The Time Our Halacha Teacher Dissed Persian Practice

Let’s talk about diversity.

You probably think, “What diversity?” Bais Yaakov is full of white, middle class American Jewish girls. Yes, there are varying incomes, and varying shades of hair, but on the whole, a more homogenous school cohort you surely couldn’t find.

So, when you find a little diversity, it’s something worth respecting.

I’m remembering Halacha class, 11th grade. Hilchos Tefillah.

“You must say Nishmas standing up,” the teacher said (I don’t think he actually had smicha, so I won’t say “rabbi”).

The Ashkenazim jotted this down in their notes.

The Sephardim stirred uncomfortable.

For some reason, the teacher felt very passionate about standing for Nishmas. He went on a bit about why Nishmas deserved this special honor, and what a terrible Jew you are if you dare to sit. I remember thinking that it was all a bit excessive. I mean, fine, we’ll stand! Big deal. Can we move on to Borchu?

Then one of the Persian students raised her hand. “We sit for Nishmas,” she pointed out.

The teacher stopped and gaped. “Well, yes,” he admitted. “Some Sephardim do sit for Nishmas. But you really shouldn’t. You should really stand for Nishmas.”

“Standing is the Ashkenazi minhag,” the girl pursued. “And sitting is the Persian minhag. So Persians should sit.”

“Well, yes…” the teacher said. “That’s what Sephardim do. So you can follow the minhag of your shul. But it’s really better not to.”

“Why is it better not to follow the minhagim of your community?” the student asked, with a cool politeness. You could see the resentment of the overlooked minority in her dark glare. She had to listen to Nusach Ashkenaz at davening, learn Ashkenazi halacha, read Chumash with an Ashkenazi accent, but she was not going to stand for Nishmas like an Ashkenazi and this teacher was going to admit that she was right.

“…you’re right, you’re right, if your minhag is to sit, you should sit,” the teacher backed off hastily. “Now, Borchu. Everyone stands for Borchu…”

It always seemed to me that, aside from sensitivity to our fellow Jews, this lack of acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Sephardi customs missed a grand opportunity: to address relativity in halacha, how different halachic streams evolve, and the fuzzy grey areas between “mitzvah,” “halacha,” and “minhag.”

Sephardi practice can be very different than Ashkenazi, sometimes extremely so. And yet, their mesorah is as good (some argue, better) than ours. How is that?

This question alone would be a fascinating subject for a class to spend a few months examining.

But first we need to be able to admit that it’s perfectly fine to sit during Nishmas – if you’re Persian.

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The Time Our Halacha Teacher Dissed Persian Practice

3 thoughts on “The Time Our Halacha Teacher Dissed Persian Practice

  1. “to address relativity in halacha, how different halachic streams evolve, and the fuzzy grey areas between “mitzvah,” “halacha,” and “minhag.””

    This is of the utmost importance, yet my impression is that most schools skip this.

    Liked by 1 person

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