Parshat Re'eh

‘You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves and do not place a bald spot between your eyes…’ (Deut. 14:1, 2)

Deuteronomy (Re'eh) (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
Deuteronomy (Re'eh)
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
We, the Jewish people, have recently emerged from a week of celebrations marking the completion of the Babylonian Talmud by study groups the world over that learned a page of Talmud every single day for the last seven and a half years.
This vast literature is in the format of recorded discussion and debate about every possible issue imaginable held in the Study Academies of Judea and Babylon from 100 BCE to approximately 850 CE; there is no topic of concern to human affairs that is not rigorously analyzed and passionately argued over within our talmudic literature. It was Rabbi Meir Shapiro, yeshiva dean of the Sages of Lublin Talmudic Academy during the two decades prior to World War II, who suggested a seven-and-a-half-year course of study that would enable the Jewish layperson to acquaint himself (or herself) with a magnificent literature heretofore familiar only to the upper echelons of Jewish scholarship.
His suggestion inspired enthusiastic adherents only after his lifetime, post-Holocaust and after the foundation of the State of Israel; and the celebrations at the conclusion of this past cycle out-distanced the Olympic Games in London in participation and excitement. Close to 100,000 Jews packed the Meadowlands Stadium in New York, and separate ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, Sephardi and Anglo-Israeli events were held in Yad Eliyahu, at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, and in just about every city in Israel. (Our own Efrat had a beautiful dinner-siyum, with 300 people in attendance, each of whom had participated in the daily study).
The one fly in the ointment seemed to be the necessity of separate haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and religious Zionist events; could we not have come together as one, especially for a celebration of talmudic study? Especially in light of the fascinating biblical mandate emanating from a midrashic comment based on a somewhat nebulous phrase in this week’s Bible reading: “You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves…” The Sifrei interprets: “Do not make cuts on your body, and 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, which means a separate unit or a split-off faction.
Hence, the Talmud in Yevamot prohibits two different religious courts with opposing halachic rulings in the same locality. And from this perspective of Jewish unity, it would seem superfluous and perhaps even absurd to make two different celebrations for concluding the study of the six orders of the Talmud, one for haredim and the other for religious Zionists.
Maimonides’s 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 courts from ruling differently about local customs; he would not prohibit two courts from ruling differently about a halachic prohibition (in accordance with R.
Yohanan, B.T. Yevamot ibid.).
As Rabbi Yosef Kapah explains in his Commentary on Maimonides, custom is determined by the local populace, 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; 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 a different interpretation 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.
Case in point: The ultra-Orthodox Torah world just lost its foremost spokesman and leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a Torah scholar of gargantuan proportions.
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 for 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 decision regarding women in desperate need of a halachic divorce (get) was to be stringent, rarely if ever permitting the religious court to coerce a bill of divorce from an unwilling husband.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac 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. The Talmud therefore provides many leniencies in freeing women from impossible marital situations, clearly stating that “for the sake of freeing an aguna [woman who has been refused a divorce], 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; halachic unity inspires us all, every day, to remain on the same page of the Talmud tractate! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
‘For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command thee, saying: “Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land”’ (Re’eh; Deuteronomy 15:11)