Expressions Of The Heart


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:53 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 11:26-16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 44:11-45:5
Havdalah: 8:56 p.m.

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 chasidim.

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 busses, this year the country has been consumed by tensions over women’s prayer services at the Western Wall and whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be conscripted into the Israeli army.

All of these battles are culminating in the discussions over selecting the next chief rabbis of Israel. Will they be ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionists or Modern Orthodox? At the end of the day, the 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!

In Re’eh we’re told, “You (Israel) are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves…” [Deuteronomy 14:1-2].

The Sifrei interprets “cut” to mean: do not make factions (different splits regarding halachic 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, a separate unit or a split-off-faction. Hence, the Talmud [Yevamot 14a] prohibits two different religious courts with opposing halachic rulings in the same locality.

Maimonides’ formulation of this issue provides important clarity: He prohibits two different courts from ruling differently about local customs [Laws of Idolatry 12:14], in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan in Yevamot.

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.

Halacha is very different from a custom: If one rabbi believes that a specific view in halacha is the correct interpretation, then he cannot be expected to concede his opinion. Here intellectual honesty and halachic 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, permitting room for differences of opinion even in the very same city.

Even when communal custom and conduct are concerned, if the customs hark back to differing geographical origins — such as Sefardi and Ashkenazi — all decisors permit separate Sefardi and Ashkenazi 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 ultra-Orthodox world.  But he was a man of the Book, the Torah Book, the Talmud Book; 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 God’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 [writ of divorce] were stringent, rarely, if ever, permitting the Religious Court to coerce a bill of divorcement from an unwilling husband.

On the other hand, Rav A.Y. HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, 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. The Talmud therefore provides many leniencies in freeing women from impossible marital situations, clearly stating that, “for the sake of freeing an agunah [woman whose husband is unwilling or unable to give a get], we must bend the law to even accept the testimony of a gentile.”

Halachic conscience insists that we Religious Zionists not be subservient to many of the halachic dicta of the ultra-Orthodox. Halachic unity insists that we all unite behind the same Torah and Talmud. Halachic conscience impels us to have different celebrations each with its unique interpretations. Halachic 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 therefore there are many legitimate — even if differing — paths to approach the Divine Throne of the Almighty.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions.