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Shiur #24: Halakhic Pluralism (Part 2)

  • Rav Assaf Bednarsh
Adapted by Leora Bednarsh
In our previous shiur, we saw 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 is actually correct; the incorrect opinion is only instrumentally valuable in deepening our understanding of the correct opinion. According to R. Moshe Feinstein, only one opinion is 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 are essentially true, and it seems that there is no objective correct answer to a halakhic question.
Rashi and Maharal: True Pluralism, Multifaceted Truth
A fourth approach to understanding the nature of halakhic pluralism is found in Rashi.[1] Rashi points out that if each side of a halakhic debate has a logical basis for its position, then neither side is completely wrong. If there is a logical reason to think that something is permitted and also a logical reason to think that something is forbidden, then both sides must be true. Therefore, in some circumstances the matter should be forbidden, and in others permitted, as the halakha often depends on the subtle difference in circumstances between one case and the next.
 Rashi is suggesting here a new model for understanding the nature of halakhic pluralism. We need not choose between assuming either that one side is 100% correct and the other 100% incorrect, or that both sides are 100% correct. Rather, each side of the debate is partially correct, and the ultimate halakhic truth emerges from a combination of the two positions.
This idea can be understood based on Maharal's understanding of the gemara in Chagiga.[2] Maharal explains that the phenomenon of disputes between Torah scholars is not a failure of the system, but rather a strategy for attaining ultimate truth. God created each individual with a unique personality, and therefore different people have different perspectives and different ways of thinking. Maharal explains further that nothing in the world is simple; complexity is present in every aspect of our existence. Even those matters that are good have some negative aspect to them, and even bad things have a positive aspect. Nothing is purely good or evil in the world, and therefore the true objective answer to any halakhic question is never a simple yes or no. There are always different facets to every issue that reflect the complexity of the real world. Therefore, the halakhic perspective on any issue must also be complex. The function of Halakha is not to oversimplify reality and ignore the complexities of the real world, but rather to reflect that complexity and teach us the authentic divine perspective on that complexity.
However, no one human being is broad and complex enough to discern everything the Torah has to say about the complexities of the real world. Therefore, God arranged a system in which a multitude of Torah scholars would analyze every new halakhic question that arose. Because everyone is created differently, different scholars would focus on different facets of the truth, and each would argue for the truth of his perspective. If the community of Torah scholarship, in that generation or a future generation, joins together all the disparate views on a particular issue, we can thus get as close as possible to the ultimate objective truth, which is the combination of all the different perspectives on the issue.
In this complex world, the only way for limited human beings to find the objective Divine truth is through such a system. Only if Torah scholars take disparate positions and each side argues for the correctness of its perspective can we clarify the cogency and power of each position, and thereby achieve an integrated understanding of all the different facets of the ultimate truth.
We therefore understand why, according to Rashi, both opinions can be halakhically authoritative, each in subtly different circumstances. If in fact the truth is complex and each opinion represents an aspect of the truth, then it is logical that the practical halakhic ruling should sometimes be determined by one facet of the truth and in other circumstances by another. According to this theory, the true meaning of halakhic pluralism is not that each opinion has its own parallel truth, but rather that any human opinion can, by definition, only contain part of the ultimate truth. “These and these are the words of the living God,” because only by adding together all of the partial truths represented by the disparate halakhic perspectives can we come close to the ultimate truth.[3]  
An oft-quoted parable illustrating this idea speaks of four blind men and an item that they struggle to identify. One blind man feels the item and declares that it is a wall. Another claims that it is a tree trunk. A third identifies it as similar to a fire hose, while the fourth claims that it resembles a vine. It may seem like they disagree about the identity of the item in question, but in fact, if they combine their perspectives they might realize that they have encountered an elephant – whose body is broad and high as a wall, whose legs are thick and round as a tree, whose trunk resemble a fire hose, and whose tail is similar to a vine. Only by combining the partial truths represented by each perspective can we properly understand reality.
