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The State of Israel and the Jews of North America: From Problems to Solutions

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 12, Number 4

On April 30, 2018, The Schechter Institutes and the Jewish Theological Seminary co-sponsored a very successful academic conference at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on: “The State of Israel and the Jews of North America: How Can We Bridge the Gaps?” Speakers included JTS Chancellor Prof. Arnold Eisen, Jewish Agency Chair and 2018 Israel Prize winner Natan Sharansky, MK Rachel Azaria, and many esteemed faculty from Schechter and JTS. The following is a translation of my Hebrew lecture delivered at the conference.

An abbreviated version of this article appeared in The Times of Israel.

Click here to view the video of the conference 

In this article I will discuss four major topics:

  1. Tension between Israel and the Diaspora in the Talmudic Period;
  2. Unity vs. Uniformity in the Jewish Tradition;
  3. The halakhic disagreement over conversion as a case study;
  4. The solution of Kehillot/communities.

I) Tension between Israel and the Diaspora in the Talmudic Period

First of all, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Koheleth 1:9), or, to use the title of Prof. Lieberman’s article on this topic: “So it was, and so it will be”. Unfortunately, Israel-Diaspora tension is not a new phenomenon. As many scholars have shown, Talmudic literature contains quite a few descriptions of the tensions between the Sages of Eretz Yisrael and Babylon.(1)

Resh Lakish (ca. 250 CE) said to Rabbah bar bar Hana, who had just made Aliyah from Babylon: “God! I hate you” Babylonians because you should have made aliyah en masse “as a wall” in the days of Ezra, instead of making Aliyah as individuals now (Yoma 9b).

Similarly, when Resh Lakish saw a group of Babylonian Jews gathering on the street in Eretz Yisrael, he would say to them: “Scatter yourselves! In your Aliyah, you did not form a wall, and here you came to form a wall!” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 8:9)

When Rabbi Yassa made Aliyah from Babylon, he wanted to bathe in the bathhouse of Tiberias, but a certain “clown” hit him (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:8, ed. Venice, fol. 5c), while Hillel the Elder was called “foolish Babylonian” by a group of Israeli Jews who met him on the road (Avot Derabbi Natan, ed. Schechter, Version A, Chapter 12, p. 55).

On the other hand, some of the Jews of Babylon sound like some Diaspora Jews today. They expressed their local patriotism by trying to give Babylon the same status as Eretz Yisrael. Some said that their Exilarch has a better pedigree than the Nasi or Patriarch in Eretz Yisrael, since the Exilarch is a patrilineal descendant of the House of David, while the Nasi is only a matrilineal one (Yerushalmi Kilayim 9:4, fol. 32b and parallels; Gafni, note 14). Others said that the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) dwells in the synagogues of Hutzal and Shaf V’yativ (Megillah 29a) and that the synagogues of Babylon were built from the rubble of the First Temple (Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon, ed. Lewin, pp. 72-73). Rabbinic literature contains quite a few lists of the borders of the Land of Israel in order to fulfill certain mitzvot (Tosefta Shevi’it 4:11, ed. Lieberman, p. 181 and parallels). Similarly, the rabbis of Babylon delineated exact borders from which one could find a wife of “pure” lineage (Kiddushin 69b and 71b; Ketubot 111a; Gafni, note 19).

Rav Yehudah said that he who makes Aliyah from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment (sic!) (Ketubot 110b-111a) and that he who lives in Babylon, it is as if he lives in Israel (ibid., 111a), while others said that he who is buried in Babylon is as if he was buried in Israel (Avot Derabi Natan, ed. Schechter, Version A, Chapter 26, p. 82). Or, as Rav Huna put it: “We have made ourselves in Babylon the equivalent of Eretz Yisrael regarding divorce from the day that Rav came to Babylonia” (Gittin 6a = Bava Kamma 80a; Gafni. pp. 107-108).

