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Shabbat Parashat Ki Teitzei 5777

Ask the Rabbi: Reflecting on a Socio-Religious Trend

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I ask myself – What religious trends have I been noticing, both through questions received and by observation, and what is our reaction toward them?

: There are crucial but obvious halachic and/or social issues in the forefront of rabbinic and community discussion. We do not consider this the correct forum to “throw our hat into the ring.” However, there are many “harmless” new or expanded religious practices that are a sign of trends with common roots. Identifying those roots and considering a basic strategy toward them (there are different legitimate ones) help the community and the individual react deliberately to practices that have and will arise.   

We will focus on the types of practices that have begun to arise by those who strive for healthy (not extreme) religious excellence. One trend is the use and pursuit of segulot. For example, over the last 10-20 years, the chatan, kalla and sandek have become among those before whom one is expected to line up to receive berachot like a Chassidishe Rebbe. (Previously, we simple people would bless the chatan and kalla.) Tzedaka organizations encourage donations because THE right holy people will daven THE best tefilla at The best place at THE best time for us. (Almost forgotten are the mitzva, the important cause, the steps to prevent needless overhead, etc.)

Another trend (which is not new, but is in some ways is intensified) is the focus on the individual. We are not talking about selfish people, as many are true ba’alei chesed and work for the community, who just want to do the “best thing.” Here are a few examples of such practices that are new, picking up steam, or expanding to new communities: Breaking up a minyan so two aveilim can be chazan; a chazan using his own nusach in a shul with a set different nusach; asking for haftara semi-regularly during the year of aveilut; minyanim in which people come late, daven at their own speed without skipping, and thereby there is a questionable quorum for Shemoneh Esrei and chazarat hashatz.

Without going into the details of such specific issues, we see overlap between the trends. “I believe my nusach is better (for me), so the tzibbur should accommodate me.” “I need to provide my parent with the most effective illuy neshama, so the shul should sacrifice to accommodate aveilim in ways not traditionally prescribed.” “The Beit Yosef’s angel said that skipping is detrimental, so we no longer follow the Shulchan Aruch’s rules meant for a minyan to be a cohesive communal davening.”

Our approach is that while proper balance is always important, the rule is that the needs and preferences of the tzibbur come before those of the individual (see Living the Halachic Process, I:H-3). In matters where diverging from community norms can cause discord, even when that outcome it is not obvious, the sugyot of the 4th perek of Pesachim are strictly against an individual’s divergence. This is often even at the cost of religious preferences for the individual (see Mishna Berura 468:23). Furthermore, we believe (as often expressed beautifully by Rav Kook, including in Ein Ayah, Berachot 1:89) that the individual’s avodat Hashem should be focused on improving the community’s spiritual state. While the ultimate level of community is of Klal Yisrael, in one’s personal life, his local community represents his klal. It is true that a community should be concerned about the feeling of fulfillment of individuals. However, it is more fundamental that the individual not allow the fine points of his personal quest, even for the apparent spiritual advantage of his departed parents, to compromise what is healthiest for the community. Some segulot are positive … but when they do not impinge upon others.

Pursuing real Torah values, as set out by halacha, should define our practices. Of course, every issue that arises should be handled in a manner that seeks to avoid machloket. The community should remember this, but halacha says that the obligation to avoid machloket makes greater demands on the individual.

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