25 Tishrei: Building Unity Through Conformity
by R. Gidon Rothstein
Soon after Sukkot 5699 (1938), R. Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel responded, in Shu”t Mishpetei Uziel 4;1, to a question from one of the local rabbis in Tel Aviv (where R. Uziel was chief rabbi at the time, soon to be made Sephardic Chief Rabbi of all of Mandatory Palestine). This rabbi was curious about the influx of immigrants acting each according to his custom, including how and when to shake their lulav during prayers, all praying in one shul. While that has the positive quality of fostering peace and a sense of brotherhood, this rabbi wondered, it would seem to go against Yevamot 13b’s understanding that Devarim 14;1’s לא תתגודדו prohibits multiple sub-groups of the Jewish people.
Two preliminary notes: First, the questioner refers to the influx of Jews from all over the world. According to the figures I found, between 1931 and 1948, the Jewish population went from 175,000 to 600,000. Since many of those came after the Holocaust, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Israel in 1938 had fewer than 400,000 Jews, a healthy growth from 1931. But nothing near what we’ve merited seeing since 1948, when Israel’s Jewish population has multiplied tenfold (and, as I once saw a video of R. Ovadya Yosef zt”l saying, kahena ve-kahena, we’d be thrilled for it to multiply that much again and again).
That many Jews in Israel brings us back to the question R. Uziel was being asked, which applies even more so today—given diversity, what does lo titgodedu require in terms of unity? It is a question I find particularly interesting because of our tendency to opt for individual freedom and choice. Unless it’s immoral, we tend to assume, I think, that people should have the right to choose and follow their personal customs, or make a group of their own to follow their view of right and wrong. R. Uziel disagrees, in a way I think worth considering.
The Underlying Unity of Torah
His starting point is that one of the distinguishing positive traits of the Jewish people—in contrast to other nations—is the unity brought about by their shared Torah. Despite all the thousands of years since Sinai, with exiles, persecutions, people assimilating and converting out, customs and mores originally foreign to Torah being absorbed into the nation, the Torah has emerged pure, whole, unscathed. Whereas all those who tried to change it (Samaritans, Karaites, Saducees) have been lost. This unity flows from the Divine Unity (and, I think he means to say, attests to it).
In Yevamot, Resh Lakish asserts that while the verse literally refers to not cutting oneself to express sorrow over someone’s passing, it also means (the technicalities of the derivation aren’t important here) that the “body of the nation as a whole” (R. Uziel’s words) cannot cut or rend itself. Our tradition is that this verse has a second obligatory meaning, that whenever there is an unresolved debate within a town or city, we are commanded to follow the ruling of the highest court in that city or town at that time. Rambam included in that rule a prohibition against having two courts in one city, since that leads to disputes, dissent, and dissonance.
Unity of Custom
There seems to be an exception for custom. For example, the Mishnah accepts that some places allow work on Erev Pesach morning (everyone agrees that it’s prohibited to work after midday on Erev Pesach, even in post-Temple times), without raising worries of violating lo titgodedu. More, Maharashdam had ruled, as had Rosh before him, that even if two groups of Jews come to reside in the same city, they can each hold to their original customs.
Rambam seems to disagree, R. Uziel notes, since he prohibits one town having two courts, each following its own practices. In one of his responsa he wrote that this will forestall disputes, a worry that would seem to extend to custom as well. Rema, Orach Chayyim 493;3 ruled that way, that in one city there should not be two customs.
Yet, aside from the Erev Pesach example, the Mishnah explicitly promoted Jews from small towns reading the Megillah on the Monday or Thursday prior to Purim. Magen Avraham suggested that that wasn’t a disagreement about the law, it was applying the law appropriately to people in different circumstances, which we do often. But in any actual difference of opinion as to how to act, Magen Avraham says, all the Jews in one place would have to forge an agreement binding on all of them.
Avoiding Dispute or Keeping Torah Unified
Underlying these discussions, R. Uziel believes, is a difference of opinion as to whether the obligation is to avoid giving the impression there are two or more Torot (Rashi’s view, according to which differing customs matter less, since those aren’t Torah law). Rambam’s view that it’s to avoid disputes would apply to custom as well, since those, too, lead to disputes.
After a discussion we need not repeat, R. Uziel concludes that custom is wholly dependent on place. That means that as soon as a person or even a large group emigrates from one city to another, they are no longer bound and in fact cannot hold fast to their old customs in the face of the custom of the new place. It’s a problem of lo titgodedu, making splits among the Jewish people, according to R. Uziel.
Maharashdam, R. Uziel notes, didn’t require continuing one’s prior customs in a new city, he allowed it; even he would have agreed that the immigrant can take on the new place’s customs, even to be more lenient. [He doesn’t give examples, but a simple one would be if an Ashkenazic Jew emigrated to a place where the general custom was to eat kitniyot on Pesach; that Jew would be allowed to adopt that custom].
Given that Maharashdam, too, concedes that that’s allowed, R. Uziel writes, it makes sense that that is the better way to act, to avoid dispute and dissension, as Rambam had written. [To be sure we understand, he is preferring that whenever Jews move to a new town or city, they adopt all the customs of that city—Sephardim would adopt Ashkenazic customs and vice verse].
