March 28, 2022

Yevamot 13

Within its discussion about the different Yibbum and Halitzah policies of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as recorded in the Mishna (Yevamot 1:4), today’s daf (Yevamot 13b) references the Torah prohibition of לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ (Devarim 14:1) and it then explains that beyond its basic meaning of ‘do not cut yourself’, which prohibits self-harming of the body in response to the death of a loved one, it also teaches us that since the Jewish people are considered to be as ‘one body’, we should therefore avoid the formation of separate factions that lead to the ‘cutting up’ of the Jewish people.

Given this connection, and given the fact that today’s funeral of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) may well be recorded in the history books as the largest Jewish funeral since the biblical era, I would like to offer some personal thoughts about this loss along with thoughts about how different Jews within the body of the Jewish people see each other, while making reference to one of the most beautiful teachings I ever encountered which I first learnt around 30 years ago.

The teaching, found in the Chafetz Chaim’s insights on the Torah to Devarim 14:1, begins by informing us how the Chafetz Chaim was once asked why the Jewish world is divided into so many different factions, with each also being divided by different sub-groups which emphasize different ways to serve God. “Why,” asked his questioner, “could there not simply be one type of Jew worshipping God in the same way and praying in the same manner?”

To this the Chafetz Chaim responded that, “if you wish to ask me about the different groups in our people, I suggest that you go and ask the Russian Czar why he has so many different types of soldiers in his army: Foot soldiers; horsemen; artillery units, pilots, and sailors. Instead, surely the Russian army should be made up of one type of soldier with just one general responsible for them all! But the answer is that since the purpose of an army is to go out to war and thereby overcome one’s enemy, it is necessary to have a range of methods to achieve this goal. The artillery units stand some distance from the enemy, while the foot soldiers engage in hand-to-hand combat etc. So too in terms of our battle against the yetzer hara. The many different groups of Jews each play a role in fighting in God’s army, and each do what they can to overcome the enemy. But the most important thing is that each person in every group should ensure that their intentions are for the sake of Heaven.” What this means is that while there are different groups within the Jewish people, we fundamentally need each other because each do things that the other doesn’t do.

I imagine that those of you who regularly read my writings likely have a good grasp of my overall religious ideology. Yet you will also know that I quote ideas, stories, and – in particular – Torah insights from a vast range of sources and scholars, and the reason I do so is because I presume that most people who teach Torah do so in good faith, because I sincerely believe in the dictum stated by Rambam to ‘accept wisdom from wherever it comes’, and because I believe that by doing so, my ‘Virtual Beit Midrash’ (i.e. the teachings that I share in person and especially online) can achieve what we often struggle to do – namely to emphasise the unity and totality of the whole body called the Jewish people. And this is why I learn Torah books from those with whom I may ideologically disagree, and on occasion strongly disagree, because Torah is – and should always be – the shared language of the Jewish people.

For some people, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was their ‘gadol’, while for others, he was ‘their gadol’ – meaning a great Torah leader for some Jews, but not for them. But no matter how you relate to this great Torah scholar and teacher, it is important to acknowledge that today, a significant part of God’s army are burying someone who they came to regard as their general, and to remind yourself that the way we avoid dividing the Jewish people is by emphasizing not our conflicting differences for the sake of discord, but by emphasizing our complementary differences for the sake of unity.

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