…In halachah there is only one Orthodox community and that is the community of achicha b’mitzvot.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet privately with one of the leading American roshei yeshivah in the Chareidi world. In the course of our conversation, I said to him that it would be wonderful if we could arrange a small learning program during the summer which would bring together the best talmidim from his yeshivah with those from Yeshiva University. This would give the next generation of Orthodox leaders and roshei yeshivah a chance to meet with one another, to talk to one another, and to learn Torah with and from one another. The goal of the program would be that, through this exposure, both camps will recognize that, although we have our differences, our commitment to talmud Torah, our core values and ideals, are identical. After hearing my proposal, this rosh yeshivah shook his head and said: “This is very difficult, this is very difficult.”
Klal Yisrael is composed of two communities. The first community is that of Yisrael. All Jews who are born from a Jewish mother or have converted according to halachah are called by that name. Once having been acquired, it is a national identity that cannot be lost. After completing the halachic procedure for conversion, a convert is a Yisrael for all matters. As such, if the convert reverts to his non-Jewish practices, he is called a “Yisrael mumar,” not a Gentile, and therefore if he marries a Jewess, the marriage is valid (See Talmud Yevamot 47b). Kiddushin (marriage) is the litmus test. Only two people with a status of Yisrael can participate in a legally binding kiddushin. A convert who completes the conversion process becomes part of our nation, has the status of a Yisrael, and that status can never be lost. Thus, even if he subsequently rejects his new-found religion and returns to his old ways, halachah still considers him a Yisrael, and, as such, his kiddushin would be valid.
Similarly we are told (Sanhedrin 44a) “‘Yisrael has sinned’ [Joshua 7:11] R. Abba bar Zavda said, ‘Even though he sins, he is still considered a Yisrael.’” This is the source for the popular notion that “once a Jew, always a Jew.”1 Once one is halachically considered a Yisrael, regardless of whatever sins he then commits, he can never lose that status.2
But while a Jew can never be totally excluded from the broad community of Yisrael, there is a second, more limited, community from which he can be excluded. There are many instances where the Torah formulates a halachah using the term achicha, “your brother.” For example, with regard to the prohibition against charging interest on a loan, the Torah states: “If your brother near you becomes impoverished and his means falter, you shall strengthen him, proselyte or resident, so that he can live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase; and you shall fear your God, and let your brother live with you” (Leviticus 25:35-36). Furthermore, when it comes to the obligation to return lost objects, we are told: “You shall not see the ox of your brother or his lamb cast off, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely return them to your brother” (Deuteronomy 22:1).
To whom does this term achicha refer? Is it to all Jews or only to a specific group? Many rishonim interpret this term to refer to achicha b’mitzvot, not familial brotherhood but religious brotherhood. These laws are limited only to those Jews who identify with the values and precepts of Torah; only they are considered achicha b’mitzvot.3 Thus a mumar le’hachis, for example, one who violates a command out of sheer rebellious spite, loses his status of achicha b’mitzvot for he is not one who shares in the values and precepts of Torah.4 As such, we are allowed to charge him interest on a loan, and are not obligated to return his lost property. This position highlights that there is another status of achicha b’mitzvot besides the status of Yisrael. While the mumar le’hachis certainly does not lose the status of Yisrael, and his kiddushin would still be valid, he does lose his status of achicha b’mitzvot.
There are two communities in the Jewish world, the broader national community of Yisrael and the more limited religious community of achicha b’mitzvot. While the status of Yisrael applies to all Jews and can never be lost, the status of achicha b’mitzvot applies only to the community that is committed to the ideals and precepts of the Torah.
When we think about Jewish unity, we often concentrate on those in the community of Yisrael, overlooking those in the community of achicha b’mitzvot. We focus on unity in the general Jewish populace, and fail to direct our attention to unity within the Orthodox world itself.5 But as events in the past year have highlighted, there is a great need to focus on unity in the Orthodox world as well. And it is with our community of achicha b’mitzvot that we have the most in common. Many Modern Orthodox Jews today are learned and steeped in Torah, typically having benefited from a strong yeshivah education, including a year or years of full-time Torah study in Israel. For much of Modern Orthodoxy, talmud Torah and shmirat ha’mitzvot are the top priority. As such, it is important for Modern Orthodox Jews and those to the right to be exposed to one another. It is crucial for both of our communities to recognize that fundamentally we share the same core priorities and commitments. While we are not identical and do have our differences, we must focus on and accentuate our common ground because, after all, what we have in common is far more significant than what differentiates us. Although it is true that “this is very difficult, this is very difficult,” both camps must overcome their difficulties. There are many ways we can bring about this exposure and emphasize this commonality, whether through a joint learning program, kiruv campaign or chesed project, as long as it is a forum that gives each group an opportunity to meet with the other in a context that we share — a context of Torah and mitzvot.
