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Judaism: Ohr Torah: All Kinds of Jews

Torah lights from Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the hills of Judea.
Published: Thursday, August 01, 2013 5:11 PM


"You [Israel] are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves and do not place a bald spot between your eyes…" (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

One of the great thrills of living in the State of Israel is the extraordinary mix of Jews from around the world. On any given day, I can find myself sitting in synagogue with Jews from Morocco, Ethiopia, Russia, Britain and the United States. It's not only a geographical mix; our country is blessed with Jews from every possible branch of Jewish philosophy, from the most secular through the Religious Zionists, Lithuanians and Hasidim.

But plurality can also create tensions. Every day, we witness the struggle as different groups vie for control of the soul of the Jewish State. Last year, Israelis witnessed the battles over mixed seating on buses; this year the country has been consumed by tensions over women's prayer services at the Western Wall and whether hareidi Jews should be conscripted into the Israeli army.

All of these battles culminated in the recent discussions over selecting the Chief Rabbis of Israel – whether they would be hareidi or religious Zionist or modern Orthodox. And at the end of the day, all these differences make for a fascinating montage of varied colors, textures, sounds and tastes – as long as each respects and never attempts to delegitimize the other.

The Sifrei interprets the verse quoted above from this week’s parsha that "You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves," as follows: "Do not make cuts on your body, and do not make factions (different splits regarding halakhic attitudes) on your body politic."

The Hebrew "titgodedu" from the root verb "gud" or "guz" may mean slices or splits on the skin, or – alternatively – from the noun gedud, which means a separate unit or a split-off faction.  Hence, the Talmud (Yevamot 14a) prohibits two different religious courts with opposing halakhic rulings in the same locality.

Maimonides' formulation of this issue provides important clarity: "Within the rubric of this ruling (not to make cuts) is that there not be established two different courts within one city when one court may rule in one way regarding a certain custom and another court may rule in another way regarding that custom" (Laws of Idolatry 12:14). Maimonides prohibits two different courts from ruling differently about local customs; he would not prohibit two different courts from ruling differently about a halakhic prohibition (this in accordance with Rabbi Yohanan, B.T. Yevamot ibid).

As Rav Kapah explains in his Commentary on Maimonides, custom is determined by local populations, and community discipline demands uniformity in matters of communal conduct. Precedent is the determining factor, with logic or conscience playing no role.

Halakha is very different; if one rabbi believes that a specific view in halakha is the correct interpretation, then he cannot be expected to concede his opinion. Here intellectual honesty and halakhic integrity are at stake; and since each opposing view is rooted in differing interpretations of the same fundamental Torah, that underlying unity does not insist upon uniformity, and permits room for differences of opinion even in the very same city.

And even when communal custom and conduct are concerned, if the customs hark back to differing geographical origins – such as Sephjardic and Ashkenazic – all decisors permit separate Sephardic and Ashkenazic courts of law in the same city, despite our portion's prohibition.

Consider a case in point: Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was a Torah scholar of gargantuan proportions and a leader of the Lithuanian hareidi world.  But he was a "Man of the Book" – the books of Torah, of Talmud – he had little time for or interest in people. His wife greatly praises him for his commitment to the Book, explaining that he couldn't be interrupted from study even if the issue was a family crisis.

His daughter was in total awe of her father's devotion to G-d's words, and understood that he had little time to spend with his children. At most, they could silently accompany him on his Shabbat afternoon sunset walk, when the darkness at home precluded him from studying at his desk. His major context was subservience to the law and maintenance of the purity of Israel; in consequence, his decisions regarding women in desperate need of a get were stringent, rarely, if ever, permitting the religious court to coerce a bill of divorcement from an unwilling husband.

Rav A.Y. HaKohen Kook, on the other hand, insisted that "the Book" must be an expression of the heart, the heart of the nation of Israel, the heart of the people of Israel (Eulogy, "On our Altars Lay the Corpses"). The Talmud therefore provides many leniencies in freeing women from impossible marital situations, clearly stating that, "for the sake of freeing an aguna, we must bend the law to even accept the testimony of a Gentile."

Halakhic conscience insists that we religious Zionists not be subservient to many of the halakhic dicta of the hareidi arbiters. Halakhic unity insists that we all unite behind the same Torah and Talmud.

Halakhic conscience impels us to have different celebrations each with its unique interpretations; halakhic unity inspires us all, every day, to remain on the same page of the Talmud, realizing that, "these and these are the words of the living God" (Eruvin 13b) and that there are many legitimate – even if differing – paths to approach the Divine throne of the Almighty.