II) Unity vs. Uniformity in the Jewish Tradition (2)

Second, even though Judaism has always been in favor of Unity, it has never been in favor of Uniformity. On the one hand, our classic sources stress the importance of unity. The prophet Ezekiel prophesized that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel will be reunited (37:15-22), like two sticks being “joined together in your hand…”

And so we have learned in Berakhot 6a: “What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe?… ‘And who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the earth’ (I Chronicles 17:21)…”

This is also stressed in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Nitzavim, pp. 48-49): “if one takes a bundle of reeds, will he be able to break them at one stroke? But if he takes them one by one, even an infant can break them. So too you find that Israel will not be redeemed until they become one bundle…”

One could easily conclude from these sources that the best way to achieve unity is by uniformity. If we all think the same and act the same, we will be united. Nothing could be further from the approach of our classical sources. Our Sages taught that pluralism is essential when  studying Torah, among people, and within Jewish law.

Pluralism in the Torah – how so? Our Sages said that “There are seventy faces to the Torah” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15-16). ” ‘And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jeremiah 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one Biblical verse convey many explanations” (Sanhedrin 34a).

Pluralism among human beings – how so? We have learned in the tractate of Berakhot 58a: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, he says: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ – for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other”.

In Midrash Tanhuma (Pinhas, paragraph 10) Moses asks at the time of his death that God should appoint a leader for the Jewish people. And who is the ideal leader? “Appoint over them a person who tolerates every single person according to his opinion”.

Pluralism in Jewish law – how so? We have learned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:2, fol. 22a) that Moses wanted God to give him a clear answer to every question. God replied that the Sages in every generation must debate every issue and decide by majority vote what to do. Indeed, that is exactly what the Sages did. After debating an issue and arriving at a majority opinion, they would force the minority to follow their opinion (see Mishnah Eduyot 5:6; Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9; Bava Metzia 59a-b; Berakhot 63a-b; Eruvin 13b).

However, after the abolishment of the Sanhedrin (ca. 425 CE), there was no longer one group of rabbis who could decide by majority vote. As a result, Jewish law became much more pluralistic. As I have written elsewhere (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 117-118):

The fact that a Rabbi or a group of Rabbis rules in a certain way does not mean that all Jews will do or must do what they say. Throughout Jewish history, contradictory halakhic rulings coexisted side by side. In the Talmud, we find expressions such as “In Sura they followed Mareimar, but Rav Shisha the son of Rav Idi followed Abaye”. In the Geonic period, we find a series of halakhic disagreements between the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita. According to Sefer Hahilukim Bein Anshei Mizrah V’anshei Ma’arav, there were at least 55 halakhic differences between the Jews of Babylonia and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the Geonic period. In medieval times, there were hundreds of differences between Ashkenazim and Sefaradim… In modern times, there were many halakhic disagreements between Hassidim and mitnagdim, between the various hassidic dynasties and between various Sefardic ethnic groups. A Sefardic Jew who disobeyed an Ashkenazic Rabbi was not a “sinner”, he was simply relying on a different custom or Rabbi.

Thus, the State of Israel has the difficult challenge of striving for Unity, without coercing Uniformity.

III) The halakhic disagreement over conversion as a case study(3)

Now, let us examine the subject of conversion as a prime example of the halakhic tension between Israel and the Jews of North America. Aside from various political issues, this is primarily a halakhic disagreement. Many Modern Orthodox rabbis, all Conservative rabbis, and many Reform rabbis follow the normative and lenient halakhic position found in Yevamot 47a-b. When a person comes to convert, you try to dissuade him.

If he replies “I know and yet am unworthy” he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments… He is also told of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments… And as he is informed of the punishment for the transgression of the commandments, so he is informed of the reward granted for their fulfillment… Kibel [if he accepted/consented], he is circumcised forthwith… As soon as he is healed, arrangements are made for his immediate immersion [in a mikveh], when two learned men must stand by his side and instruct him in some of the minor commandments and in some of the major ones. When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects…

This Baraita, from the second century or earlier, was quoted or paraphrased by Maimonides (Issurey Biah 14:1-6), the Tur (Yoreh Deah 268) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 268:2).

