Living In Community: A Talmudic Guide

Beginning in January, I jumped on the Daf Yomi reading cycle bandwagon with the intention of reading through the Talmud one page at a time, beginning with the tractate Berakhot. One thing I have noticed in the last month and a half is the number of times that an issue would be discussed and decided upon but not wholly accepted by everyone. My Monday reading was a perfect example. The discussion had been over the proper blessing to say when taking a drink of water. The discussions ends:

We learned in the mishna that Rabbi Tarfon says: Over water one recites: “Who creates the many forms of life and their needs.”

Rava bar Rav Ḥanan said to Abaye, and some say to Rav Yosef: “What is the halakha in this dispute?”

He said to him: “Go out and observe what the people are doing and act accordingly.” (b. Berakhot 45a)

What caught my attention here was not Rabbi Tarfon’s decision but Rava bar Rav Ḥanan’s admonition. Rava bar Rav Ḥanan’s suggestion was to do what is the norm within the community. This is especially important in our world today where we tend to move from place to place, whether it be for education or employment or just for a change of scenery. Each time we move, we have to find a new place to fellowship and to belong. Sometimes, we can find a community that is similar to the one we left, but often not.

Over the years, my wife and I have been a part of a number of communities, ranging from Modern Orthodox to Conservative. All the communities we have been a part of however, including various Yeshua-believing groups, define themselves as Jewish. However, each community had different interpretations of both what and how to follow different matters of halakha and minhagim (customs). In each case, we had to make decisions on whether our personal convictions would allow us to become a part of the community, whether we could look past our differences and come together on common ground. While there have been times when we have had to relax our “practices” for the sake of communal participation, we never had to deny who we were in Messiah.

I believe that Rav Shaul may have had this idea of “observing what the people are doing and act[ing] accordingly when he wrote to the Yeshua-followers in Rome, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). We need to remember that there is usually room for variance, diversity, and even leniency in respect to halakhic observance and customs. When we have to move to a new area and begin checking out the different communities available – let’s look for points in common and capitalize on them instead of making the differences the deciding factor in whether or not to join a new fellowship. Likewise, remember the words of Micah as he spoke to Judah and Jerusalem,

He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what Adonai is seeking from you: only to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

If we practice justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, then differences in a new community or fellowship might not seem as important as the potential for new personal growth and new relationships with others who just might be in need of what you or I have to offer.

This article was written by MJTI Registrar Rabbi Michael Hillel. For more by Rabbi Hillel, read his articles on finding meaning in purpose or on the tri-holiday week in Israel. 

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