Question: I have become confused by what I see as contradictions in Jewish law. I’ve read some comments in the Talmud about women wearing a tallit (I do, personally as does my mother, though sometimes I wonder if I should). Some allow it, some do not. Why isn’t this matter more clear?
Also, Sephardic customs and Ashkenazic customs regarding what can be eaten for Passover. Did G-d give them separate oral traditions? The Sephardim and Ashkenazim also disagree about other things (the Sephardic headscarf vs. the Ashkenazic wig for example.) I could think of other things, but this question is already to long.
Answer: Please feel free to ask as many of this type of question as you like. There’s no better way to learn!
Let me see if I can help with these.
I must confess that I an unaware of any Talmudic source that addresses the specific acceptability of a woman wearing a tallit. The general custom among Orthodox women not to wear them is built on the principle that the Torah does not require women to perform this particular mitzva. While the option to wear a tallit is always available, Orthodox women don’t usually seem eager to adopt it. I suppose there could be a stimulating debate over whether it is useful and elevating for a woman to wear a tallit. That, I imagine, would involve carefully analyzing the various motivations and goals a person might have and asking the critical question: “What’s in it for God?”
Regarding local customs: I believe these qualify as “features” rather than “problems” in Judaism. We are taught that God was fully aware of the complexity and variety of human personalities and created for us a Torah that permits full expression of a wide range of styles of Divine service. There were, as you know, twelve tribes making up the Jewish people and each of them clearly had its own strengths and styles. As a result, each was instructed by Yakov (Genesis 49), and them Moshe (Deut. 33), in the particular path through which they’d find the greatest success.
Similarly, while the legal conclusions of the Talmud are equally binding on all Jews, there is great respect for the role of those local practices that don’t conflict with the Talmud. For complex (and somewhat obscure) reasons, ashkenazim prohibited the consumption of kitniyot on Passover while sefardim did not. As you pointed out, they also differ on matters like head coverings. Judaism has plenty of room for such diversity and both positions are absolutely acceptable.
But of course, any familiarity with Jewish law will reveal many fundamental debates over right and wrong. Why, if our Torah was given to us by God, should that be so?
Any complex body of law that is to be interpreted and observed by large populations over many centuries is bound to produce debate. Intelligent and independent people aren’t likely to always see things eye-to-eye. In fact, This is something for which the Torah itself prepared by creating mechanisms for resolving such debates (either through the rulings of a high court – the Sanhedrin – or through the authority of regional batei din in post-Sanhedrin eras).
And when the system is used in good faith and fidelity to the Torah, it works quite smoothly.
I hope these thoughts will be useful for you.
With my regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton