communal roof body?
A. Medieval Jewish communities frequently enjoyed considerable autonomy. Provided they paid their taxes, they were generally allowed by the regime to manage their own affairs. But people regularly grumbled and protested at the rulings of the communal council. Hence rabbinic responsa often had to define and justify the authority of the communal leaders.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the leading rabbi of German Jewry in the 13th century, was asked about a group who appointed themselves as a governing body and sought to make rulings and impose taxes. He states, after studying the sources, that communal rulings require:
1. The unanimous consent of a meeting of the community,
2. The decisions of an elected council (in Talmudic terms, shivah tuvei ha’ir – “the seven good men of the city”) who have the delegated authority of the community, or
3. The “great man” (the leading scholar) of the city.
In practice, the communal councils made the decisions unless the city had a “great man” who objected to a given decision. In the case before him, Rabbi Meir rejected the right of the upstart group to impose its will without the consent of the community and the local rabbi.
Today’s Jewish communities are much harder to govern because of the disparate groups and ideologies that make them up. But even so, the general principles established by Rabbi Meir are not without their relevance. Communal democracy could be said to be grounded in the concept of the shivah tuvei ha’ir, but halachically it is questionable whether even a democratically elected council has power to make decisions against the rulings of rabbinic g’dolim.
In the synagogue context it is or ought to be much easier, in that the congregational board or council is likely to be constitutionally bound to abide by the rulings of its rabbi.