Diversity in Judaism is common in our history and liturgy. One can visit many synagogues and observe that the order of davening and the text of siddur vary from shul to shul. When I’m in Israel I often attend the services in a Sephardi shul where the prayers and the sequence of taking the Torah from the ark and replacing it are vastly different from what I’m accustomed to.
Perhaps this is the strength and uniqueness of our people. We recognize that we stem from as many as eighty nations and by definition are dissimilar – but while there are disparities in how we practice our Judaism, we have a common thread that binds us all together.
Unfortunately, though, there are Jews who insist that their particular way is the only way and that anyone who expresses Judaism differently is wrong – even a heretic or an apikoras. Such behavior is dangerous and in fact splinters our people, causing rifts, anger and frustration.
The very fact that the Haggadah we recite on Pesach speaks to four distinctive personalities is proof in itself that our sages realized that people are different and that they articulate their belief in God in many ways. One person is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one can’t even ask any questions. These four types of Jews are indicative of the diversity of our people, yet all are included in the Passover experience, for all are considered Jews.
Similarly, when we take the etrog, lulav, hadassim and aravot in our hands to recite the bracha on the holiday of Sukkot, it is an action that many of our sages say symbolizes the unity of the Jewish people and the joining together of all types of Jews.
Some might be more observant as represented by the etrog, which has both beauty and fragrance. Some will be devoid of any ritual observance as represented by the aravah, which has no pleasant aroma and no innate splendor. Finally, some can be placed on the intermediate levels of observance as represented by the lulav and hadas, one of which possesses beauty, the other, fragrance. Yet we embrace all of them as both a symbol of harmony and the representation of the diversity of our people.
Jews today are quick to judge others and label them as frum or not frum, acceptable or unacceptable, kosher or treif. We merely observe their outer layer without understanding who they really are. We tend to quickly categorize them by how long they pray the Shmoneh Esrei, or whether they wear a black hat, or if they use paper plates on Shabbos or disposable tablecloths.
Based on these observations we reach conclusions – as absurd as it may sound – on whether they may marry our sons or daughters or whether they are genuinely religious and are truly following the laws of our Torah.
Don’t get me wrong: Everyone has the right to accept any chumra – stringency – so long as he applies it to himself and not insist that all others must follow. It becomes objectionable when these stringencies form the basis for judging others and when those who impose them assume an inflexible and rigid posture toward everyone else.
There is a reason the Talmud in numerous places declares “koach d’heterah adif” – the power of permitting something is preferable. Anyone can go ahead and impose or accept chumrahs – but should doing so be the basis for defining who is and who is not a Torah-observant Jew?
I seriously doubt these issues are important in Hashem’s evaluation of us. What is essential is whether we use our knowledge of Torah to include all our brothers and sisters in the collective experience of being Jewish; whether we judge others favorably; whether we look for the good in all people.
The most renowned sages of our people embraced all Jews regardless of their affiliation or their levels of observance because these tzaddikim understood that all Jews have something to contribute to our shared history and experience.
When did the ritual appearance of a Jew become the sole determinant of his piety? When did we assume that the outward appearance of an individual defines the depth of his religiosity? If that is our criterion, then I fear some of our greatest leaders would have been rejected by certain segments of our community.