[Avodah] VBM-Hashkafa- 23: Halakhic Pluralism (Part 1)

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Wed Mar 13 11:10:55 PDT 2019

We've had too many people raise this topic over the years not to share
this section of R' Bednarsh's series on-list.

So I give you, Avodah's 24th or 25th "eilu va'eilu" discussion!


Topics in Hashkafa 
Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh.
Yeshivat Har Etzion

		     Shiur #23: Halakhic Pluralism (Part 1)

The principle of halakhic pluralism appears in the context of the
disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The gemara states:

    R. Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years, Beit Shammai and
    Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance
    with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with
    our opinion. A Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and
    these are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in
    accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel. (Eiruvin 13b)

We find this phrase in the context of Aggada as well:

    It is written [with regard to the episode of the concubine in Giva]:
    "And his concubine went away from him" (Shoftim 19:2). [What occurred
    that caused her husband to become so angry with her that she left
    him?] R. Evyatar says: He found her responsible for a fly [in
    the food that she prepared for him]. R. Yonatan says: He found her
    responsible for a hair. And R. Evyatar found Elijah [the prophet]
    and said to him: What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing now? He
    [Elijah] said to him: He is engaged in studying the episode of the
    concubine in Giva. [R. Evyatar asked him:] And what is He saying about
    it? He [Elijah] said to him: [God is saying the following:] Evyatar,
    My son, says this, and Yonatan, My son, says that. He [R. Evyatar]
    said to him: God forbid, is there uncertainty before Heaven? [Doesn't
    God know what happened?] He [Elijah] said to him: Both these and
    these are the words of the living God. [The incident occurred in
    the following manner:] He found a fly in his food and did not take
    umbrage, and later he found a hair and took umbrage. (Gittin 6b)

This concept is also found, in different words, in a passage describing
the nature of Torah study:

    "Those that are composed in collections [ba'alei asufot]" (Kohelet
    12:11) - These are Torah scholars, who sit in many groups [asupot]
    and engage in Torah study. These [Sages] render something ritually
    impure and these render it pure; these prohibit an action and these
    permit it; these deem an item invalid and these deem it valid. Lest
    a person say: Now, how can I study Torah [when it contains so many
    different opinions]? The verse states that they are all "given from
    one shepherd." One God gave them; one leader [Moshe] said them from
    the mouth of the Master of all creation, blessed be He, as it is
    written: "And God spoke all these words" (Shemot 20:1). [The plural
    form "words" indicates that God transmitted all the interpretations
    of the Ten Commandments.] So too, you should make your ears like a
    funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both
    the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the
    statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those
    who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them;
    the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements
    of those who deem them valid. (Chagiga 3b)

>From a moral perspective, it is certainly virtuous to respect all the
divergent halakhic opinions and honor all Torah scholars. Philosophically,
however, this concept is difficult to understand. In the context of
Aggada, it is easy enough to understand how both sides of the argument
can be correct. After all, as in the story of the concubine of Giva,
perhaps more than one infuriating mistake was made, or more than
one conversation transpired between the characters, or more than one
motivation led the personalities to act as they did. But in the realm
of Halakha, when something is either permissible or forbidden, it is
more difficult to understand how both sides of the argument can be
correct. If something is permissible, it is certainly not forbidden,
and if something is forbidden, it is certainly not permissible.

The Chida: Instrumental Pluralism
""" """""" """""""""""" """""""""

One approach to resolving this difficulty that minimizes the extent
of true halakhic pluralism is quoted by the Chida.[1] According to
this approach, only one opinion can actually be correct. For example,
only the opinion of Beit Hillel is 100% correct, and the opinion of
Beit Shammai is correspondingly 100% incorrect. In what way, then,
are the words of Beit Shammai "the words of the living God"? The Chida
explains that just as light is only recognized and appreciated by
means of contrast with darkness, the true halakhic interpretation can
only be properly understood and appreciated by contrasting it with the
incorrect interpretation. It is for this reason, he explains, that when
Moshe went up to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, God told him all
the divergent viewpoints regarding every halakhic dispute - in order
to explain to Moshe which view was correct and to clarify exactly how
and why it was more accurate than the contrasting view. Therefore, one
must work hard to understand even the rejected viewpoint, for one cannot
properly understand the accepted viewpoint if one does not consider the
alternatives, understand the exact ways in which the accepted opinion
diverges from the suggested alternatives, and know the logical reason
that the true opinion is accepted and the mistaken opinions rejected.

According to this understanding, there is no true pluralism within the
halakhic system. The rejected viewpoint is called "the words of the
living God" only because it is instrumentally useful in the intellectual
endeavor of understanding the one correct viewpoint.

R. Moshe Feinstein: Practical Pluralism
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A second interpretation is explicated by R. Moshe Feinstein in the
introduction to his magnum opus, Responsa Iggerot Moshe. He explains
that only one opinion can correspond to the authentic Divine will, and
it is revealed in Heaven which opinion is correct and which opinion is
incorrect. Nonetheless, for practical halakhic purposes, both opinions
are equally valid and legitimate. R. Moshe references the principle of
lo ba-shamayim hi,[2] according to which God does not expect us to follow
the heavenly halakha, which corresponds to absolute truth, but rather to
follow the earthly halakha, as explicated by the halakhic process that is
given over to human hands. If a qualified Torah sage, expending maximal
effort and suffused with fear of Heaven, reaches a halakhic conclusion,
then that halakhic conclusion is operatively true for himself and for
all his followers, whether or not it corresponds to the ultimate truth.

