Join our email list

Pluralism Voiced by Classical Sources

Classical and historical commentaries and statements about pluralism that reflect the belief that there is only one Torah yet there are many voices and ways to understand it
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

This collection of classical and historical commentaries and statements about pluralism reflects the belief that even as there is only one Torah, there are many voices and ways to understand and live it.

‘All the people saw the voices’ – How many voices were there? …The Torah was meant to be heard in voices according to the strength of each human listener as it says in Psalms ‘The voice of God is in the power’ – the power of each human being.

In the same way God appeared to each generation in a different way and the manna tasted differently to each age bracket. – Mekhilta dRabbi Yishmael (see also Shemot Rabbah 29,1 and Pesikta Drabbati on Exodus 19)

Rav Haim ben Bezalel (1530-1588) explains diversity as follows: “Just as nature produces different facial marks for each human being, so human intelligence also differs between every two individuals….Therefore it is good to lay two views before the rav to let the law be decided… for that is the way of Torah – elu v’elu.”

Reb Haim of Volozhin (1749-1821) celebrates the individualism as religious value by quoting Bemidbar Rabbah Pinchas 21,2: The halakha is that when one sees a large mass of people then one makes a blessing: Baruch Chacham Razim! Blessed is the God of Secrets. For just as none of the faces are the same, so too none of the intellects are identical, rather each and every person has their own independent intellect (daat).

God created all humanity from one human being to teach us God’s greatness. A human ruler mints all the coins in the same image [with the image of the sovereign imprinted on them identically as a sign of the sovereign’s power]. However the Sovereign of Sovereigns, God created each human being in the image of the first human being; no one is identical with any other. – Mishna Sanhedrin Chapter 4: 5

All the words of Hillel and Shammai are the words of the living God because each one received them directly from God’s mouth or Moshe’s mouth even if in fact they never came out of Moshe’s mouth… [The revelation is ongoing] –the Torah is given to the wise in every generation, each according to the source of his intellect in order to add to the Torah according to what Heaven shows him… Everyone sees the revelation through one’s own pipeline, one’s own intellectual capacity, according to what one’s soul received.. Permission is granted to investigate and to know all the wisdom of Torah and its constructions as far as one’s human hand reaches in order to deconstruct and construct according to the way Heaven decides for each.

Try to think why God did not give the Torah fully explicated to Moshe, so that there would be no doubts and only one face rather 49. That is because there is no limit to its significance and so even if all the heavens were parchment and all the oceans ink, they would still not be sufficient to compose one section of the Torah making all its doubts explicit, encompassing all the innovations that emerge from it for our benefit and all the depth of intellectual insight that the wise can derive from it and add to it. – Rav Shlomo Luria (Poland, 1510-1574)

Elu v’elu means no one should say that when we make a decision preferring one view that we think the rejected view is invalid and baseless. …There are facets supporting both sides. – Rav Avraham Levi

We understand something best from its opposite… so God gave us conflicting theories (sevarot) so we will understand the true theory better. – Anonymous, Meiharirei Nimeirim, 15th century.

By collecting all the opinions we can test for the truth… ‘Truth springs from the earth’ so do not say: great lions of scholarship have come before us and we must simply accept their words…Rather investigate the truth on your own, for that was the purpose of your creation and therefore you were given heavenly intelligence….Write down your opinions for the benefit of those who follow us whether they will agree or reject it, for in declaring our views we bring benefit to the world. – Eliezer Ashkenazi, Maasei Hashem, 1513-1586, Cracow

Elu v’elu does not mean that both views are true but that light is never distinguishable except by contrast with the dark. – The Hidah

The study of Torah can be compared to an orchestra where each musician plays their instrument and note and the notes seem to contradict but the sum total is a beautiful sound. The final result is true and beautiful and in that sense, metaphorically, all the contracting notes were ‘the words of the living God.’  – Baruch HaLevi Epstein

An incorrect opinion may not be worthless for it may ignite a true opinion in the process of learning as ‘a hammer striking a stone produces many sparks, so each word from God divides into 70 languages’ (TB Shabbat 88b). Some of these sparks may ignite a great flame, thus bringing great life to the world. However, if one does not ‘raise doubts and contradictions,’ then we will not reach the truth. That is why the Rabbis held that in a capital crime if everyone in the court unanimously condemns the criminal then he is acquitted, while if a majority convict him then he is executed (TB Sanhedrin 17a). As Rambam explains (Hilchot Sanhedrin 9:1), when there is no opposition [playing the Devil’s advocate] through questions, arguments and investigations, then it is impossible that the truth will come to light and it is possible that all of them will err. – Shmuel de Ozdiya, born 1540, Safed

Rav Binyamin Weiss (1843-1913), was asked by a non-Jewish scholar: “Why does the Talmud, against all logic, reason and justice, rule that if the Sanhedrin voted 37 to 34 to convict a criminal of a capital crime then he would be held guilty and if they voted unanimously 71 to 0 to convict, then the criminal would be released as innocent?”

