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In this week's parsha, Re'eh, we are told to not disfigure ourselves when mourning the death of a loved one. Apparently, it was the custom among the ancient Canaanite people to wound themselves as part of their mourning rituals. The Torah tells us that we, as God's chosen people, a holy people, should not do this. It would seem that our being God's children should have a physical expression: it is wrong to physically damage yourself, even for the "good cause" of mourning. We should respect our bodies, as they are the bodies of God's chosen people.
The Rabbis in the Talmud (Yevamot, 13b and 14a) add a very different reading to the commandment to not wound oneself (לא תתגודדו). They read the word תתגודדו to mean "divide up into separate groups" (אגודות אגודות), and see this as a prohibition against halachic (legal) disunity. The offer a few examples of possible halachic discord, such as reading the Megilla on different days in different places, having differing customs about working on Passover eve, and of batei din (Rabbinic courts) coming to conflicting decisions on a legal matter.
So now we have two very different meanings for the word תתגודדו: to physically cut oneself (as a mourning ritual), or to divide (a kind of cutting) the Jewish community into separate groups, with conflicting legal customs and practices. One could ask what is the connection between these two very different prohibitions. How could two such seemingly unconnected laws derive from the same words? A fairly simple answer would be that just as a wound or a cut disfigures the body of an individual Jew, who, as a member of God's chosen people, should not be maimed in that way, so, too, divisions in the body of the community of Israel - disagreements, divisive behavior, varying customs and practices - disfigure the people. The nation of Israel is here seen as one body, and that body is maimed when it is "cut", divided into disagreeing camps. Unity is beautiful, dissension and contradiction is ugly, so do not "cut" the Jewish people into ugly, competing, pieces.
This is actually a lovely and powerful idea, which asks us to see our people as one body, one unified entity, which is disfigured by disagreement and dissension. However, there is a problem here for those of us who see disagreement and diversity as positive, healthy, enriching things. Do we really want to say that differences of opinion and practice disfigure the Jewish body politic? Are we really so afraid of diversity in the community that we need to stigmatise it as a "wound"? Currently, we are engaged in a very robust discussion about what to do about Hamas and its murderous, genocidal, unprovoked (there, I got in my opinion) attacks on our people. I, along with many others, think that our unity is, in fact, enhanced when we are able to openly discuss and disagree about this issue. The same is true about the burning halachic issues of the day: the status of women in various halachic practices, the laws of divorce and conversion, and many others. We are enriched by a diversity of opinion, and will, I am sure, arrive at a better halachic place as a result of that diversity. How, then, can it be prohibited to divide up into different, competing, halachic camps?
Thankfully, the Talmud seems to agree. The Rabbis apparently also prefers pluralism, and are uncomfortable with the notion that two courts coming to two different halachic decisions constitutes an unacceptable wound in the body of the people of Israel. They indicate this by limiting the negative understanding of disagreeing courts to the specific situation of two courts in the same town; if the two courts are in two different jurisdictions, there is no problem, and they may come to conflicting halachic decisions. The Rabbis then go on to question even this limited understanding of the prohibition against disagreeing courts: do we not have historical examples of two different schools of legal thought in the same geographical area, such as the disagreements between the scholars of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai? Based on this precedent, the Rabbis further limit the prohibition against disagreeing on a legal issue to one court: within one court, there should not be two schools of thought. Every court must come to a decision which binds all its members. Once this is understood as the outer limit of the prohibition against diversity of legal opinion, the Rabbis go on to bring examples of different legal areas in which there actually were contradicting halachic traditions and practices, to indicate that this is acceptable (in fact, desirable).
The Talmudic take on the prohibition of this understanding of לא תתגודדו - to not break up into disparate, competing, legal traditions - ends up as a minimalist demand for local unity and coherence: one court, one community, one legal tradition. However, from town to town, court to court, and community to community, the Rabbis leave us the option to go where our intellects take us, to learn and live the Torah as our Rabbis and scholars determine it should be learned and lived, as the people of that community live it, and not be bound to one, universal, monolithic - and stifling - understanding of the Torah. As long as each individual community is coherent and unified in its Jewish practice, free of the wound of disagreement and disunity, we are encouraged to create a Jewish people which is enriched, not wounded, by a variety of communities, made strong and vibrant by the blessing of intellectual freedom, diversity, and the right to have a different opinion.
Rabbi Shimon Felix