“You are the children of the Lord your God; you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” …Deuteronomy 14:1
This week’s Torah reading, Re’eh, cautions us against following the pagan mourning practices of the original peoples of the land of Canaan. We are not to physically cut our flesh in the way the Canaanities did as a sign of mourning for their dead.
The Talmud (Yevamot 14a) brings a different interpretation of the phrase לא תתגודדו, “do not cut yourselves.” The Talmud tells us that what it means is “do not cut yourself up into separate factions.”
One look at the Jewish world today tells you we seem to have seriously violated this precept. I had two experiences this week that reminded me of this teaching of “lo titgodedu.” On Wednesday as I was coming home to our apartment in the absorption center, a guy with a kippah (skullcap, indicating, generally, a religious Jew) stopped and asked me if I knew someplace in the neighborhood where they had a mincha/maariv service (communal afternoon/evening prayer service). I allowed as to how I didn’t know, and we got onto the subject of synagogues in the area with morning prayer services. I mentioned there is a Conservative synagogue up the hill, but I didn’t know if they had a morning minyan, and he made a face and a sound, “eww” as if I had suggested he go to the mosque across the way.
Was that really necessary? Wouldn’t it have been enough for him to say, politiely, no, that wouldn’t be for me?
The other experience was yesterday, and in this situation maybe I was the guilty party. I was sitting at the office and a man dressed in the distinctive black garb of the more right wing flavor of Orthodox stuck his head in the door and started explaining in Hebrew that he was raising money for a synagogue they were trying to build by the Jewish New Year, wouldn’t it be great to help them be able to hear the sound of the shofar by Rosh Hashana.
Now I need to put this in context by saying, in general, I give some money to every “schnorrer” (Yiddish term for people looking for handouts). The Torah tells us not to turn a blind eye to the poor. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded “If there is among you a poor man of one of your brothers inside any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor brother;” (Deut. 15:7). It was interesting earlier this week walking down the street with some people I had been studying with, and they seemed amused that I stopped and gave every beggar a shekel, or at least half a shekel (the shekel is worth about $.25 US). Most of them have the all too common attitude “I can’t take care of all of them, there are too many,” so they don’t give to beggars. Of course mostly they don’t give anything to beggars, so it’s not like they set a daily limit of how much they are willing to give away. Besides, it’s not really true that there are too many. Even if you go for a long walk in Jerusalem, which has a lot more beggars on the street than Toledo where I lived until a month ago, you probably don’t need to give away more than ten shekels, or $2.50. And you won’t do that much walking around downtown every day. It’s really not that hard, and this is, I believe, an incredibly important mitzvah, as the Torah specifically tells us “do not shut your hand from your brother.” What else is there to do? OK, if you’re poor and can’t afford even a shekel, give half a shekel, if that’s too hard, give ten agurot, but there’s really not much excuse to not give. I even organize my pockets when I go out the door in the morning and put the smaller change appropriate for giving away as tzedaka in one pocket, and the larger denomination stuff in another pocket.
But I digress. The whole point of the digression was to make the point that normally I would have given the guy a few shekels, and that would have been that.
In this particular case though, he wasn’t asking for money to feed the hungry, or to clothe the poor. He was asking me for money to support his synagogue. A synagogue where in all likelihood I would not be recognized as a rabbi, a synagogue where the people I brought into Judaism as converts would not be recognized as Jewish. If I were to ask him for a donation to support my synagogue, he would most likely make a noise like the first guy I mentioned and shut his hand to me. Now to be fair, this is not true of all Orthodox synagogues; I have been called to the Torah as “harav,” the rabbi in a number of modern Orthodox shuls, and I have Orthodox colleagues who treat me with respect.
Which is why I feel bad about what I did. So what did I do? I told him “sorry, I’ve given a lot of money to support my own congregation.” Which is true. One of the last checks I wrote out in Toledo was a contribution to the synagogue’s capital campaign fund for the new building. But that was really a brush off. The fact that I may have written out what for me is pretty large check to the congregation I used to be a part of would not normally have gotten me “off the hook” from giving this guy a few shekels.
So I’ve decided that I did the wrong thing. But it doesn’t mean I have to give in this case—this wasn’t to support poor people with food—without examining his attitude. I could have used the occasion as an educational opportunity. What I think I should have done, and what I’ll do if this comes up in the future, is explain that I’m a “rav Conservativi,” a Conservative rabbi, and before I give him a contribution, I’d just like to know that if the situation were reversed, and I was coming around looking for funds for my shul, would he give me something? If he says, sure I’d help you, I’ll give him something. If he turns up his nose and goes “eww” I won’t give him an agurah.
And I believe the right answer is we should both give to each other. The passage in the Talmud that discusses “lo titgodedu” goes on to discuss the differences between Hillel and Shammai, the two leading rabbis in the late 2nd Temple Period 2000 years ago. Generally speaking, the law follows the rulings of Hillel. So rabbis a few generations later asked “did Shammai follow their own rulings? If they did, wouldn’t this be a violation of ‘do not cut yourself into factions?'” The conclusion is that Shammai did in fact follow their own rulings; but what prevented it from becoming different factions is that they respected each other. There were certain situations where Shammai felt that people of a certain lineage were permitted to marry each other, and Hillel felt it would be a Biblical violation for such people to marry. The people of the house of Shammai would let the people of the house of Hillel know who was who. They co-existed. They respected each other’s right to have a different opinion.
We could certainly use a lot more of that respect for different opinions in the Jewish world today. Not just between Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox; there are problems between different groups within the Orthodox as well, for some people “kosher” isn’t kosher enough, they have to eat glatt. Some people insist their meat has to have been slaughtered by a butcher from a particular sect. Ashkenazi and Sefardi have very different customs at Passover, and all too often someone who follows one custom looks disdainfully at people who follow the other.
We need to respect each other. We need to say about our different customs and different ways of approaching God and halacha (Jewish law) that it’s all for the good, it gives a very diverse range of people their own ways of expressing their Yiddishkeit.
Three thousand years ago King David said to God mi k’amcha Yisrael, goy echad ba’aretz, “who is like your people Israel, one nation in the land?” We will never become “one nation in the land” by all following the same customs and all following the same approach to deciding issue
s of Jewish law. The best we can hope for is that we will learn to respect each other, and to acknowledge that other people, especially other rabbis, are entitled to their approach, and if that different approach works for them, we should say “gezunte heg,” for your good health, may it go well for you, and respect the differences.
It’s a very sad commentary that all too often the only thing that unifies Jews is anti-Semitism. We can do better.