I still have the images in my mind of the beautiful celebration at Temple Beth El for my rabbinical ordination.
Interestingly, what impacts me the most in those images is not only the affection, care, love, and respect I received that night from people with all different convictions within our Jewish community in Utica and its surroundings, as well as from so many non-Jewish people who hold a special place in my heart, but also the fact that we were all celebrating together, regardless of the differences in ideology, beliefs, interpretations of the law or rituals that we might have.
If we take a moment to recall, without much effort, we can remember together the Passover Seder we shared this same year 5783 in the same situation: many people, different beliefs, interpretations, and so on, all enjoying a moment of remembrance, spirituality, and reevaluation of freedom together.
I have participated in various celebrations at the Zvi Jacob synagogue, at the homes of Rabbi Didy and Rabbi Levi, as well as at Temple Emanu-El. A while back, I read about a building that was constructed and the three most populous denominations within Judaism, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform coexisted. This remarkable example of religious coexistence only mirrors the ancient Sanhedrin, where representatives of both liberality and structure of that
time lived, debated, and attempted to reach agreements.
Is it possible, perhaps? Could each person pray as they feel comfortable and share common recreational and study spaces with other forms of Judaism? Why would it be more important to express our dissatisfaction with how others pray than to ensure the survival of a Jewish community that has been shrinking over the years?
Likely, the traditions and convictions each individual holds or presents are difficult to change. However, it's not really about changing anything, but about accepting the differences and preferences of others.
In the Talmud, there is a discussion about the correct procedure for performing the Tashlikh ritual during Rosh Hashanah. Tashlikh is a ritual where breadcrumbs or stones are cast into flowing water, symbolizing the casting away of sins and the start of a spiritually clean new year. The discussion, as in other cases, was between the schools of thought of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, the two main schools of thought behind which the Rabbis aligned themselves. Shammai tended to have stricter interpretations of the Law, while Hillel tended to have more lenient ones.
Beit Shammai taught that the breadcrumbs should be cast into the water on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, that is, the same day the ritual was performed. Beit Hillel argued that the breadcrumbs could be cast throughout the Rosh Hashanah period, until the end of the second day. According to this interpretation, there was more flexibility regarding the exact timing of the ritual.
Both interpretations had their foundations and arguments based on law and tradition. However, despite the differences, both opinions were recorded in the Talmud and were given a place in the religious discussion. This example, like many others, highlights how even in practical and ritual matters such as Tashlikh, there was room for diversity of opinions and the coexistence of different interpretations within the Jewish tradition. It showcases the open and tolerant approach of the Talmud towards discrepancies and how it values respectful discourse in the process of understanding and applying religious teachings.
I assure you that these discussions were not easy and receiving the verdict of the vote, which sometimes went against one's own way of thinking, was not pleasant. However, coexistence, as I've already mentioned, was possible.
I'm not sure if Utica is the best example of this coexistence. What I do know is that I've been experiencing that sense of spiritual pleasure when sharing spaces and moments and I see in the faces and comments of the people around me during these moments the satisfaction they also feel.
In this month of Teshuva, beyond reviewing, repenting, and correcting our actions in whatever areas needed, may we find the path towards greater and better coexistence to build together a more united and respectful Jewish community, embracing both similarities and differences.
Shana Tova u'metuka u'gmar chatima tova.
May God grant us a good and sweet new year and may we conclude the High Holidays with a signature for a good life.
Rabbi Gustavo Geier