Parashat Re'eh

Traditions and Counter-Traditions

Dealing with disagreements in interpretation of the law

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The tradition relates that my ancestor realized that he would be outvoted by majority practice, but felt so strongly that he was in the right that he instructed his family to retain a higher standard. However, my own branch of the family has a counter-tradition rejecting this practice. I have searched my ancestor's writings on the topic of unkosher birds, and though he follows the rulings of Rashi and Isserles, he too never refers to the bird by name.

If he felt strongly enough about this issue to command his descendants, why did he not include any of the Hebrew names for turkey in his writings? Is it possible that, as my father said, passing down the family lore along with the cranberry sauce, that the family tradition is a hoax and "The Tosafot Yom Tov never even saw a turkey"?

I therefore face an unusual November dilemma every year. Do I follow a more general family tradition, which is at variance with conventional Jewish practice, or follow instead the counter-tradition passed down from my own branch of the Heller clan, which is to disregard that restriction? Perhaps, in addition to meat, milk and Passover dishes, I need to purchase a fifth set just for Thanksgiving? Or do I just give up and go to my in-laws?

This tale of the turkey is more than just an amusing footnote in the annals of Jewish law and a quirk in my family tree. It also raises some important questions about how we, as Jews, grapple with disagreements over law. Historically, the commandment of "Lo titgodedu" (do not divide into rival groups) has been observed primarily in the breach.

In every era, groups of Jews who were equally committed to the vitality and continuity of Jewish life, have disagreed over matters of religious practice. This includes the Babylonians and Jews from the land of Israel, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Hassidim and their opponents, and now the various movements and even competing groups within them.

In some cases (for instance, eating corn and rice on Passover, or the observance of one day of yom tov in the land of Israel, and two days in the Diaspora), the differences in practice have themselves been codified, so that an individual who normally follows one ruling would know what to do when spending time in a community that followed different practices.

In many other cases, from the completely trivial to the most essential, Jews have not been able to reach consensus on common practices and principles. The process of creating an environment where Jews from different backgrounds can even eat together, let alone pray together, can sometimes be daunting. Some may feel, like the Tosafot Yom Tov, that we cannot accept a particular practice or opinion nor follow it, even though it has become generally accepted practice. Such situations have a way of resolving themselves over time. One variant, whether the permissive one or the restrictive one, becomes the norm, while the other is ultimately discarded, or else the tradition will eventually incorporate both alternatives and mediate between those who accept each.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.