“I responded that according to an ancient non-Jewish political thinker any parliament that has no minority opposition party has not fulfilled its mandate and a new one must be chosen. For all human beings are fallible whether an individual or a large group. Therefore, one needs to clarify the truth via debate among opposed deot – views – where each and every person holding a differing viewpoint will make every effort to prove the hypothesis, bring evidence to establish the truth and contradict the opponent’s views. If after all that, having heard the various deot and the counterarguments of the opposition, the majority decides in favor of one view, then it is clear that that is the truth.

“Thus the Sanhedrin functioned as a group of the wise, bearing the responsibility for life and death decisions. If there were both supporters of both pro and con positions then the debate would clarify the deot and achieve the truth…However if there were only supporters of the conviction of the accused and no one to oppose their hypothesis and to promote an alternative view, then it is possible, according to the law of human fallibility, for all of them to be wrong and for them to shed innocent blood.”

The love of knowledge and the investigation of truth make it unworthy to distance oneself from a view that disagrees with your own even if these views are opposed to your religion and your faith. Do not shut people’s mouths for then there will be no forum to clarify the truth of religion. Tell everyone to speak freely for the lack of opposition voices produces a weakness of faith. Reason requires it. Anyone desiring to show heroism wants a worthy opponent so that a victory will prove how great the heroism. – Maharal of Prague (1598), Beer HaGolah, section 7

The Talmud leaves unexplained its assertion of the scholar’s superiority over the prophet. Writing in twelfth century Spain, ibn Migash provides a straightforward explanation in terms of the scholar’s independence, stating that prophetic revelation is not requisite to human understanding: A hacham (wise person) is thus superior to a prophet. A prophet only relates that which he heard and that which was placed in his mouth to repeat, while a hacham relates a tradition given to Moses at Sinai, even though he had never heard it [from anyone].

Rabbi Yohanan: The teachings of the Scribes are more cherished than those of the Torah. … Rabbi Hanina b. Rabbi Adda said in the name of Rabbi Tanhum b. Aha: They also carry more weight than the teachings of the Torah and the prophets. . . . They [the prophets and scribes] are like two agents whom a king sent to a province. With regard to one he wrote: If he shows you my signature and seal, trust him, but otherwise do not trust him. With regard to the other he wrote: Even if he does not show you my signature and seal, trust him. Thus of the teachings of prophecy it is written, “If there appears among you a prophet . . . and he gives you a sign or a portent” (Deut. 13:2), but of the teachings of the Scribes it is written, “You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:11). – Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, 1:2

God did not permit us to learn the law from the prophets but from the halakhic authorities, men of reason and knowledge. The Torah does not instruct us [when we have legal questions] ‘you shall go to the prophet who will be in those days,’ but rather “you shall.., appear before the priests the levites and the judge who will be in those days.”’(Deuteronomy 17:9)…The law follows the view of 1001 halakhic authorities who are not prophets and not that of the 1000 great prophets. – Maimonides, Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishna

Certainly one should be fearful of stating matters of Torah erroneously and human wisdom falters in the search for truth…However the Torah was not given to ministering angels but to humankind, who are endowed with human reason…God gave the Torah to administer as human understanding determines it to be, even if that determination falls short of objective truth. Thus if one brings forth a completely new idea, it need only be true by the measure of human reasoning…’Truth should sprout from the earth’ and the truth is what the halakhic authorities, exercising their human intelligence agree is true. – Aryeh Leib HaKohen, Ketzot HaHoshen

Hacham adif minavi (“The statements of the Rabbis take priority over those of the prophet.”) – Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot 1:4,3b

Rabbi Avdimi of Haifa said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was lost to the prophets and given to the hachamim. But are the hachamim not themselves prophets? He means to say: Although prophecy was lost to the prophets, it was not lost to the hachamim. Amemar added: Indeed, a hacham is superior to a prophet, as written, “And a prophet has the heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Who is compared to whom? Surely, the lesser is compared to the greater! – Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 12a-b

We have been commanded to obey their decision whether it represents the truth or its opposite…for the power of decision-making has been entrusted to the halakhic authorities for each generation. Whatever they decide is what God has commanded. – Nissim Gerondi, HaRan, Derashot HaRan #7

There is no inconsistency here [between obeying God’s word and obeying whatever the rabbis say]. Since the same God who commanded the observance of the Torah, prescribing what is prohibited and what is permissible, also commanded that “you must not deviate from the verdict that they [the judges in those days] pronounce to you” (Deuteronomy 17:9), lo tasur). (Gur Aryeh on Deuteronomy 17:9) – Maharal of Prague (16th century)

Just as the nature produces different facial marks for each human being, so human intelligence also differs between every two individuals…Therefore it is good to lay two views before the rav to let the law be decided… for that is the way of Torah – elu v’elu. – Rav Haim ben Bezalel (1530-1588)

In this generation and the last several generations we have no one who knows how to give criticism, tochecha,… So all the laws that arouse anger and brotherly hate become like ben sorer… laws that never were enforced and never will be enforced and were written only to study and its rewards. – Rav Kook, Igrot HaRoeh Part one, 305

Therefore especially in this era of democracy and freedom when each individual does what is right in their own eyes, we must act with discretion – not with stormy action and words – lest we push away one stone after another. In an era when we cannot enforce the laws of the Torah as they should be, we should not emphasize the strict measure of the law, for by coercion nothing will be accomplished. – Rav Ovadia Yosef, Responsa Yabiah Omer part four, 241

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

More on
Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics