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The Sectarian Influence on Practice and Halacha

April 1, 2015

Continuing with the Hoffman-Bar Hayim debate, I would like to point out that if Maimonides could see that Jewish practice had been tainted by Sadducee practice or thought, then of course it could happen in other times. For example, it is completely reasonable to opine that medieval Jewish culture was influenced by Karaism or even Isalm and Christianity. Today, how often do we hear rabbinical figures denouncing ideas and practices they feel come from the reformers, the Conservatives, or even the “Modern Orthodox” boogeyman? Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that a medieval stringency that overrides the Talmud could have had origins with whoever wore the Sadducee mantle back then.

More so, and this is a point especially close to my heart, we see that both Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon had a very limited view of what could be considered a halachic minhag, and they easily dismissed many practices that were even wholly Jewish in content, origin, and permissibility. Why else would the Vilna Gaon dismiss a practice as harmless and as cherished as baking matza the afternoon before Passover?

On the contrary, the modern-day movement to stand up for any minhag, the humra of the last two centuries, might even have led to an undesirable kula: the Jewish masses and many Rabbis do not know how to distinguish that which the Torah and sages specifically ordained and that which are just innocuous parts of Jewish culture. It is important that if the halachic discussion is to remain in the spirit of the halacha, then it would do best to avoid placing every practice on the same level as the actual commandments.

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