The Legitimacy of Difference

By Levi Brackman, 10-04-2015.

Many refer to Sukkot as the festival of Jewish unity. The Midrash (Agadah Leviticus 23) tells us that the "Four Species" (the citron, palm branch, myrtle and willow) that Jews shake on Sukkot represent four disparate types of Jews. Holding the "Four Species" together symbolizes the unity of all Jews. In fact, if one of the "Four Species" is missing the Mitzvah cannot be carried out. Similarly, each Jew is a vital part of the Jewish nation; if even one Jew is missing the nation is incomplete.

The Sukkah also represents Jewish unity. According to the rabbis, the verse that states, "All citizens of Israel shall dwell in Sukkot" (Leviticus 23:42) implies that all of Israel - the pious and the wicked - are able to sit in the same Sukkah without compromising the Mitzvah (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah, 27b).The festival of Simchat Torah continues with the same theme. On Simchat Torah we celebrate the reading of the last Torah portion and the beginning of the first Torah portion. Traditionally this is celebrated by dancing with the Torah scroll rather than by studying it.

We celebrate this way because the Torah is an inheritance to the Jewish people. Thus, ownership of the Torah is not dependent on how much of it one understands. It belongs to each Jew whether s/he has studied it or not. By dancing with a closed scroll we are demonstrating this equality in our relationship with the Torah - Jewish unity. However, this idea goes much further. The Torah is the most famous book ever written. However, starting from the earliest times in our history, Jews have disagreed as to how the Torah should be understood. In about 100 CE twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva's disciples died in an epidemic.

According to some, they died as a punishment for not respecting each other’s interpretations of the Torah. In the Middle Ages there was the great "Maimonidean controversy" (1180-1240), which culminated in the burning of Maimonides' "Guide to the Perplexed" and his "Book of Knowledge." Then in the mid-1700s there was the ‘Dispute about Amulets’ between two of the most eminent Torah scholars of the time, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz and Rabbi Jacob Emden - a feud that split the Jewish world. Later in the 1700s the bitter dispute between Hasidim and Mitnagdim erupted.

Till this day we are blighted by controversy concerning correct interpretation. Our rabbis taught, "If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one should make the blessing, ’Blessed is He who discerns secrets’, for the mind of each is different from that of the other, just as the face of each is different from that of the other" (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot, 58b). 

The rabbis are telling us: God knows our differences and we should celebrate them rather than destroy ourselves with them. Simchat Torah reminds us that God gave the Torah to each and every one of us, knowing that we all have differing opinions and would therefore disagree as to how it should be understood. Simchat Torah tells us that each school of thought within Judaism has equal legitimacy.

Simchat Torah unites us with what we all have in common - a love and respect for the Torah. Simchat Torah prohibits anyone from using our precious Torah as a tool to divide the Jewish people. Simchat Torah teaches us to respect others’ opinions although they may be different from ourown. Thus, on Simchat Torah we all dance together with a closed scroll knowing that that which at times divides us should in essence unite us.