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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Don't confuse Custom with Law

Daf Yomi Yevamos 13

I recently read a newspaper article that categorized various streams within Judaism.  The author, a Reform rabbi, offered the following options: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Chabad and Chasidic.   ‘Nice try,’ I thought to myself, ‘but you’ve compared apples to oranges in your assessment.’

The Mishnah states: The Megillah may be read on the 11th (of Adar), 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th, no earlier or later.   
Reish Lakish asked Rabbi Yochanan, “Why don’t we apply the Torah’s law of ‘You shall not create factions,’ which means that everyone should practice the same law?”
Rabbi Yochanan responded with the following Mishnah: In a place that people customarily would go to work on the Eve of Passover until noon, one may go to work.  In a place where people would not work, one should not work.  Rabbi Yochanan continued, “Why did you not quote that teaching?”
Reish Lakish replied, “I asked you about a case of law, and you respond with a case concerning customs?!”

The difference between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism is a case of law.  Outside of Orthodoxy, Torah law is a matter of debate and becomes less and less rigid and conformist as the years go on.  Indeed, there is no agreement as to whether the Torah is even a Divine document, let alone whether one is bound by its commandments.

 In contrast, the differences within Orthodox Judaism are, by and large, matters of custom.  A Teimani (Yemenite Jew) can pray in a Chasidic shtiebel (small synagogue) in Boro Park.  A Ben-Torah (Yeshiva-world Jew) from Lakewood can pray in a Modern Orthodox shul in the Upper West Side of New York.   There will be a few minor differences in the customs, but the basic format of the service is the same.  And we are all in agreement over the basic laws.  These different customs are not different denominations or streams within Judaism, G-d forbid.   Divergences in custom are merely part of the cultural richness of Judaism.

In fact, a single friend of mine pointed out to me that he went on J-Date and the choices were Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.  He then went on Frumster (the Orthodox dating web-site) and the choices of nuanced Orthodoxy were unbelievable!  You could be Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Chasidic, Chabad, Carlebach, Sefardic, and the list went on and on!!  Why?  Because Orthodoxy is united when it comes to the law; but we thrive on our customary richness. 

Don’t get confused between law and custom.  The Law is the same Law that G-d gave Moses on Mt. Sinai, as handed down from one generation to the next for thirty-three centuries and kept the same way by Jewish communities at all four corners of the earth.   Customs may vary, customs may change.  But the Law remains eternally unchanged.

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