Yom YerushalayimAugust 20, 2020
Project-Based Learning: Start HereMarch 1, 2021
by Rabbi David Mahler
Presently, we live in a nation with a deep divide over a litany of issues. The gaping hole between those on both sides often precludes them from speaking, debating, or arguing with respect and civility. Our students are hearing extremely passionate opinions on the world today. They are listening to these messages and ideas at home, from friends, and through technology. Rarely are any of these voices nuanced.
Perhaps the most enthralling aspect of Talmud Torah is the fact that Chazal’s ancient wisdom is so relevant to our contemporary times. I often find myself moved by how a Gemara or midrash speaks to the Jewish people in 2021 with the same applicability as it must have in the 5th or 12th centuries.
In society today, people are demonized for their beliefs socially, religiously, and politically. I believe, especially for our students, this is a major problem. Our tradition teaches that this reality is anathema to the Hashkafas HaTorah. Chazal clearly sees validity in dissenting and even conflicting opinions. We can be that much needed nuanced voice.
Eilu V’Eilu Divrei Elokim Chaim
The gemara relates the following story:
For three years there was a dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, the former asserting, “Halacha is in accordance with our views,” and the latter contending, “Halacha is in accordance with our views.” Eventually, a bat kol (heavenly voice) rang out and announced: “these and those are both the words of the living G-d – both views represent a valid understanding of Torah law – but in practice, the halacha follows Beis Hillel.”(Eruvin 13b)
As any student of Torah, even a novice, knows, in the realm of parshanut, machshava, and even halacha, diversity of opinion and interpretation is pervasive. But there is a glaring difficulty with these gemaras. How can both contradictory rulings be “the words of the living G-d”? Isn’t one ruling correct and the other incorrect? We will consider several approaches to this question.
The First Approach
The first view is quoted by the Ritva in the name of the French Rabbis (Ba’alei Tosfos). According to their understanding, when Hashem taught Moshe the Torah on Har Sinai, He endowed him with a multi-faceted understanding containing all possible sides of every halacha – more accurately, 49 arguments to each side of a machlokes. Hashem taught Moshe contradictory and conflicting opinions to each halacha. Moshe was presented with every possibility. As a follow-up to hearing every conceivable argument at Sinai, the Ritva notes, Moshe Rabbeinu became concerned. He asked Hashem, “How will halacha be decided? How will the halachic process function? Which of these myriad possibilities should be accepted if all are equally valid?” Hashem responds that the scholars of each generation will reach a consensus, and the majority opinion will be binding. The opinions recorded by Chazal are all legitimate, it’s just that society cannot run if we do not have one organized cannon of law for all to live by. Therefore, we must rule according to one of the opinions, but the fact that one view is acceptive for normative practice does not invalidate the others’ legitimacy.
According to this initial approach, Judaism believes in multiple truths. The opinions of R’ Yochanan and Reish Lakish, Rava and Abaye, the Rambam and the Ra’avad, and the Shach and Taz are all divrei Elokim Chaim because originally, they were conceived by Hashem.
The Second Approach
Others reject the idea espoused by the French Rabbis, arguing that surely one view must be more true than another. Objectively, something is either kosher or treif, kasher or pasul, pure or impure. What then is meant by eilu v’eilu?
In the introduction to the Nesivos HaMishpat, its author asserts that there is only one true and correct opinion. However, there is nevertheless real value in considering opposing positions, even if they are false, as it contributes to the value of Talmud Torah by identifying inconsistencies, misconceptions, refining correct opinions, and sensitizing one to halachic intuition.
Beautifully, and perhaps shockingly, he explains his understanding of eilu v’eilu by utilizing a comparison to a deep-sea diver. The diver swims deep in the sea and sees a stone he believes to be a pearl, a precious gem, yet it turns out to be a simple rock. He goes down again and believes he has found a jewel, and again it’s a rock. This scene plays itself out over and over until he is finally successful. At that point, he realizes that the previous attempts served to refine his sense of touch. Each unsuccessful endeavor was crucial to his ultimate success. So too notes the Nesivos, this is the role of Beis Shammai. If not for Beis Shammai, how do we know Beis Hillel would have ever arrived at their conclusion? As the gemara states (Eruvin 13b), Beis Hillel studied the opinions of Beis Shammai before rendering their own. The wrong, incorrect, faulty view is indispensable when searching for the truth.
As opposed to the Ritva’s more maximalist view, this one is a more minimalist understanding of eilu v’eilu. Whereas the first clearly promoted the approach of multiple truths, this last one rejects it.
(At this point, I believe it is important to mention the well-known saying that there are שבעים פנים לתורה – 70 faces to Torah. Many have noted that 70 is a concrete number suggesting that there are only 70 and no more. Some views are out of bounds. Some views may not be incorporated into our shuls, schools, and homes.)
