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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


February 9, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Why Judaism needs pluralism

By RABBI NATHAN FARB Congregation Schaarai Zedek

“As steel sharpens steel, so one person sharpens the wit of another.” (Proverbs 27:17) There is a deeply rooted principle in Judaism that disagreement makes us stronger, rather than weaker.

Celebrating a diverse set of practices, beliefs, approaches, and interpretations enriches us and makes Judaism unique among religions. Many converts to Judaism say that part of what draws them to choose Judaism is our openness to questioning. While many religions expect unchallenged faith in rigid dogma, Judaism demands that we think most critically about those things that are most sacred.

Our Torah is not unique to us; Christians, Muslims, Karaites, Bahá’ís, and even Rastafarians consider the books of Moses a part of their holy scriptures. Yet the particular way that we read and understand the text makes Judaism special. For starters, we only study the Torah (especially the Oral Torah) in pairs or groups, so that no one person will come to a conclusion in isolation. Learning in pairs (known as chavruta) makes both partners think more deeply and arrive at a better understanding of the Torah, and means we are more than the sum of our parts.

The entire Oral Torah is recorded as a series of discussions and disagreements between the great scholars of each age. When Rabbi Yohanan lost his chavruta (partner), Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat was assigned to study with him. Whenever Yohanan would make a point, Elazar would find evidence to agree. “Don’t you think I already know that I made a good point?” Rabbi Yohanan cried in exasperation. What he really wanted was someone to try and prove him wrong, and in as many ways as possible.

The Talmud is full of robust disagreements and different practices. Under the rabbinic authority of Yosei HaGelili, it was permitted to eat milk and poultry. Rabbi Eliezer permitted certain work on Shabbat while Rabbi Akiva forbade it. Rabbi Hillel permitted certain marriages and performed conversions that Rabbi Shammai refused. They even disagreed about whether to stand, sit, or lay down while reciting the Shema. The Talmud itself begins not with a statement, but with a question, “At what time is the evening Shema recited?” Some of these debates are ongoing even now, hundreds of years later.

The ongoing innovation of Judaism is our ability to incorporate and synthesize varying points of view into our faith. Before the Rabbis became the dominant leaders of Judaism, there were Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Before them, the Hasmoneans instituted reforms, and even before them were the reforms of King Josiah, dating all the way back to the biblical period. Among the early Rabbis, there continued to be intellectual diversity, and Judaism got the Talmud out of their wonderful discussions.

They debated every imaginable detail of Jewish practice, but even so they recognized that there was a limit. Rabbis who were too inflexible, too strict, or too literal were regularly chastised. Once, the rabbis of the Talmud were debating what to do with a lost chick that was found in the vicinity of a henhouse (technically a dovecote). They engaged in a lengthy debate about the hopping distances of small birds, at what age a chick begins to fly, the varying sizes of coops, and what crops are appealing enough to lure a domestic bird far away from home. They finally determined that if the chick were within 50 cubits (about 75 feet) of the nearest coop, it should be assumed that it wandered from the owner. Rabbi Yirmeya spoke up and asked, “What if one foot of the chick is within 50 cubits, and the other is more than 50 cubits?” The other rabbis immediately expelled him.

Judaism was never a monolith. Today, there continues to be plenty of room in Judaism for many perspectives and practices, with differences between Americans and Israelis, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, or Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. There is ongoing debate and discussion between various streams, and even within streams of Judaism. In true Jewish fashion, we continue to strengthen and sharpen one another where we allow respectful exchange.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association, which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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