Fighting Words

Teshuvas Minchas Yitzchok was asked about people who daven in the summer in a field, how far apart they could be spread and still constitute a minyan. Does the matter depend upon whether they could see one another, whether they could all hear the sh’liach tzibbur or perhaps they have to stand within four amos of one another since the pasuk (Devarim 23:15) indicates that a person’s camp is four amos. He responded that combining for a minyan depends upon two factors. The first prerequisite is that everyone must be able to hear the sh’liach tzibbur. This is based on Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that if nine people do not listen to the sh’liach tzibbur it may be that the berachos recited by the sh’liach tzibbur are berachos l’vatalos. The second prerequisite is that the participants in the minyan have to be capable of seeing one another. This is based on Pri Chadash’s ruling that when two groups of people are in different rooms they combine to make a minyan if some of them could see one another. Although there are authorities who disagree, in the case of an open field all opinions would agree since there is no wall dividing the group into two that seeing one another is sufficient for them to combine.

Our Mishnah teaches that animals combine for tithing if they are in an area “as large as an animal’s grazing range.” This is defined by the Mishnah as an area of sixteen mil. Rashi explains that this refers to the size of an area in which animals could spread out but still be watched by a single shepherd. Sefer Imrei Devash also wondered whether the discussion in our Mishnah has bearing on the question of how far apart a group of people may be spread out and still constitute a minyan. Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Forming a minyan in a field”
Bechoros 54

I recently wrote an article about tradition and how our religious traditions add context and meaning to our worship of God. This is true in any religion I believe, but especially true in Judaism. Perhaps for that reason, Christianity tends to give Judaism a really hard time because of all its “man-made traditions.” The problem for most Christians, even those who otherwise find great beauty in Jewish religious practice and study, is that Jewish traditions are given the weight of authority and even appear to override the plain meaning of the Torah text, seemingly positioning the Rabbinic sages above God. While Judaism doesn’t have this perspective, the ability of most Christians to see from a Jewish point of view is extremely limited, which produces a lot of misunderstanding and, to my way of thinking, unjustified criticism.

I’ve been involved in conversations regarding tradition and Talmudic rulings at a number of blogspots recently including those written by Judah Himango and Derek Leman. Derek especially has been vocally dynamic in this area, writing two subsequent blog posts answering specific questions posed by individuals: Answering Dan and Answering Peter. Although most if not all of the people involved in the discussions on these blogs are in some way attached to the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements, there is a great deal of difficulty in understanding and accepting how tradition and rabbinic authority work in the Jewish world and particularly within Orthodox Judaism.

For some people, it’s not enough to understand that, if you don’t belong to an Orthodox community (and especially if you’re not Jewish), you do not have to consider yourself bound by their rulings and traditions. You can choose your own traditions and make them as flexible and non-binding as you’d like (though you probably shouldn’t imagine that your own traditions create a formal “Judaism”). For some of these individuals though, it is important to prove that Jewish tradition is “wrong” and goes against God. The presumption for the other side of the coin is that their own interpretation of the Bible is “right” and can be used to manufacture a “true” Jewish or Hebrew Roots religion more in line with God. Scriptures such as Mark 7:1-23 are often cited to support how Jesus disdained Jewish man-made traditions and supposedly taught only from the “pure” Word of God (although we have a good indication in John 10:22 that Jesus celebrated the tradition of Chanukah).

I specifically quote the “Halacha Highlight” above because of the following line:

Perhaps they can be as far apart as sixteen mil since they should be able to see one another but perhaps forming a minyan follows a different set of rules. He leaves the matter unresolved.

The collection of talmudic rulings and judgments and their associated commentaries are vast and it literally requires years of study to become even somewhat proficient at understanding their wisdom and meaning. Here we also see that these rulings and commentaries are not always definitive. That is, they don’t always take the force of “thou shalt not” or “thou shalt” and many discussions on halakhic matters are left “unresolved.” In fact, the validity of judgments and how (or if) they are to be enacted can be hotly debated to this very day in Rabbinic circles. There is not always absolute agreement about how these “man-made traditions” are to be lived out in everyday Jewish existence. Local authorities often contradict more historic and global sages and typically, a Jew will form their religious practice around the decisions of their Rebbe or local synagogue Rabbi.

So why should you care?

If you’re not Jewish, you don’t have to. Even if you are Jewish, if you don’t consider any rulings of any Rabbis anywhere, including what we have recorded in Talmud, as authoritative, then you don’t have to care either (unless you suspect that somewhere inside those rulings is the will of God). There are plenty of atheist Jews who work on Saturday, eat ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi, and who have never worn a tallit (let alone prayed to God). They apparently don’t care about what the Talmud says and if you are a Jewish person who is religious but not in a traditional Jewish manner, then you can also decide not to care.

That doesn’t mean the Rabbinic sages don’t have authority within their communities, it just means you choose not to consider them having authority over you and your community. God will sort all that out at some point and then we’ll know for sure. Right now, there’s enough doubt to result in their being many different ways to live as a religious Jew let alone as a religious Christian (including Gentile Messianic and Hebrew Roots). Either God accepts the variations we have created with the patience of a kind Father toward small and confused children or He’ll show us all where we “got it wrong” in the end of days.

However, human nature says we’re going to continue to jockey for position, so to speak, and attempt to establish our own authority and “correctness” relative to the people and groups with which we disagree. We see that happening all of the time, even within the context of the Talmud itself. Judaism isn’t always about “getting it right” but rather, it’s sometimes about struggling with the Torah, other Jews, and God. It’s not a crime to disagree in Judaism (but don’t try it in Christianity or the “Messianic” worlds unless you want to get into the spiritual equivalent of a bar fight), it’s expected, and on just about any subject.

