Re’eh – Reform and the Western Sephardim

“Two Jews, three opinions” is nothing new to the Jewish community. However, a Biblical prohibition would seem to indicate that this isn’t a laughing matter. The verse states “Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu], nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead (Deuteronomy 14:1).” At face value this is a prohibition against self-harm during mourning. However, the Talmud adds another level of interpretation.  “Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I should read here the verse: “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu, with an extra ‘daled’],” which is interpreted as meaning: Do not become numerous factions [agudot]. (bTalmud 13b)”

The parameters of this prohibition are further disputed in the Talmud (ibid 14a). According to Rava, it is referring to a rogue judge who continues to uphold his position despite being in the minority (which contravenes the Biblical majority rule principle). According to Abaye though, it even prohibits the establishment of an alternative court in a city which already has one. Rambam explains that the rule of ‘Lo Titgodedu’ is meant to prevent “great strife” (Abodat Kohkabim 12:14). Rambam’s perspective lays behind the Jewish aversion to mahloket, division.

In S&P communities, ‘Lo Titgodedu’ was literally the #1 rule, typically known as Ascama #1. It stated that a second synagogue could not be established within a certain proximity to the first synagogue without the permission of the founding community. The objective of this ruling may have been to prevent wealthier members from forming their own congregations and neglecting the care of the community’s poor. It may have also acted as a barrier against public division, which could cause scandal amongst the non-Jews of the city and potentially lead to expulsion. (In London the Ascama read “Duly considering how important is our union, to keep us from giving offence to the inhabitants of the City, against which we have been cautioned by His Majesty King Charles the 2nd of Glorious Memory…”) In the 1800s, Ascama #1 was used to argue against the formation of a rogue second congregation in London, one founded by Sephardim and Ashkenazim on principles different from those of the parent congregation, Bevis Marks Synagogue.

Beginning in 1825, the pressure of Ashkenaz Reform had begun to make inroads into the Sephardic community. In 1825 it inspired a breakaway in the American city of Charleston, SC, called the Reform Society of Israelites. In New York in 1834, at the consecration of Shearith Israel’s Crosby St synagogue, it motivated Mordecai Manuel Noah, America’s most well known Jew at the time, to advocate, unsuccessfully, for some changes to their synagogue worship. In 1840 in England it led to the establishment of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, known pejoratively at that time in Bevis Marks Synagogue as the Burton St House of Worship. Matters only got worse in Charleston in 1841 when the Reformers led a coup within the established S&P community there called Beth Elohim. This inspired Charleston’s traditionalists to break away and form their own congregation which they named Shearith Israel. (See below for links to lectures I’ve delivered about each of these breakaways)

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Charleston, SC , USA – Beth Elohim

Reformers believed that their choices were in the best interests of Jewish continuity. In Charleston they wrote, “In pointing out these defects, however, your memorialists seek no other end, than the future welfare and respectability of the nation.” In London they wrote, “We, the undersigned, regarding public worship as highly conducive to the interests of religion, consider it a matter of deep regret that it is not more frequently attended by members of our religious persuasion.”

Still, their positions were outside the boundaries of the established Sephardic communities. Some of the reforms were practical, like delaying the time of morning prayers, or instituting weekly sermons. Others, were more ideological, like suspending the observance of the second days of holidays (yom tob sheni) or not reciting a blessing before the lighting of Hanukkah candles. These were based upon a rejection of the rabbinic or Talmudic tradition, known as the Oral Law.

Many and varied arguments were made against the proposed changes, however, a recurring theme was the issue of ‘Lo Titgodedu,’ division. New York’s leadership wrote a letter of support to Bevis Marks Synagogue emphasising the global importance of religious homogeneity, ‘let any of us arriving from almost any part of the world, meet, we feel ourselves at home, and join in the service of the synagogue, on any day, at any time, even to the different tunes.” By 1848, even Mordecai Manual Noah had changed his view. Having witnessed the impact of breakaways he wrote, ‘Reformers create schisms and promote divisions besides impairing the unity of our faith.’

Despite these early divisions, attempts were later made to reach a kind of truce and to strengthen bonds between what were now ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Reform’ congregations. Following the American Civil war, Charleston’s Beth Elohim and Shearith Israel experimented with a five year compromise arrangement and merged back together. The leader of American Orthodoxy, Rev. Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel, met with Reform’s leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise in 1855 (‘The Cleveland Assembly’), also in an attempt to find common ground and repair the divisions splintering the American Jewish community. And even in London, where the communities never reunited, a truce of sorts was achieved. The Reformers were permitted to once again participate in the charity work of Bevis Marks Synagogue, ensuring that those in need would still receive the support they needed. When the West London Synagogue celebrated their jubilee anniversary representatives of Bevis Marks Synagogue and all of the other primary Orthodox synagogues were in attendance.

The prohibition of ‘Lo Titgodedu’ is meant to prevent the kind of division which brings with it discord. In the 19th century, the advent of Reform brought great strife as communities struggled over the future of their congregations. Still, over time, even Jews with different opinions found ways to work together, even if ritually and ideologically they remained separate. Their efforts at collaboration demonstrated the strength of their commitment to the principle of Jewish unity.

The events of the 19th century created a religious landscape that endures until today. These divisions have sadly often brought discord with them. However, Jewish leaders showed us nearly two centuries ago that we can maintain our own communal identities, while respecting those with whom we disagree. In this way we ensure that differences need not divide us.

 

THE BREAKAWAYS LECTURE SERIES

This past year I delivered a series of lectures entitled ‘The Breakaways,’ which looked at four such divisive episodes. Each 19th century case was different, but collectively they created the Jewish world as we know it today. Click below for the corresponding audio files and handouts.

  1. Hamburg, Germany – Israelite Temple
  2. New York, America – B’nai Jeshurun 
  3. London, England – West London Synagogue 
  4. Charleston, America – Shearith Israel

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