Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Minhag Yisroel Torah He - Part 2
Continued from Part 1:
The most common approach to the diversity of our minhagim is to validate everyone. They're all good. To each their own. This, of course, gets complicated nowadays, since people marry into families with other minhagim and piskei dinim, schools often combine children from numerous strains, and even shuls and communities are often made up of various diverse combinations to form a new "multi-cultural" frumkeit. The old kehillah life is a shadow of its former self, and people often live their life with a hodgepodge of minhagim collected along the way. Some groups fight this trend and seek to isolate themselves (at least to some degree). What is the best approach?
It depends. The old fashioned "when in Lithuania do as a Lithuanian" is no longer as applicable as it once was, since communities with roots from all over the world are now living shoulder-to-shoulder with one another. But for me, I say that minhag really gets to our relationship with G-d and Torah. Every minhag or psak halacha has its own reason – sometimes mystical, sometimes practical, sometimes emotional – and like paths in a forest, one sticks to a single path but it doesn’t negate the others. I would look at it this way: a minhag that makes your Yiddishkeit more meaningful, enhances your relationship with G-d and community, deepens your attachment to your past or your ideals, is precious. In that case one should feel comfortable adopting it. If you have a mesorah in your family and community, you should protect it – not necessarily under all circumstances, but it shouldn't be taken lightly.
There are five basic points that I see people struggle with, and I’ll try to address them here:
1. Changing Minhagim: I think it is clear that it has its place and can be appropriate under the right conditions, but shouldn't be taken lightly. We’ve discussed how significant minhagim are on a communal, historical, spiritual, emotional as well as a pragmatic or practical level, and any changes should represent a serious positive development in one of those areas. It is important to keep in mind that all minhagim should be only a vessel to a more G-dly life and not ends in and of themselves – any attention to details should not obscure that truth.
2. Baalei Teshuva and Geirim, who have no minhagim or specific community standard psak: Evaluate what is important in your life: If it is the community you live in, adopt those customs. If it's the rabbi or chaburah (sub-group) you are closest to, adopt those customs. If it is something in your heritage or a specific derech in Torah that you feel a strong connection to, that may be the determining factor. But these things should definitely be taken seriously, and one should not switch customs and communal allegiances like a person choosing different routes to get to work in the morning.
3. Halachah vs Minhag: Halacha basically translates to mean, “The path” or “way to walk,” while Minhag translates to, “how to conduct oneself.” So, when looking at this “clash,” I am tempted to say that they are almost the same thing. The role of religion in life of the religious Jew isn’t relegated to select parts of life; rather, it’s about everything we do. To be a religious Jew is to be Jewish in all your actions – this begins with halacha and continues on to minhag. Obviously halacha is the starting point, to quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “Sefer Minhagim is not a substitute for Shulchan Aruch,” it is a companion to it.
The Gemara delves into the sorting out process of how a Jew should live his life. It discuses explicit biblical commandments, it discusses those commandments not explicitly stated; it discusses the traditions from Sinai; it discusses the decrees and fences that were established by Chazal. Yet, we don’t pasken from a Gemara, and there are many things that have changed to this day; not core directives – they are unchangeable – but change has taken place. The way this works centers around the rule of halacha k’basroi (the latest authorities establish the final ruling); those who come later can look at all the information and see what was “accepted” (kiblu aleihu) as that is what establishes it as the accepted psak for each individual time and place.
This process is not, and cannot be, willy-nilly. It must have merit and basis must be found for any legitimate practice. There are many Seforim full of rabbonim providing explanations and sources for adopted practices – and when we have an accepted Minhag that is in conflict with an established text, rabbonim build the case (and if we struggle to find one, we still presume) that it is based upon legitimate authority – otherwise it cannot be considered legitimate (Chavas Yaair# 234, Chasam Sofer, Maharam Chagiz). The Pnei Yehoshua sought to compile a work to show how each minhag is rooted On High, explaining its reason and source in Torah, but “heaven did not allow him to complete it, and had he done so it would have brought the Redemption.”
A religious Jew needs to be "a Shulchan Aruch Yid.” We follow what it says in Shulchan Aruch, and in cases where our teachers and leaders acted differently, we follow their example. That is Halacha.
4. How can there be multiple "right" answers? Chazal use the phrase "Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chaim" (These and those are the words of the living God). Basically, Torah is Ein Sof, and we can find a basis for multiple, conflicting, opinions. In most matters, there really is no exclusively "right" answer; and while this may be a little unsettling, we must understand that this is so. Reality is not a simple list of "do's" and "don’ts." We each have our "shoresh," and that shoresh has its own "right" answer.
5. What's the difference anyway? Why can't we all just get along? Well, there are big differences, actually. Each minhag, and each psak has its source. Each source is connected with a "higher" (spiritual) source, as well as a practical "down-to-earth" view. They are like parts of a body (which is why Chazal are always expected to be consistent in their thinking). When we follow a psak or a minhag, we are plugging into that “body;” that view; its source; and to all those who share it as well. So, this is not to be taken lightly: The path we take makes us fitting vessels for that specific energy; and while there are many paths – all of which are legitimate – and they all share the same goal of bringing delight to Hashem, nevertheless, as a canal brings water to a designated destination, our specific path brings us to a specific target. Thus we see that the derech we are a part of really gets to who we are.