A few days ago, I was talking with my wife about a topic on which I was emotionally sensitive and she started arguing with me. I have to admit, I got kind of put out by her attitude and started to walk away when she stopped me. She reminded me that we’ve been married for almost 30 years and that she’s always argued. She then said something like, “I’m Jewish. I argue. That’s what we do.” In other words, she was saying, “Don’t take it personally.” I like a good debate every now and then (though obviously, not on every possible occasion) and one of the things I try to promote is being able to disagree without personalizing conflict. This is quite possible, even outside of a Jewish context. I’ve seen a prosecuting and a defense attorney practically come to blows in open court during a trial only to become best friends and make dinner plans together after the trial was over and the jury left the courtroom.

It’s tough not to take religious arguments personally because our faith is the most personal thing about who we are. When someone disagrees with how we perceive our faith, we hear that disagreement as “them’s fightin’ words”, to employ an old, Western TV show phrase. In fact, they aren’t “fightin’ words” unless we choose to make them such. Still, the best many of us can do is “agree to disagree” and drop the conflict as “unresolved” (see my opening quote at the top of the page). Like it or not, that’s the way we are going to have to leave many of our questions and disagreements…until the time of Messiah’s return.

Until then, may we all find the ways of peace with each other, no matter how differently we see ourselves and God.

The blessing Jacob gives Judah concludes with the words: “his eyes will redden from wine, and his teeth white from milk.” Rabbi Yochanan says homiletically (Kesubos 111b) that you can read it as “teeth whiter than milk” — to give a smile to a friend is even greater than giving him nourishment.

When someone comes collecting charity, it is a difficult and often thankless job. Rejection can break a person’s spirits and keep him or her from continuing, no matter how important the cause. So, as it happens, a smile may be one of the most important things you can give — you can brighten that person’s spirits and enable him or her to persevere.

Closer to home, there is no one who doesn’t have a “hard day” now and then. There are great people who have tremendous internal reserves of happiness, so that no matter what, it seems like they are always happy. Even people like that need an encouraging word now and then — much less the rest of us, who sometimes just want to crawl back into bed and start over tomorrow, if not next week!

To be generous of spirit is at least as important as being generous with money — and when it comes to smiles, the more you give, the more you have!

-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“Brother, Can you Share a Smile?”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi

5 thoughts on “Fighting Words”

  1. I think when we can look at each other and say to ourselves, “God you do good work!”, then we will be able to love each other truly. Then we will be able to argue without rancor. When we aren’t afraid of God, thinking that we need to perform or else, then we will be able to look clearly at the good in others and in what they do, even if it’s different than how we do it.

    Why we expect there to be only one right way to live is beyond me. How could everybody live the same exact path in life when we are all so different? That is not logical, or even reasonable.

    Hannah Hurnard (of Hinds Feet on High Places), wrote a little known book called, “The Kingdom of Love”. I was very blessed to read this book when I was a young believer living in Israel. The book is the story of her amazing journey to try and figure out why we can’t get along, and what we can do about it. the answer turned out to be love. This book had a great impact on my life, because I realized that she was right. The main reason that we don’t allow ourselves and others the freedom to live outside “the box” is because we don’t trust God’s ability to keep us in Him. We think we have to perform certain things, or else to live a certain way and only believe certain things or else we will lose our salvation, or else we will lose our fellowship with God.

    If we allow the Holy Spirit to be the Holy Spirit and to guide us, then we will be in the Lord, no matter where that takes us. And if God doesn’t stifle the free will of mankind, neither should we. Yes, we live in a world filled with evil. Yes, there are things we shouldn’t do. No those things are not the same for each person because they depend upon what the Lord wants to do in that person’s life. Either it’s God who keeps us in Him, or else we are required to keep ourselves. And I think that if I have to keep myself in the Lord, then I am lost already. I know myself too well to depend on that.

    And I have to say, I agree with your wife, I’m Jewish, therefore I debate (argue). Entertainment in my family growing up involved a lot of debate. We could debate issues for hours (and did). Sometimes we ended up in agreement, and sometimes we didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter. It made me learn how to think, how to debate constructively, and how to let things go that don’t involve life/death issues. And it made me realize that not everything is a life/death issue-even if I feel strongly about it.

    Thanks Jim, for exploring these issues honestly.

  2. I always feel convicted when I read your blog. I definitely do my fair share of arguing on blogs. I just have so much passion about these things and I get carried away time and time again. Maybe you can pray for me that I’ll mellow out and not get so personally invested in these discussions. Or maybe that I’ll find a Torah study partner. I don’t have one here in this town.

  3. Peter, I think we all get passionate in our Internet comments from time to time and focused on our own point of view. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to read my blog post from today. It talks about the idea of how it might be genuinely possible to understand and obey Torah in different ways. A lot of where we get hung up in the Messianic blogosphere (and probably in Christianity as well) is believing that A) there is only one way to obey the Torah, and B) that our way is always the right way.

    When you read that blog, scroll down into the comments section and read the comment written by Yahnatan. He’s a Jewish believer and his words show great insight into the dynamics you have just mentioned.

    I will be more than happy to pray for you and I hope you are also praying for God to help you change and move in the direction that leads to a closer walk with Him. This is what we all need to pray for in our lives. I know that being “Messianic” can be isolating at times. Although I know many “Messianics” in my community, most of my conversations in the realm of faith occur on the web these days. When we don’t have a face-to-face community with which to relate, we might have to turn to a “virtual community”. It lacks many things but it also lets us connect to people we otherwise would never meet.

    Peace upon your soul.

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