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Achrei Mos-Kedoshim: Why the Reform Movement Did Not Begin in Northern Africa


Leff-041913

Happy Endings.

We all love happy endings.

Remember the children’s stories that end “and they lived happily ever after”?

Tosafos says that often at the end of a masechta, the Gemara will discuss a topic that is unrelated to the previous discussion simply because we wish to end the mashecta with a positive and comforting message.

This concept comes into play in the controversy regarding which portion of the Haftorah we are supposed to read this Shabbos.

The Rema (Orach Chaim 428:8) establishes a rule that whenever we read a double parsha we are to read the Haftorah of the second parsha. There are those among the Rishonim who hold that we read the Haftorah of the first parsha but we follow the Rema. There is an exception to this rule and that is for our double parsha of Achrei Mos/Kedoshim. We will be reading the Haftorah for Achrei Mos. Why the exception?

The Mishna Berura explains that the Haftorah for Kedoshim discusses the depravities of the Jewish people while the one for Achrei Mos has a more comforting and hopeful tone speaking of the ultimate redemption. We wish to conclude our Torah readings for the Shabbos day with a positive message. For example, the last verse is “I shall plant them on their land and they will not be uprooted from their land that I have given them, says Hashem, your G-d” (Amos 9:15).

This is the custom of the Ashkenazim. The minhag of the Sefardim is to maintain the Rema’s original rule even for this week so they read the Haftorah of Kedoshim, despite its critical nature.

This difference between the two variant customs is very reminiscent of the following story I heard from a Sefardi Rabbi.

He was discussing his method of kiruv, how he inspires non-observant Jews with whom he comes into contact. In his shul, he has many members who would never consider attending a Reform or Conservative congregation, but who also don’t exactly keep to the Torah’s teachings.

One morning, a non-observant Sefardic man came to the rabbi looking extremely concerned.

“Kavod HaRav, I have to tell you what happened to me yesterday. I was driving on the highway and the road bended by a cliff. I don’t know or remember why or how or anything but suddenly I found myself falling over the cliff! The car tumbled down a few hundred feet until it came to a stop. I thought I was going to die but when it was over, I was able to get out of the car and all I had was a few bruises and scratches! Tell me, Kavod HaRav, what do you think G-d is trying to tell me??” the man asked, waiting with bated breath for the reply.

Barely batting an eyelash, the rabbi said, “You really want to know what G-d wants from you? You really want to know what He is trying to tell you? It’s actually quite clear and simple. G-d is telling you that He wanted to kill you because you’re not keeping the Torah but He is giving you one last chance to redeem yourself! If you care about your life, you’ll meet me tomorrow at 6 a.m. before Shacharit so we can study Torah together every day at that time. You will then put on tefillin and pray every day. I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. sharp, yes?”

Though visibly shaken, the man didn’t hesitate at all, gave an affirming nod, and left.

He indeed came to study the next morning right on time and within a couple of months he was shomer Shabbat and mitzvot.

The rav concluded his story saying, “Now, I could only do this with a Sefardi. If I were a rabbi for Ashkenazim, I would probably be fired for taking such a strong stance. Sefardim are tough and can take the truth straight. For Ashkenazim, you have to move slowly, beat around the bush and be very patient with people. It takes much longer for Ashkenazim to become inspired and moved to action.”

Of course, by definition, all generalizations are never 100% accurate. There are certainly exceptions among Sefardim and Ashkenazim, but observations indicate that the general trend seems true. Sefardim have more emotion and Ashkenazim are guided more by the intellect. Thus, very different styles of mussar appeal to each group.

It is much more possible to talk in a fire and brimstone way to Sefardim and be effective than it is to talk in such a manner to Ashkenazim. In fact, Rav Shlomo Wolbe said that beginning already in the mid 1800’s, most Torah educators in the Ashkenazi world had decided that our generation needs more of a loving and positive approach, rather than a strong and critical one. This was not the case for the Sefardim.

Interestingly, many Sefardim who are not Torah observant will still belong to Orthodox synagogues. It is not so common for Reform and Conservative synagogues to have Sefardi members. In fact, if you look back at history, the Reform and Conservative movements originated and were maintained by Ashkenazim only. Even if many Sefardim, for whatever reasons, stopped being Torah observant in action, they never completely abandoned the proper Torah beliefs. Their heart and emotion always kept them connected to the truth even if their actions were not consistent with their affiliation.

Ashkenazim, on the other hand, are defined more with intellect and find it difficult to affiliate one way but have contradictory actions and practices. Therefore, they came up with philosophies, beliefs, and movements, such as Reform and Conservative, allowing them to rationalize their practices which deviated from Torah and tradition. Sefardim can take hardcore mussar much more easily than Ashkenazim.

Could all this be part of the reason why the divergent customs for the Haftorah for Achrei Mos/Kedoshim evolved? Even if not the conscious rationale mentioned by poskim, is there any truth to what we discussed vis-à-vis the differences in the Sefardi and Ashkenazi personalities? I’ll let you decide.

But, at least it made for an interesting discussion regarding some of the happenings of this week’s Haftorah.

Rabbi Boruch Leff

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