Are denominations good for the Jews?

The pluralist in me wants to say yes. We’ve come to understand that a free marketplace of ideas, like a free economic marketplace, can have significant positive outcomes. No one group can gain a monopoly on the infinite Truth of God’s word; we all gain access to, emphasize, and develop different aspects of it. Ultimately, it is not only the individual ‘consumer’, but society as a whole that stands to gain from competition and, even more so, from cooperation and mutual enrichment.

But then there is part of me that yearns for unity and togetherness. In chapter 14, we read of the command ‘lo titgodedu’. In the rabbinic tradition, this was understood not only as a prohibition against cutting oneself out of mourning, but also, homiletically, as an injunction, or perhaps a plea, ‘lo ta’asu agudot agudot’ –– do not divide yourselves into factions, denominations. We are, the Torah continues in the next verse, a holy, chosen nation. Doesn’t this holiness demand uniformity of thought and action?

The discussion as it develops in the Talmud is instructive. The principle restricting divisiveness, or, we might say, denominations, is repeatedly challenged by paradigmatic examples of pluralistic halakhic practices, beginning with the prototype of the multiple days on which Purim was celebrated, and continuing to the prototypical arguments of the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Ultimately, all of these expressions of diversity are endorsed. According to one opinion mentioned, even after a heavenly voice declares that the halakha follows the school of Hillel, the Shammaites, believing the heavens no longer have any say in the halakhic process, continued to follow their own decisions. For there to be different halakhic practices in different locations, based on their own circumstances and needs, and the specific decisions of local leaders in response to those, is no violation of that “anti-agudot” policy. It is legitimate, necessary, and even positive, halakhic pluralism.

When does difference become dangerous? The last opinion the Talmud offers is Rava’s, whose red line is a single local court divided against itself into a faction of followers of Beit Hillel vs. followers of Beit Shammai. When what divides opinions is not the particulars of the case, the needs of the individual community and its members, but rather blind allegiance to a party line, no matter what, we have come to a place where difference and disagreement is destructive, cutting deeply into the body of the Jewish nation.

Painfully, this is exactly where most of our denominational debate occurs today.

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This is a blog of my reflections breathlessly, desperately following the daily 929 chapter of Tanach. Learn more about the project, and (if you read Hebrew) learn more at 929.org.il