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which is now a Haredi or ultra-Orthodox institution, follows another, much stricter Talmudic source (Bekhorot 30b):

Our Sages taught: …if an idol worshipper came to accept (lekabel) the Torah except for one thing, we do not accept him. R. Yossi b”r Yehudah says: even if the exception be one of the minutiae of the Scribes (i.e. the Sages).

However, all of the major medieval codes of Jewish law — such as Maimonides, the Tur and the Shulhan Arukh — ignored this passage! It was revived beginning in the late 19th century by Haredi rabbis who wanted to reject most converts.

If Haredi rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate want to follow this very strict and new approach to conversion for their own constituents, that is their right. That is part of the halakhic pluralism described above. But during the past twenty years the Chief Rabbinate has imposed the uniformity of its very strict approach on all potential converts in Israel and on all converts who make Aliyah. Furthermore, it no longer recognizes most Orthodox conversions in North America! Since 2008, it only recognizes 15 Orthodox Batei Din composed of 40 specific rabbis. This stringency is without precedent in all of Jewish history.

IV) The solution of kehillot/communities (4)

This current situation of coerced uniformity leads me to my proposed solution: Let us move from a centralized Chief Rabbinate which has no precedent in all of Jewish history (it was set up by the British Mandate in 1921) to a system of parallel Jewish kehillot/communities which existed for the past 2,000 years both in the Land of Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

During the Talmudic period in the Land of Israel, there was an Alexandrian synagogue in Jerusalem (Tosefta Megillah 2:17, ed. Lieberman, p. 352). There were also Babylonian synagogues in Tiberias (Yerushalmi Yoma 7:1, fol. 44b and parallels) and Tzippori.(5) They no doubt followed Babylonian practices such as completing the Torah reading in one year vs. the practice of Eretz Yisrael in which they completed the Torah reading in three years (see Megillah 29b). Rabbi Zeira (ca. 300) was a famous Talmudic “Zionist” who made Aliyah (see Ketubot 110b, 112a and elsewhere). Even so, Prof. Avraham Goldberg has shown that he, as well as Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, continued to follow Babylonian customs after making Aliyah.(6)

In the Talmudic period, there were conflicting local laws and customs in Judaea and the Galilee.(7) There were also different customs of the Deroma’ei, Tziporra’ei and Tiverya’ei – the southerners, the Tzipporans and the Tiberians.(8) There were also local Jewish communities in Eretz Yisrael which followed their own local rabbi, even when he disagreed with everyone else: “b’atrei derabi ploni”, in the place of rabbi so-and-so they did as follows (Shabbat 130a; Yevamot 14a; Hullin 116a).

This pluralism of parallel Jewish communities in the same location continued throughout the Middle Ages. In the Geonic period (ca. 600-1000), there were Babylonian synagogues alongside Israeli ones in Ramle, Tiberias and Mivtzar Dan (the Banias) (Margaliot, p. 11). The famous Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela reports that in Cairo ca. 1170 there was an Israeli synagogue where they completed the Torah reading in three years and a Babylonian synagogue where they completed the Torah reading every year, yet they still got together to celebrate Simhat Torah every year (The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, ed. Adler, London, 1907, pp. 62-63).

So too, we learn from the responsa of the Rashbatz, Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemah Duran (1361-1444), that the Sefardic Jews who fled Spain and Majorca due to the riots of 1391 followed their own liturgy in North Africa (Zimmels, p. 289, note 5).

In theory, this practice of parallel Jewish communities in one location was forbidden by a number of famous halakhic authorities who said that the newcomers must follow the local custom. This was the opinion of  Rabbi Yosef Karo (d. Safed 1575; Responsa Avkat Rokhel, No. 212; Zimmels, pp. 289 and 304); Rabbi Yehezkel Katznellenbogen (d. Altona 1749; Kenesset Yehezkel, Orah Hayyim, No. 17; Zimmels, pp. 289-290); and Rabbi Avraham Danzig (d. Vilna 1820; Zimmels, p. 290). They based themselves on the Talmudic interpretation of lo titgodedu (Deut.14:1), do not form religious factions (Yevamot 14a).