Unity of Prayer
Maharashdam had also allowed maintaining different customs of prayer, at least as regards the parts of the liturgy not explicit in the Gemara (such as the piyyutim that were written later). However, Pe’at HaShulchan (a later authority) disagreed, and Magen Avraham had quoted the Ari to the effect that the prayers of each place on earth have their own entry-point to Heaven. If so, each place must use the same prayers, or they’ll miss their entry point.
Since Maharashdam ended up allowing two courts in one city (which R. Uziel will discuss in a moment), he allowed separate Ashkenazic and Sephardic shuls. Within a shul, though, even visitors must follow the custom of that shul (later in the responsum, R. Uziel quotes Netziv that this applies even to personal silent prayer; R. Uziel thinks that’s even true for a visitor who is still obligated by the stringencies of his original place; regarding prayer, he must follow the custom of the shul in which he’s davening).
Finally for this section, R. Uziel restricts the idea of existing custom to shuls that go back to the early days of the settlement in Israel (17th century). If new shuls arise in a locale where until then there was only one shul with one custom, R. Uziel seems to believe they would have to adopt that custom as well. Within a shul, having multiple customs makes the Torah look like two Torot, and there will inevitably be disputes.
Two Courts in One City
Rif and Rosh understood the conclusion of the Gemara to be that two courts can operate within one city. Rambam disagrees, seemingly based on a Yerushalmi that sees that, too, as a lo titgodedu problem. Magen Avraham as well did not allow different opinions about the law in one town.
Even for Rif and Rosh, that’s only established courts. If courts that until now agreed on everything, that would not constitute two courts, so if a dispute arose, they could not simply each follow their own view. They have to argue it out, come to a majority ruling, and follow that [ironically, we today think of that as causing dissension and strife; tradition saw that as a short-term view—long-term, forcing the parties to engage until they reach a conclusion produces more unity, not less). R Uziel adds that others claim that Rava understood there to be a Rabbinic prohibition in such cases, and Rivam saw it as a mitzvah min hamuvchar, a higher performance of the mitzvah, to find one way for all to follow). R. Uziel thinks Rif and Rosh would have agreed with that last assessment
Narrowing the room for disagreement further, R. Uziel limits the idea of two courts to those that existed before the completion of the Talmud, or at the very least before there were well-accepted codifications of Jewish law. Once the law has been well-considered and brought to conclusions, we cannot rule against those views.
Even where those volumes [such as the Shulchan Aruch] did not explicitly rule, we have to do our best to extrapolate from the existing rulings. That process leaves no room for establishing two courts—the relevant authorities need to do their best to extrapolate and then hash it out to a conclusion, based on majority rule. R. Uziel adds that Shiltei HaGibborim and Shach agreed, the former with the idea that the existence of codified books obligates us to build off of them and come to majority rule, the latter that the two courts must have been well-established before a particular issue arose.
It’s also true that any time one view sees the other view as invalid– that is, to follow that view means that one has not fulfilled the mitzvah, or has transgressed a prohibition—that would be a matter of lo titgodedu. If—for an example I thought of, not R. Uziel—some people put up an eruv that others held to be invalid, those who carry with that eruv would be publicly violating Shabbat according to the other view. R. Uziel holds that raises problems of lo titgodedu.
It doesn’t mean, I stress, that we have to follow those who rule stringently (or those who are most obstinate). It means the relevant authorities have to meet, hash out the question, and have a majority-rule vote that becomes incumbent upon all residents of that place. [In practice, another topic R. Uziel does not address, this isn’t so simple, because we have to figure out who counts as “relevant authorities.” His views, in other words, might not be feasible; I review them because I think they remind us of an halachic goal —quite possibly a matter of Torah law– that might be currently beyond our capabilities to achieve.]
Remembering the Goal and a Possible Exception
This, R. Uziel writes, should be our goal and our prayer, that Hashem unite us to serve Him with one heart, in real unity. [We today confuse a friendly openness to everyone doing what they want with unity; R. Uziel is promoting the higher unity of working together to articulate a joint form of service, even if most or all of us would have to submit to the majority on many issues). Certainly, he writes, we should not be adding further divisions to the people, since, as Yalkut Amos 9 tells us, the Jews won’t be [fully?] redeemed until they become one again.
All of which means that members of one shul must adhere to one custom, of mitzvot in general and all the more so within the wording of prayers and actions of mitzvah that occur within that shul. Allowing divergent practices turns it close to a mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah, a mitzvah that comes at the expense of transgressing a prohibition [creating divisions within the Jewish people] while performing it.
Rema did allow being more stringent than a local custom. R. Uziel holds that even there, the person must be careful to be clear that he believes it’s better but not necessary to be stringent. He is acting this way to achieve a higher value, not the baseline value required by the Torah. If he doesn’t do that, he is holding to his stringency at the cost of making the Torah seem like two Torot, a worse outcome.
Because, for R. Uziel, the obligation is to uphold and promote the unity of the Jewish people and its Torah. That unity is what the Gemara indicated when it spoke of Hashem’s tefillin as including the verse “Who is like Your nation Israel, one nation in the Land.” It’s that oneness that makes the Jews the people to announce Hashem’s Oneness.