My Law is Better Than Your Law

Esther kippah
Esther’s High Holy Day Kippah in raw silk

Recently, I received an email from someone who looked over my website, I had made the point that I do not use leather when making my kippot.

Goyisherebbe (that was the author’s email address) wrote, “There is no problem wearing leather kippot on YK anymore (sic) than there is wearing a leather belt. The only prohibition of leather is in wearing shoes. Mishna, 8th perek of Tractate Yoma.”

There was neither salutation nor signature. A non-Jewish rabbi? Someone who thinks their rabbinate is a little “goyish”?

Whatever the appellation, the email deserved a response. I wrote:

Dear goyisherebbe,
Thanks so much for your comment! …[T]here are rabbinic authorities who have suggested a prohibition against wearing any garment that is made from a living creature on Yom Kippur, and it is minhag in some communities to think and act in that way. For those whose custom it is to abstain from all such garments, my kippot can support their practice. For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (quoted in Agnon’s Days of Awe, p. 201): “…how can a man put on a garment for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written, “And His tender mercies are over all His works”? [Siddur ha-Minhagim].

But I got the point goyisherebbe was making. I promised to go back to the website to clarify the leather matter as one of minhag rather than halakhah and thanked my correspondent. Goyisherebbe was right to make me rethink my language.

I did not get a response, but I didn’t expect one, either. Goyisherebbe had found an opportunity to correct and did so in summary fashion, without any special kindness, conviviality, or grace.

Halakhic one-upmanship can be a brutal sport in Jewish circles. During the time I was in rabbinical school, I twice observed students justifying reproofs by appealing to Leviticus 19:17, “you shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.” In both cases, the apparent offender had not violated any halakhah I know of. There were, as there often are, egos in play.

In fact, one student invoked levitical law while openly humiliating a colleague, violating a cardinal halakhic rule against embarrassing someone according to the Sixth Commandment. Our sages interpreted the prohibition against murder to include causing the blood to drain from someone’s face, thus “shedding blood.”

As a rule, Jews don’t tell other people whether they are going to end up in hell or not. Most of us don’t think there is such a thing.

But we are perfectly capable of judging each other’s knowledge, practice, and observance of Jewish law, despite the fact that most of us are not exactly experts on the subject.

In fact, sometimes I am astonished by the Jews who grant themselves permission to use halakhah as a spiritual cudgel – even when those self-same Jews don’t (for example) possess any Shabbat practice to speak of.

Jews, Jews. We must stop using one of the sweetest contributions of our tradition to intimidate each other. Halakhah is a thing of beauty (at least it’s meant to be so), not a means of belittling. Halakhah is meant to uplift and enoble us, not to limit and confine us.

It’s the first day of the secular new year, about a quarter of the way into 5775. So very much is wrong with this world. In the name of halakhah, we are to name things we find troubling. We must call for redress of injustice. We should pursue justice and love peace.

We can use our exploration of the ethical to act.  But humility is a prerequisite. Kindness is essential.

Halakhah tells us that.


5 Replies to “My Law is Better Than Your Law”

  1. In the intro to “Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality” the author states that “although technically, according to halakhah…, only men were obligated to have children, women were fully expected to procreate.” Were men doing this alone? Seems that men had no choice about marriage but women did.

    Halakhah is a most interesting and contradictory read, just like the Torah.

    1. The reason it seems “contradictory” is because it is a system that assumes there is more than one opinion and that no opinion which is subscribed to automatically stands for ever — much like any sane system of law. So you can get different opinions and different conclusions on any given point.

      Torah and its compiling set a precedent for just such an attitude, as its redactors allowed contradictory stories to stand and its authors to “argue” with each other.

      Clearly, those engaged in all this writing and composing were a specific (male) elite, but the fact that they tolerated argument in and among themselves is still important for the legacy they left behind to others. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this beautiful post.

    (Also I am chagrined to read your report of something which happened in rabbinic school. I so frequently, in memory, overfocus on the things which were glorious and kind and opened my heart as well as my intellect; I forget that even in my / our beloved community there are egos and flaws.)

    Hope to see you at OHALAH.

    1. You are so welcome!

      We were (are) human. How could we avoid egos and flaws (author included…). Teaching in the ALEPH program as I am doing now, though, is an extraordinary experience; students are so eager and so hungry. They want to grow. It’s some of the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done. I love that.

      And yes, I will be at Ohalah!!

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