There are two additional approaches that take more of a middle road. They are similar yet contain nuanced differences.
In the Netziv’s Kidmas HaEmek, he writes that the idea proposed by the tanna or amora is in theory correct. It is a Torah idea, yet it does not fit perfectly for the specific case being discussed. Even though the bottom-line halacha is not in line with the opinion, the opinion is part of Chochmas HaTorah. Rav Moshe Feinsteinseems to agree with the Netziv. In his words, the rejected opinions in Chazal are דברי תורה ממש. In his opinion, a person who wakes up early to learn and knows they will exclusively be studying the opinions of Beis Shammai or other rejected opinions, must still recite ברכת התורה. Additionally, elsewhere he suggests that the underlying principle of eilu v’eilu demands that we treat a rejected opinion in halacha with a full measure of reverence even if we were familiar with and still not convinced by its argument.
According to both the Netziv and Rav Moshe, the “other” שיטות are a bona-fide חפצה of Torah.
An earlier source is similar, yet not identical. Rashi comments that although we do not pasken like opinion A or opinion B in a specific scenario or at a specific time, it does not mean that in another time, we will not pasken like it. Rashi believes that both opinions are Torah-true. As minor changes in a given situation call for different lines of reasoning, at times, one logical argument is appropriate, while at other times, a different logical argument is appropriate.
Differing but Legitimate
What emerges from a rough overview of the main approaches to our sages’ dictum אלו ואלו דברי אלוקים חיים is that according to most, different opinions, views, attitudes, and conclusions are genuine and legitimate. Yet we live in a society that is assaulting not only free speech and a freedom of ideas and attitudes, but any view that is not wholly in sync with our own. People often mention the need and desire for safe spaces, but a safe space is not one which mutes dissenting opinions. On the contrary, a safe space should be one where a respectful and listening ear is lent. Where one leans in to hear another. It is one where we understand that the many colors create a more gorgeous canvas. Why is it that we stigmatize those who disagree with us as if they are boorish, immoral, and despicable? As George Orwell once wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The pursuit of truth and justice require the freedom to disagree.
One of today’s greatest challenges is today’s polarized society. By not listening to rational thoughts and fears of others, by not tempering our judgements of others with sensitivity, we risk sacrificing critical ideas and insights that can deepen our comprehension and internalization of the truth. Thankfully, our mesorah vehemently disagrees with our current climate and offers us various suggestions on how to really listen and learn from each other regardless of our differences.
The most inspiring aspect of all is found in another gemara (Yevamos 14b). As noted earlier, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argued for three years until the bat kol announced the halacha will side with Beis Hillel. There are hundreds of disagreements between the two schools, yet the Talmud tells us that despite their differences, the schools of Hillel and Shammai created one community. The students of each, and their children, “intermarried” freely with the sons and daughters of the other side. They lived with mutual respect and reverence.
As wonderful as this sounds, the gemara stresses how truly remarkable it really was. The gemara highlights the fact that the two schools did not simply argue regarding the laws of sukkah, Shabbos and berachos. Their dissension infiltrated into the world of purity and divorce, marriage, and conversion. The rulings of these topics impact one’s personal and religious status. They “intermarried” despite disagreeing about the issue of who is a Jew, and who is still an agunah?
The Aruch HaShulchanaddresses the question as to why the Torah is referred to as a “song” (Devarim 13:19). The Torah,he argues, is described as such because its beauty derives from the interconnectedness and woven diversity of the varied voices and instruments. The debates of the tannaim and amoraim are the voices and instruments of our holy Torah serving to animate and harmonize its glorious and majestic beauty.
Students should be taught these ideas. We have an advantage. They are taught to see different perspectives in all their limudei kodesh classes. However, it is our responsibility to clearly articulate this value during instruction. That is one of the small roles we as educators play in helping our nation revert to an equilibrium. יהי רצון that the diverse opinions, attitudes and outlooks in our community and society at large serve to enrich and enhance, rather than detract and diminish. May we all be able to enjoy the harmonious symphony of community באהבה ובאחווה.
 The Ritva uses the phrase Rabbanei Tzorfat.
 It must be noted that halacha can only be decided by bona-fide, well-respected and formidable poskim. Not everyone is entitled to their opinion in deciding halacha.
 The introduction of the Netziv to his העמק שאלה to the שאילתות דרב האי גאון.
 שו״ת אגרות משה או״ח חלק ד׳ סימן כה׳
 הקדמה לאגרות משה
 כתובות נז: ד״ה והא קמ״ל
 The previous two paragraphs are adapted from an essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
 הקדמה לחושן משפט
Rabbi David Mahler is Principal at Gindi Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles. He has held administrative positions at both Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Westchester Day School. Rabbi Mahler is also on the Rabbinic staff at the Young Israel of Century City. Email Rabbi Mahler at email@example.com.