This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Family Feuds*

Even out here in Alberta it is not quite possible to remain insulated from the inter-denominational factionalism emanating from Israel and the larger Jewish communities.

Through our history, Judaism has been able to tolerate an impressive degree of theological disagreement and personal rivalry. If the disputes were confined to such theoretical issues, then the current contention would probably not go beyond the level nasty name-calling. Where matters get serious for Jews is when they begin to impinge on religious practice. Thus, the most acute controversies in Jewish public life have very tangible consequences in determining whether individuals may or may not marry into the Jewish community.

Controversies of this sort have arisen in previous eras of Jewish history and have been handled in different ways. The Talmud, for example, records several instances in which entire towns and provinces were declared unmarriageable because of questions that arose concerning their genealogical purity, or their failure to conform to the accepted religious standards. In at least one case, it is reported that the rejected community abandoned their Judaism altogether.

Not all disputes were treated so unyieldingly. A notable case is described in the Mishnah involving the first-century schools of Shammai and Hillel.

The controversy concerned a complex convergence of several features of Jewish family law, including levirate marriage, incest and polygamy. The upshot was that a certain constellation of circumstances could arise in which the school of Shammai would require a widow to enter into a levirate marriage with her brother-in-law (or undergo the "halitzah" release ceremony), whereas the school of Hillel would forbid such a marriage as incestuous and its offspring as mamzerim, forbidden to marry into the Jewish community.

After outlining the controversy between the two schools, the Mishnah proceeds to relate the following: "Even though one school forbids and the others permit, these declare unfit and these declare fit, nevertheless the school of Shammai did not hesitate to take wives from the school of Hillel, nor vice versa. Furthermore, in all their disagreements over purity and impurity, they did not refrain from partaking of one another's pure foods and vessels."

Now this is surely a remarkable instance of halakhic pluralism, where two opposing camps, divided over fundamental issues of marriage ability, agreed to acknowledge the legitimacy of positions with which they personally disagreed, even to the point of permitting unions that would, in their view, produce mamzerim. True, the Talmud tempers this liberality when it explains that what the schools were really doing was scrupulously warning one another about problematic family histories of prospective brides, in order to prevent them from transgressing their respective prohibitions. Even so, this indicates a degree of mutual respect that is not easily imaginable in our present religious climate.

A similar example may be cited from a different historical context. Medieval Jewry was split into two main movements: the "Rabbinites" who accepted the authority of the oral tradition as embodied in the Talmud; and the "Karaites" who rejected the Talmud in favour of direct reliance on the Bible. The disagreements between these two streams extended to every imaginable area of private and communal life.

Both flavours of Judaism were prominently represented in medieval Egypt. From records in the Cairo Genizah we obtain a surprising picture: Although the ideological spokesmen of the two factions missed few opportunities to attack the beliefs and practices of their opponents, we find that in all matters of communal activity and social interaction there existed a remarkable measure of cooperation.

Then as now, the welfare of the Jews of Jerusalem was a concern that unified Jews of divergent leanings. Several urgent fund drives were initiated in the twelfth century in order to rescue the holy city from its financial plight. For purposes of these campaigns, the Rabbinates and Karaites temporarily set aside their differences and worked in harmony. This magnanimous approach was encouraged by Egypt's foremost rabbinical leader, Maimonides, whose outspoken opposition to the doctrines of Karaism was balanced by his compassion for the Karaites as people and as Jews.

Of particular interest are the marriage contracts (ketubbahs) that testify to the relative frequency of "intermarriage" between the two sects, even in the families of their most prominent leaders. Because of the radical differences in their respective observances, guidelines had to be set out explicitly in the ketubbahs so as to minimize violations of the spouse's sensibilities. One clause, for example, stipulates whether the meat that is brought into the house must conform to the kashrut stringencies of the Karaites, or of the Rabbinites; another insists that no candles be lit on Shabbat, out of respect for the Karaite prohibition against having any fire in the house on the sabbath. Both parties obligate themselves not to desecrate their spouse's holidays (which might fall on different dates). Some documents speak of one of the partners "converting" to the other's denomination for the sake of the marriage.

When some of these ketubbahs were displayed at an exhibition in Israel this year, they raised several eyebrows from both the secularist and orthodox camps.

Similarly, when I recently gave a talk about the history of Jewish sectarianism, it did not take long for my audience to ask me about how those precedents ought to be applied to our contemporary denominational disputes: Should the differences between the Orthodox and Reform be likened to those between the Pharisees and Sadducees, or the Rabbinites and Karaites, who utterly rejected their opponents' claim to Jewish authenticity? Or should they be viewed as a "dispute for the sake of Heaven" as between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, or between medieval rationalists and mystics, where differing religious outlooks did not extend to the delegitimization of their rivals?

With characteristic boldness, I replied that I prefer to wait another century or two until I can see the matters in their proper historical perspective.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, December 4, 1997, pp.4, 11.

  • Bibliography:
    • M. A. Friedman, Jewish Marriage in Palestine, Tel-Aviv and New York, 1980.
    • S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley, 1971.