[Reprinted from Summer 2005, with a few minor updates]
Have you ever studied tractate Chagigah? This week, in between the meetings and the mountain climbing, I learned that Temple Days were, in some unpleasent ways, very much like our own.
You see, according to the Talmud, there were in Temple Days two classes of people: (1) Perushim who were meticulous about purity, and accepted certain stringancies to protect the purity of their food and their bodies; and (2) Amei Ha'aretz who were not meticulous and could not be trusted to even keep the basic requirements.
Throughtout the year, those priests who were perushim refused to take trumah (food offerings) from Amei Ha'aretz, and there were strict rules limiting the participation of the amei ha'aretz in Temple services. This was done to protect the priest and the Temple from being polluted through contact with food that may have been handled by people who were, themselves, in a state of impurity.
There are echos of this in our own day.
Some shuls withhold the amud from people who haven't embraced stringencies like the hat or gartel. Other shuls ban certain hechsharim. And some schools turn away prospective students from families that keep the basic law but not the more advanced stringencies. In a sense, those who wear hats and refuse to watch TV and movies are modern perushim; those who are, perhaps, a little sloppy with the basic law and have no use for chumrahs are our amei ha'aretz. In a sence we're pre-occupied with this idea of spiritual corruption. Rabbi Salamon says publicly the children of bloggers and other critics must be excluded from our schools, and I, myself, am aware of a shul that rejected a supremely qualified candidate for Youth Director simply on the grounds that he had grown up in a more modern shul.
This neat analogy between our time and Temple time shatters when you recall that the rules were different on holidays. On holidays the amei haaretz and their food were accepted by the persuhim with love. All stringancies were suspended. Why? Because the sages feared that the amei haaretz would go off and start their own sect if they weren't made to feel welcome in Jerusalem on holidays.
And weren't they wise? Don't we see this happening in our own day? All of our subsects are, to an extent, the product of stringencies.
Wouldn't Judaism -universal Judaism- be so much stronger if we followed the approach of the Sages and stopped using stringencies as an excuse for excluding and belittling other Jews? Wouldn't we be a stronger religion if we retired the idea that one believing Jew could in any way be polluted by another believing Jew?