Diversity in Judaism is common in our history and liturgy. One can visit many synagogues and observe that the order of the davening and the actual siddur text are very varied from shul to shul. In Israel, in the shul where I daven, the chazan is the one who determines the nusach of the prayers, whether Ashkenaz or Sefard. When I attend services in a Sefardi shul, the prayers and the sequence of the taking of the Torah from the ark and placing it back are vastly different.
Perhaps this is the strength of our people. We recognize that we stem from as many as eighty nations worldwide, and by definition are dissimilar; yet, though there are disparities in how we practice our Judaism, we still have a common thread that binds us all together. This commonality defines the uniqueness of our people.
But when Jews insist that theirs is the only way and that anyone who expresses their Judaism differently is wrong, even calling them heretics or apikorsim, such behavior is dangerous and in fact splinters our people, causing rifts, anger, and frustration.
The very fact that the Haggadah that we recite on Pesach speaks to four distinctive personalities is proof that our Sages realized that people are different and they articulate their belief in G-d in many ways. One person is a wise person; one is wicked or contrary; one is simple; and one cannot 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, hadasim, and aravot in our hands to recite the bracha on the holiday of Succot, many commentaries once again declare that this action symbolizes the unity of the Jewish people and the joining together of all types of Jews. Some might smell better than others, some might look better, others might be totally absent of any favorable qualities, yet we embrace all of them as both a symbol of harmony and the representation of the diversification of our people.
Jews today are quick to judge others and to 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 someone by how long they pray the Shemoneh Esrei, or whether they wear a black hat, or if they use paper plates on Shabbat or disposable tablecloths. Based on these observations, we reach conclusions – as absurd as it may sound – on whether they may marry our son or daughter or whether they are genuinely religious and are truly following the laws of our Torah.
I doubt whether these issues are important in Almighty G-d’s evaluation of us. What is essential, however, is how we use our knowledge of Torah to include all our brothers and sisters in the collective experience of being a Jew. How we are able to judge everyone favorably and to 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, for all Jews have something to contribute to our shared history and experience.
Since when is the ritual appearance of the Jew the sole determinant of his or her piety? When did we assume that the outward appearance of an individual defines the depth of their religiosity? If that would be the case, then I fear some of our greatest leaders would also have been rejected by certain segments of our Jewish community. Who gives us the right to judge any Jew? Only Almighty G-d has the right to assess the goodness and wholesomeness of an individual. Our job is to open our hearts and appreciate all our people and look for the good in everyone.
Diversity can be the strength of our people. It charges each Jew to realize that despite our differences, we have so much more in common and everyone is an essential member of our great nation and history.