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Shiur #23: Halakhic Pluralism (Part 1)

  • Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh.
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
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 entirely.
            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.