According to this approach, we understand why different schools throughout Jewish history had consistently different perspectives on Halakha. For example, Beit Hillel was almost always lenient compared to the pervasive stringency of Beit Shammai. This is not because Beit Hillel had an agenda of leniency and Beit Shammai one of stringency. Rather, as Maharal pointed out, God created people to think differently and endowed each of us with his own personality, perspective, and ways of thinking. Beit Hillel were spiritual optimists who naturally saw the good in everything and appreciated the aspect of permissibility in various halakhically questionable matters. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, were natural pessimists, who saw the authentic aspect of spiritual danger in various halakhic matters. Any person or school can, by definition, only see part of the truth, and God created each of us to be able to recognize a different aspect of the ultimate truth. It is therefore no wonder that throughout Jewish history we find that halakhic decisors rule in accordance with their particular perspectives. This is not evidence of a political agenda corrupting the pristine halakhic truth, but rather the proper workings of the halakhic process. Everyone sees his aspect of the truth, from his own perspective, and then, by combining all of those aspects, the later generations can achieve a holistic perspective that approaches the complete divine truth.
Rereading of the Ritva
In light of this interpretation, perhaps we can offer a different understanding of the Ritva cited in the previous shiur. Perhaps the Ritva’s intention was not that God has no opinion as to the correct halakhic interpretation and left it up to the arbitrary whims of the Sages of each generation, but rather that the multifaceted nature of truth leaves room for flexibility within the halakhic process.
The Kli Yakar,[4] following the approach of Maharal, explains that since there are different sides to every issue, the majority vote of the Sages of any particular generation combines with that aspect of the truth which corresponds to their decision to constitute a sufficient basis for the legitimacy of their ruling. In other words, it may be that in one generation God intended for a certain matter to be permissible, because the aspect of permissibility is most relevant to the circumstances of that generation, while in another generation God meant for the same matter to be forbidden, either because in the circumstances of that generation the pernicious effects of such action are more pronounced, or because that generation could easily be stringent and avoid an action that has even a slight negative aspect. Indeed, throughout Jewish history, halakhic authorities have permitted certain actions based on the needs and circumstances of their time and place, while other generations forbade the same actions.
Perhaps this is what the Ritva had in mind. The halakhic process does not arbitrarily come up with rulings that are convenient for the communities who request them. Rather, in different generations, a different facet of the truth might shine more brightly relevant to the circumstances of that generation. Therefore, God told Moshe Rabbeinu that the final decision would be left to the Sages of each generation, who would be able to intuit which facet of the truth was most relevant to their time and place, and thus discern the true will of God for their contemporaries.
Understanding the History of Halakha
This perspective on halakhic pluralism leads to a deeper understanding of the history of Halakha. The majority of the halakhic questions discussed in the Shluchan Arukh are subject to dispute, and there is perhaps no chapter of the Shulchan Arukh where the later authorities do not disagree over the proper interpretation of the gemara or the application of Talmudic principles to new circumstances. Often, the final ruling of the Shulchan Arukh or the later authorities will be a compromise, such as ruling that a matter is permissible but one who is spiritually sensitive should be stringent, or that we forbid something but in cases of monetary loss we are lenient, or that there are those whose custom is to permit and others whose custom is to be stringent. One could take a cynical view of this process and see the entire history of Halakha as an exercise in confusion and ignorance. One could conclude that we don't know the right answer to any of the difficult halakhic questions, and we constantly hedge our bets in practice because we can't figure out the right answer. However, according to the approach we have elucidated, the history of Halakha is not an accumulation of ignorance and confusion, but rather an exercise in sophistication and a gradual unfolding of a multifaceted truth. If reality is complex and the world is not black and white, then the Halakha should be complex as well.
