The Independence of Local Custom & Personal Practice
Some say “We must follow the rabbis!” Such is an extremely oversimplified statement. Which rabbis? Follow the rabbis of what era? If of the modern era, in what matters? Certainly you know that they disagree on countless points. Was a poll taken to see how the majority of Torah scholars hold on each matter of Jewish law? Or do people really pretty much just follow what they see every other “religious” Jew do? If so, is everyone else basing their actions on a poll taken as to the majority opinion among modern rabbis? Or are the sheep just following the sheep?
The widespread claim that Jews are required to follow the majority in every generation (ie: even when there is no Great Sanhedrin) is both erroneous and hypocritical. Ashkenazi Jewry did not abandon its unique practices when Jews of Islamic lands were the majority. When Ashkenazi Jewry became dominant, non-Ashkenazi Jews did not and do not feel obligated to adopt Ashkenazi customs. Clearly, however, majority practice is a powerful influence whose infiltration is difficult to avoid. Those who uphold majority practice tend to be more confident and less concerned over being discriminated, while those in the minority feel pressured, if not in some circumstances coerced, to conform to increasingly popular practices. In reality, one is even hard pressed to find individuals who actually strive to follow the majority opinion among posqim of even their own traditions of Orthodoxy. Many seriously committed religious Jews do strive to observe Jewish law according to the expertise of a specific Jewish Torah-scholar of their choosing, but those who claim one must “follow the majority” should either practice what they preach, or consider a more logically consistent approach.
Our approach is that presented by the Rambam. One is required to behave according to majority practice outside the context of the Great Sanhedrin only when Haz”al stated that the halakha depends on current majority practice. This they stated concerning only certain matters and only with regard to majority practice in a given locale [a], not with regard to majority practice of Jews of a particular ancestry or ethnicity. Needless to say, this is on the condition that local practice does not violate Torah or Talmudic halakha that Haz”al established irrespective of locale [b]. Additionally, when one comes from a place where the practice is to follow the lenient opinion given in an unresolved issue discussed in the Talmud, and goes to a place where the practice is to follow the stricter opinion given in the Talmud, one should likewise follow the stricter Talmudic opinion while in that location [c]. This does not apply to the endless stringencies of non-Talmudic origin; if, however, our Sages really thought this principle applies even to stringencies of non-Talmudic origin, the Jewish world might be much more unified, albeit even more blind to the forest for the trees. As for matters about which no Talmudic opinion is given, whether lenient or strict, or which do not fall under the category of matters that Haz”al made dependent on local practice, each congregation is free to do what it finds most reasonable. Concerning such things, the individual is likewise free to do what he finds most reasonable. The prohibition of “lo tithgodedu” (do not be divided into parties) applies to matters of adjudication within local betei dinim, not to details of Jewish liturgy [d]. The prohibition against being “poresh min ha-sibur” (separating from the community) likewise applies not to details of Jewish liturgy, but to actually abstaining from interaction with the Jewish community to the extent that one does not uphold the commandments together with them or have concern for their troubles [e]. Despite the fact that there is more freedom in devout Torah observance than many are aware, there remains the fundamental principle that politeness precedes Torah. When it comes to matters outside the scope of clearly defined halakha, we should not unnecessarily behave differently than those we have surrounded ourselves with if there is reason to believe doing so would be viewed as disrespectful or offensive.
“Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (Prov. 3,17)
R’ Yosef Eliyah
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