Yet, as Rabbi Dr. H.J. Zimmels emphasized:

In practice, however, we know that these rulings were never applied. New communities and synagogues were founded… in all ages, in Talmudic and Geonic times in Palestine, Syria and Egypt; at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries in North Africa; in the sixteenth century in the Turkish Empire; and in the following centuries in various European countries and other parts of the world (Zimmels, p. 290).

In other words, in practice, most if not all communities followed the opinion of Rava in Yevamot 14a that the prohibition of lo titgodedu does not apply to two Batei Din (religious courts) in one city (Zimmels, p. 288, note 2 and p. 292).

This tradition of parallel Jewish communities continued in Padua, Venice, Verona, London (Zimmels, pp. 291-299), Hamburg and elsewhere. They lived side-by-side and followed their own traditions regarding major areas in Jewish law, such as kosher slaughter, bigamy, levirate marriage, and the writing of Gittin (Jewish writs of divorce) (Zimmels, pp. 315-340).

Many years ago I thought that we could reach unity in Israel – a halakhic consensus regarding conversion and other major halakhic issues. It is clear today that this is not possible; there are too many halakhic approaches and the Chief Rabbinate simply wants to impose uniformity. But halakhic pluralism is not the exception in Jewish history; it is the norm. Therefore, I believe we should return to the pluralistic Kehillah model which served us well in Talmudic times in Israel; and throughout the Diaspora until today. Indeed, there are already five conversion courts in Israel: Haredi, the Chief Rabbinate, Modern Orthodox (Giyyur Kahalakhah), Conservative, and Reform, as explained in a recent booklet by Dr. David Breakstone.(9) The State of Israel should simply recognize reality and recognize the conversions of these different Batei Din which represent different Jewish communities.


  1. Mikhael Davidowitch, Hasoker 5 (1937-1938), pp. 101-109 (Hebrew); Saul Lieberman, Cathedra 17 (5741), pp. 3-10 = idem, Mehkarim B’torat Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 331-338 (Hebrew); Joshua Schwartz, Journal for the Study of Judaism XI/1 (1980), pp. 78-94; idem, Journal of the American Oriental Society 101/3 (1981), pp. 317-322; idem, Cathedra 21 (5742), pp. 23-30 (Hebrew); Isaiah Gafni, Te’udah 12 (1996), pp. 97-109; Aharon Oppenheimer, Al Naharot Bavel, Jerusalem, 2017, Chapters 5-6 (Hebrew).
  2. This section is based on what I wrote in Responsa in a Moment, Vol. IV, Jerusalem, 2017, No. 17; and in an abbreviated form in The Times of Israel, July 5, 2015.
  3. This section is based on what I wrote in Responsa in a Moment, Vol. II, Jerusalem, 2011, No. 24.
  4. This section is based on Mordechai Margaliot, Hahilukim Shebein Anshe Mizrah Uvenei Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1938, pp. 11-17; H.J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, second edition, London, 1969, pp. 288-340.
  5. Bereishit Rabbah 33:3, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 305; Yerushalmi Berakhot Chapter 5, fol. 9a; Bereishit Rabbah 52:4, p. 543; Yerushalmi Shabbat 6:2, fol. 8a.
  6. Avraham Goldberg, Tarbitz 36 (5727), pp. 319-341 = idemTzura Va’arikha B’sifrut Hazal, Jerusalem, 2011, pp. 245-267. Margaliot, p. 17, made the same point briefly with one example.
  7. Mishnah Pesahim 4:5 and Ketubot 4:12; Tosefta Ketubot 1:4, ed. Lieberman, pp. 57-58; Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 4:6, fol. 59c; Semahot 10:15, ed. Higger, p. 186 and ed. Zlotnick, p. 31.
  8. Yerushalmi Ta’aniyot 4:9, fol. 69b bottom. Cf. Darom only in Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:7, fol. 5b = Moed Kattan 3:5, fol. 82d.
  9. David Breakstone, A Stranger No More: The Conversion Conundrum in Israel Today, October 2017; revised edition April 2018, p. 4, Table 1.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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