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Monday, 29 February 2016

Religious Individuality

Daf Yomi Gittin 78


After many years apart, Yaakov is about to meet his brother Esav.  Suddenly, he is attacked by an angel who spends the entire night wrestling with him.  Finally, dawn breaks and the angel asks Yaakov to let him go. 
‘Not before you give me a blessing,’ says Yaakov.
The angel blesses him and then adds, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you struggled with the divine and overcame.’  And thus, the name Israel came to be.

A man once threw his gett (bill of divorce) to his wife while she was standing in the courtyard.  It fell upon a block of wood.
Rav Yosef ruled: Let us see.  If the block of wood was four amos by four amos (six feet by six feet), it is a separate domain unto itself, and the divorce is ineffective; but if not, it is part of the domain of the courtyard, thereby effecting the divorce.
Nevertheless, we only rule accordingly when the block of wood is no taller than ten tefachim (handbreadths).  And we only rule accordingly when the block does not have an accompanying name.  But if it has an accompanying name, even though it is not taller than ten tefachim and even though it is not bigger than four amos, it is still considered a separate domain.
Rashi explains the meaning of accompanying name: If it has its own name, it is important and not nullified to the courtyard.

Is there place for individualism in traditional Judaism?  Some people mistakenly believe that traditional Jewish observance means robotically following the laws and customs without giving it any thought.  That couldn’t be further from the truth! 

Four times a day, we beseech Hashem, “Grant us our portion in Your Torah.”  Every person has an individual portion of the Torah that they are destined to reveal.  The more we incorporate Torah and mitzvos into our psyche and behaviour, the closer we come to discovering our individual niche.

It is important to remember, however, that all innovation must fit within the structure of the system.  As Rashi says, it is important to develop your own name, your own identity, but that must be an ‘accompanying name.’  It must accompany the traditions that preceded it.  If you introduce new trends into Judaism that create a religion that your great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize, you’ve failed in your mission to find your place in the Torah.  Instead, you’ve moved outside the bounds of our heritage.

That’s why each morning, before we ask Hashem to ‘grant us our portion in Your Torah,’ we recap Rabbi Yishmael’s thirteen methods of interpreting the Torah.  In theory, you could interpret and interpolate and extrapolate however you wanted, but when you do so, it’s no longer Torah.  It’s something else.  It may have roots in Torah, but so do many of the world’s great religions.

Our Sages teach that once Avraham was given his new name, he discarded his former identity, Avram.  That identity was tied to his idolatrous past.  In contrast, Yisrael never lost his former Yaakov identity.  Since Yaakov grew up in a righteous home, when he became Yisrael, it was an extension of who he had been previously.  In other words, it was an accompanying name.  It was a new identity, but it was not formed in a vacuum.  And that’s the approach we must take when we seek to find and make our individual contribution to Judaism.  We want to become Yisrael; but at the same time, we want to maintain our Yaakov-ness.


One of the great challenges of a religious life is finding your own place and voice, but at the same time sustaining an absolute commitment to tradition.  Sadly, many have fallen off the precipice, as they went too far in their self-discovery.  May you strike the right balance between your inner Yaakov and inner Yisrael!