One of the very common mistakes made by those who head down the path of mekoriut is that they begin to search for “the one true path” of Torah to the exclusion of all else. Such people begin to display a harsh intolerance for diversity within halakhic practice and will often arrogantly villainize all who disagree with their particular position.
Perhaps the most common form of this phenomenon is the [largely] American English-speaking “Rambamist” community. My reference to “Rambamists” in this context excludes the רמב”םיים and Dar Da`im found almost entirely in Israel among various Yemenite communities. These authentically “Rambamist” individuals are generally not actively seeking to ridicule or invalidate the practices of other groups and are much more tolerant of diversity, although they do ardently hold that the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam is the best and purest codification of halakhah while rejecting the Zoharic system of “kabbalah” as well.
The predominantly English-speaking, non-Yemenite “Rambamists,” by contrast, are dogmatic about the Mishneh Torah, but often do not know why. This is largely due to their inability to adequately interact with the Hebrew text of the sources – or even the Mishneh Torah itself. Taking a “Karaite” approach to the text of the Mishneh Torah, they almost completely ignore the opinions of the Rambam expressed in his Pirush HaMishnayot, his letters, and his many responsa. Instead, they opt to grant themselves permission to interpret the text and apply it as they see fit. The halakhic errors espoused by them are often numerous and careless. Yemenite rabbis, posekim, and commentaries on the Rambam are usually dismissed by them as being “impure,” and great rabbanim such as Mori Yusef Qafih z”l and Rav Ratson Arussi shlit”a are criticized for being “hadshanim” and “sell-outs” – since even Yemenite “Rambamists” are not “Rambamist” enough for these types. However, most of their dismissal is just a cover for their inability to actually read any of it and their desire to be ruggedly independent and find an allowance for anything they desire either to do or not do.
Before proceeding, I should clarify that I do not mean to imply that every English-speaking/American “Rambamist” is arrogant or disrespectful, has ve-shalom. To the contrary, I know many of them who are wonderful, dedicated, and reasonable Jews who try to exclusively follow the opinion of the Rambam the best that they can. However, what marks them as different is that they do not engage in disrespect of the Yemenite community and tend to have a more holistic approach to the Mishneh Torah found also among Israeli רמב”םיים and Dar Da`im. Essentially, everyone deserves a chance and should not be automatically subject to prejudice. Nevertheless, these ideas are out there claiming to be mekori and it is important to be able to recognize those who detract from the beauty of the Torah through their behavior – it is the advice of Hazal to avoid such people (MT, Hilkhot Deot 6:1-3).
Although they tend to be the usual culprits, they are not the only ones. I have met mekori Jews of all types who feel strongly about their various halakhic positions who just can’t seem to fathom that other Jews may be just as sincere and well thought-out as they are – or even that they themselves may, perhaps, be wrong.
The intensity by which they feel that they need to find “the one true way” or the “ultimate truth” in Judaism is largely based on error. It is no coincidence that many of these “one true way” types are from a Christianized/Western cultural context. The religious outlook of the majority of cults, denominations, and religious movements in the West have this same mentality. For them, truth is singularly apparent from either their holy books, their leaders, or both and everyone must abide by the exact same “truth” in their belief, outlook, practices, and reasoning as they do. Hazal tell us, however, that the truth of the Torah is not always so apparent or black-and-white.
One of the greatest halakhic hakdamot – in my humble opinion – is the hakdamah of Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l to his Iggerot Mosheh. In it he discusses the partially subjective nature of pesak halakhah, especially those rulings which are made without the benefit of a Sanhedrin. I have translated a portion of it below, but I encourage anyone who is able to engage its [fairly elementary] Hebrew to do so.
Rav Mosheh writes:
“…le-aniyut daati, …the hakhamim of the latter generations were worthy and obligated to render practical halakhic rulings, even though they were not considered higia le-hora’ah in the same way as were the hakhamim in the generations of the Gemara. And there is certainly place to suspect that perhaps their rulings are not in the strict accordance with the truth with respect to Heaven’s view, but it has already been said about the truth of practical halakhic instruction that ‘lo bashamayim hi‘ (“it [the Torah] is not in Heaven,” i.e. it is not within the strict purview of God) and it is rather supposed to be in accordance to how it appears to the individual hakham – after he has spent the proper time looking into the matter in order to clarify what is the halakhah in the talmud and the posekim – according to his ability and with all due seriousness and yirat HaShem yitborakh. And if it so appears to him that the true practical ruling is such-and-such, he is obligated by halakhah to rule according to his honest view – even if it could be that the truth with respect to Heaven’s view is not thus. And in such a situation it is said that his words are ‘divrei Elohim hayim‘…”
Notice that Rav Feinstein z”l does not promote a carte blanche authority to the rabbis and Torah scholars of every generation to make halakhah and Judaism into whatever they see fit irrespective of the sources. Rather, he specifically limits their ability to rule to what is written in the “talmud and the posekim.” Nevertheless, when a hakham has reached a point of being able to understand and apply the sources of Hazal and their expositors, he is not only able, but obligated to help those who come to him clarify their halakhic duty. Of course, this is a broad and detailed subject, but nevertheless we see here that there are going to be different opinions when determining situational halakhah and each hakham may come to his honest conclusion and those who so desire may rely on his opinion.