According to this theory, there is no room for pluralism in the realm
of theoretical truth, but on the practical plane there is ample room
for halakhic pluralism. If truth is defined for practical purposes as
legitimacy, as a conclusion which was reached by following the proper
halakhic process, then two mutually contradictory opinions can both be
legitimate and valid for practical halakhic purposes, so long as they
are both the product of the halakhic process as properly practiced.

Tosafists and Ritva: True Pluralism, No Objective Truth
""""""""" """ """""" """" """""""""" "" """"""""" """""

A third approach is quoted in the name of the French sages, i.e. the
Tosafists, by the Ritva.[3] The Ritva explains that when Moshe went up
to the Heavens to receive the Torah, he was taught multiple possible
interpretations of each halakha, leading to divergent possible rulings
on practical halakhic questions. When he asked God which interpretation
was actually correct, God answered him that it would be up to the Sages
of each generation to vote and decide what the halakha would be.[4]

The Ritva seems to hold that there is no objective heavenly truth. God
has no opinion as to what the halakha should be; He leaves it entirely
up to us to determine the content of the halakha. If, in fact, there
is no objective truth, then there is room for true pluralism, as every
interpretation is equally valid. Both opinions can be the words of the
living God, because God Himself intended neither interpretation, but
rather revealed many options for interpreting the Torah and required
only that we follow one of those options.[5]

This denial of objective halakhic truth is somewhat radical, as pointed
out by the Chavot Yair.[6] Mainstream Jewish philosophy assumes that
the mitzvot of the Torah were not decreed arbitrarily, but rather
were commanded by God because He, in His infinite wisdom, knew exactly
which actions bring spiritual benefit to our souls and which actions are
spiritually detrimental. It is therefore difficult to understand how God
Himself could have no objective knowledge as to which interpretation
of the Torah maximizes the spiritual benefit to our soul and avoids
spiritual damage. Additionally, the Chavot Yair expresses bewilderment
as to how the majority vote of the Sages of each generation, who are
only human and therefore fallible, can successfully avert the harmful
effects of following an interpretation that may not actually correspond
to the underlying spiritual reality of the world.

We could defend the Ritva by suggesting, as the Chavot Yair concludes
begrudgingly, that the commandments are arbitrary, and that spiritual
benefit accrues not from the particular action of any mitzva, but rather
from the experience of obeying divine commandment; our souls are damaged
not from the particular action involved in any transgression, but rather
by the experience of transgressing a commandment. Therefore, it is not
necessary to identify the correct interpretation of any mitzva, so long
as there is an authoritative interpretation that we can accept and obey.

Alternatively, we can posit that all possible interpretations of any
halakha are known by God to be equally beneficial to our souls, and
therefore He allows the Sages to choose between them. Additionally,
one could suggest, as does the Chavot Yair himself parenthetically,
that God adapts reality and refashions the world in accordance with
the interpretation of the sages of each generation,[7] and therefore
any interpretation adopted by the majority of the sages automatically
corresponds to spiritual reality. In the next shiur, however, we will
suggest a different understanding of the Ritva that avoids this problem


We have seen three different understandings of the principle of
"these and these are the words of the living God." According to the
interpretation quoted by the Chida, only one opinion can be correct, and
the incorrect opinion is only instrumentally valuable in deepening our
understanding of the correct opinion. According to R. Moshe Feinstein,
only one opinion can be theoretically correct, but any opinion that
results from the proper application of the halakhic process is correct
for practical purposes. According to the Ritva and the Tosafists, both
opinions can be correct even in the realm of ultimate truth, and there is
no objective correct answer to a halakhic question. In the next shiur,
we will elucidate a fourth approach to understanding halakhic pluralism
which differs fundamentally from these three understandings.


[1] R. Chayim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806, Israel and Italy), Petach
Enayim, Bava Metzia 59b. The Chida quotes this interpretation in the name
of "the Rishonim." He also quotes the interpretations of Rashi and Ritva,
elucidated below.

[2] See our previous shiur for a full elucidation of this concept.

[3] Eruvin 13b. This explanation appears explicitly in the commentary of
one of the Tosafists, R. Shimshon of Sens ("Tosafot Sens"), to Eduyot 1:5.

[4] This idea has its roots in the Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 4:2. R. Shimshon
of Sens concludes that a Rabbinic court can rule in accordance
with an opinion that was rejected by the majority of the sages of a
previous generation, even though the earlier sages were greater and more
accomplished, because God expressly granted the sages of each generation
the right to rule as they see fit for their generation.

[5] This does not mean that God has no opinion as to how we should act in
this world. There clearly are behaviors that are completely outside the
realm of possible interpretations of the Torah and absolutely contravene
God's will. However, within the circumscribed realm of all possible
interpretations of the Torah, God Himself has no preference as to which
interpretation we should follow.

[6] R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (Germany, 1639-1702), Responsa Chavot Yair 192.

[7] This idea is elucidated by the Ketzot Ha-Choshen, quoted in the
previous shiur. In that shiur, we also quoted the Ran, who offered two
justification for following the majority vote of the Sages in spite
of their fallibility. However, the Ran's view does not explain why God
Himself would have no opinion as to which interpretation corresponded
better to the spiritual reality.

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