Accordingly, when commentaries argue regarding the correct halakhic ruling, this represents not a lack of clear knowledge but a deeper knowledge of the multivalent truth about this particular halakhic matter. The complex rulings of the later poskim are the proper applications of that multifaceted truth. When the negative aspects of a certain matter clearly outweigh the positive aspects, we rule for practical purposes that it is forbidden. Likewise, when the positive aspects vastly outnumber the negative aspects, we rule that it is permitted. But at times, when both facets are significant, we will emerge with a sophisticated ruling that reflects the complexity of the issue, and we will be lenient in some circumstances and stringent in other circumstances, depending on the exact balance and relative strength of the conflicting aspects. The complex rulings that emerge from the halakhic process are thus reflections of authentic truth, which is necessarily complex and dependent on the circumstances.
This perspective on halakhic pluralism also gives us new insight into the role of the individual in the halakhic process. According to the approach we have elucidated, the voice of every Torah scholar contributes one facet of the truth, which may not have been revealed even by other scholars who are greater and more learned than him. The Maharshal writes that these and these are literally the words of the living God, because every Jewish soul was present at Sinai and received a unique revelation of a unique perspective on the Torah suited to his particular soul.[5] If the Maharshal is correct, then every Jew possesses a unique share of revelation, and our understanding of Torah is enriched by the contributions of every Torah scholar, whether great or small.
Additionally, we can emerge with a deeper understanding of the relationship between different Torah scholars or schools of thought. Based on the approach we have elucidated, the relationship between conflicting halakhic opinions is not a battle between truth and falsehood, or even a competition between different valid options, but a partnership between complementary truths that need each other for their completion. It is thus clear why Chazal tell us that Torah scholars who battle fiercely in the intellectual arena emerge from the encounter as loving friends, for each side can find ultimate completion only in the wisdom of its rival.
Based on Rashi and Maharal, we have understood that truth is complex and multifaceted, and that each side of a halakhic debate represents an authentic facet of the truth, but never the entirety of the ultimate truth. Any individual can only see one facet of the truth, and therefore only the combination of the different opinions of the multitude of Torah scholars can capture the multifaceted truth of the Halakha as applied to the complex world in which we live. These and these are the words of the living God because each opinion represents a facet of the true will of God as revealed via the Torah. The process of halakhic debate and the complex rulings that emerge from the interplay of the different opinions thus represent not a lack of clarity, but a sophisticated expression of multifaceted truth.
This idea is expressed beautifully in the introduction to the Arukh Ha-Shulchan, a halakhic code that emphasizes the range of views among the earlier authorities. He explains that the Torah is metaphorically called a song because the beauty of music emerges from the harmony of the different voices in the choir. If the choir all sang the exact same notes, they could never produce beautiful music. Likewise, the true grandeur of the Torah is only revealed by the interplay of conflicting interpretations, which combine to form a glorious whole.[6]

[1] Ketubot 57a.
[2] R. Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel of Prague (Poland and Czech lands, c. 1520 – 1609), Be'er Hagola, part 1.
[3] This understanding of “these and these are the words of the living God” is consistent with its usage in aggadic contexts in Gittin 6b, where the actual story of the concubine in Giva combined both opinions as to the nature of her wrongdoing. Likewise, Tosafot, Rosh Hashana 27a, uses this phrase in the context of the debate regarding the date of Creation, combining the two opinions to conclude that God planned the Creation in Tishrei and carried out His plan in Nissan.
Maharal, however, holds that the phrase “these and these are the words of the living God” refers only to disputes like those of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, where the two facets are of precisely equal strength. Only the passage in Chagiga, which states that the disparate opinions “are all given from one shepherd … from the mouth of the Master of all creation, Blessed be He,” refers generally to all halakhic disputes.
[4] R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (Eastern Europe, 1550-1619), Kli Yakar, Devarim 17:11. In this passage, he also uses this concept to explain why the Rabbis can abrogate Torah law in emergency situations. He explains that because even a forbidden matter possesses a minor aspect of permissibility as well, that aspect can be relied upon in emergency situations.
[5] R. Solomon Luria (Poland and Lithuania, 1510-1573), Yam Shel Shlomo, introduction to Massekhet Bava Kama.
[6] R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (Lithuania, 1829-1908), Arukh Ha-Shulchan, introduction to Choshen Mishpat.