This idea is also to be found in the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam. In his hakdamah, the Rambam writes as follows:
וכן אם למד אחד מן הגאונים שדרך המשפט כך הוא ונתבאר לבית דין אחר שעמד אחריו שאין זה דרך המשפט הכתוב בתלמוד אין שומעין לראשון אלא למי שהדעת נוטה לדבריו בין ראשון בין אחרון
“And so if one of the Geonim taught that the way of justice is thus and it became clear to another beit din which arose after him that the opinion he expressed is not the way of justice that is written in the talmud, we not [necessarily] listen to the first opinion [i.e. just because it came first]. Rather, we listen he whose words are most logical, whether he was first or last.”
It is made abundantly clear in context that the Rambam here is speaking strictly of post-talmudic halakhic decisions. The posekim are limited in the view of the Rambam to what is “written in the talmud.” However, I wonder if any “Rambamists” have ever asked themselves the questions “Why are there are opinions being expressed after the close of the talmud? Can anyone give a practical ruling not explicitly found in the words of Hazal? Isn’t everything we need to be found simply within the talmud?” The answers to these questions are: because that is the nature of halakhah, apparently so, and apparently not.
Another very telling passage is in Hilkhot Mamrim 1:9, where the Rambam states the following about post-Sanhedrin/Talmudic rulings:
משבטל בית דין הגדול רבתה מחלוקת בישראל זה מטמא ונותן טעם לדבריו וזה מטהר ונותן טעם לדבריו זה אוסר וזה מתיר שני חכמים או שני בתי דינין שנחלקו שלא בזמן הסנהדרין אם עד שלא הגיע הדבר להן בין בזמן אחד בין בזה אחר זה אחד מטמא ואחד מטהר אחד אוסר ואחד מתיר אם אין אתה יודע להיכן הדין נוטה בשל תורה הלוך אחר המחמיר ובשל דברי סופרים הלוך אחר המקל
“Ever since the beit din ha-gadol was disbanded mahloket has increased in Yisra’el, with this one declaring something tamei and giving reason for his opinion, and this one declaring the same thing tahor and giving reason for his opinion; this one forbidding and this one permitting. Two batei dinin who are divided over an issue at a time when their is no active Sanhedrin – if this particular issue had not yet been ruled on by them when they were active [i.e. if no definite ruling has been recorded already in the talmud or sifrei Hazal] – whether these two courts were contemporaries or whether they existed at different times, with one ruling tamei and one ruling tahor, one forbidding and one permitting, if you do not know to which opinion the law inclines – one acts in accordance with the stricter of the two opinions with regard to a Torah law and in accordance with the more lenient of the two opinions in the case of a rabbinic law.”
Even the Rambam himself understood that a form of halakhic ruling would continue even after the close of the talmud. Perhaps so-called “Rambamists” should take these words of Rav Mosheh ben Maimon z”l more seriously instead of making attempts to somehow prove that the halakhic system either shut down or was supposed to shut down after the publication of the Mishneh Torah.
For those with the “one true way” mindset, the idea that there have always been different practices among religious Jews and that there has been divergence on even the seemingly most simple of religious practices from the most ancient times is very unsettling.
For instance, there are ancient and authentic sources for each method of performing netilat yadayim – with the blessing either before or after pouring a revi`it of water on the hands. And it goes further than this, with some opinions requiring that water be poured on the hands from the wrist down and others requiring only up to the second joint of the fingers need be washed. Even further, there are also those who maintained that netilat yadayim with water poured over the hands from a vessel was only strictly required for kohanim when eating their terumah and that yisra’elim need only immerse their fingers in a container of clean water. And the differences continue.
So which is “right”? Which is “true”? That is not a simple question. And the general conclusion appears to be that any of them are valid when they can be “proven” cogently from the texts of Hazal (all of which can be). Wild ideas that are clear departures from Hazalic precedent may be dismissed as erroneous and incorrect, but those that have sufficient basis may be relied upon. And those who rely on them – even if we disagree, however strongly – are not “sinners” and should not be condemned as such. Rather, each one should follow the best advice of his trusted rabbanim. Our attitude toward others should always be one of “yesh lahem mishehu al lismokh – they have someone on whom to rely.”
This idea is not the mindset of the “one true way,” but is instead the “one way of truth” – the way of the Torah.
May HaShem give us the wisdom to avoid such mistakes and look upon each other with eyes of love that appreciate diversity within orthodoxy. In our current circumstances, this is the only way forward.