We all agree that halachah governs our lives. As such, we should recognize that the terminology we use today – “modern/centrist/ultra-Orthodox/Chareidi” — has no precedent in halachah. For in halachah there is only one Orthodox community and that is the community of achicha b’mitzvot. The more we emphasize this for ourselves and develop intra-Orthodox programs that focus on our common bond of Torah and mitzvot, the more likely it will be that we can develop into one united community.
Twenty years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Berman, the son-in-law of the Steipler and then a rosh yeshivah in the Ponevez Yeshivah, suggested to Julius Berman (then the president of the Orthodox Union) that if the Union wanted to do something significant for Orthodoxy, it should arrange a Yom Iyun with shiurim delivered by roshei yeshivah identified with different groups within Orthodoxy, such as Agudas Yisrael and Mizrachi, lead by Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. When asked what would be the purpose of such a program, Rav Berman responded, “Tzu lernen der ‘olam az Torah iz umparteyish; es balangt nit nor tzu di Mizrachi uder di Agudah, nit nor tzu Chassidim uder Misnagdim; es balangt tzu Klal Yisrael.” (“To teach the community that Torah is non-partisan; it belongs not only to Mizrachi or to Agudah, not only to Chassidim or to Misnagdim; it belongs to Klal Yisrael.”
In the camp of achicha b’mitzvot, Torah is what distinguishes us and Torah is what should unite us.
Rabbi Berman is Associate Rabbi of The Jewish Center in New York City and Rosh Mesivta, Yeshiva University.
- Although the Talmud is referring to Achan’s sin of stealing consecrated property, many rishonim invoke this phrase in their discussions of whether an apostate retains his status of Yisrael. For more on their use of this phrase, see Jacob Katz, “Af al pi she-chatah Yisrael hu,” Tarbitz 27 (1958):203-17; reprinted in idem., Halachah ve’Kabbalah (Jerusalem, 1986), 255-69.1
- The overwhelming majority of rishonim ruled that any type of mumar, including apostates, maintain their status of Yisrael, and therefore their kiddushin is legally binding. There was a small minority, however, who ruled that a mumar for idolatry or a mumar to violate the Shabbat publicly is considered a Gentile and his kiddushin is not valid. See Tur, Even Ha-Ezer,44, who cites both views and rejects the minority opinion.
Extreme cases of assimilation might be grounds for losing aspects of the status of Yisrael. For the development of this notion, see Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Brother Daniel and the Jewish Fraternity,” Judaism 12 (Summer 1963): 260-80.
- Tosafot, Avodah Zara 26b,s.v. ani; Rosh, Avodah Zara 2:7; Mordechai, Avodah Zara #814; Ritva, Avodah Zara 26b,s.v. zeh; Ramban, Bava Metzi’a 72a,s.v. ve’od; Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah There are some who disagree with this position; see She’elot u’Teshuvot Rashi #173,175; Rama,Yoreh De’ah 159:2.
- Chazal distinguish between different types of mumarim based on the motivation of their sin. A mumar lete’avon is one who, in order to satisfy some physical desire, habitually transgresses one of the Torah’s injunctions. A mumar le’hachis is a far graver case, for he is motivated not by gratification of desire, but by sheer rebellious spite.
- The issue of whether non-Orthodox Jews are considered achicha b’mitzvot is a very important halachic one that revolves primarily around the question of whether today’s non-Orthodox are considered tinokot shenishbu. For further discussion of this issue, see Samuel Morell, “The Halachic Status of Non-Halachic Jews,” Judaism 18 (1969):448-57; Jacob J. Schacter, ed., Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew (Northvale, 1992). The point of this presentation is not to take a stand on this question, but to point out that all parties within the Orthodox world, a community that observes and is committed to the precepts of the Torah, are certainly considered achicha b’mitzvot.