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Torah Not Contradicted by Multiple Applications

Pluralism can be understood as characteristic of the nature of the Torah as an intentionally open text that cannot be applicable to differing situations and times without human interpretation
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

Pluralism explains the multiplicity of views, not as contradiction to God’s one truth, but as God’s original intention.

Pluralism can be understood as characteristic of the nature of the Torah as an intentionally open text that cannot be applicable to differing situations and times without human interpretation.

The Torah from Sinai is not contradicted by these multiple applications in diverse ways because the Torah was only given as general principles (klalot). The following sources explicate this Jewish pluralism:

“What did God do when the 40 days on Mount Sinai were finished? God gave the Torah as a gift to Moshe…But how could Moshe learn the whole Torah in 40 days when the Torah is described as ‘longer than the earth and wider than the ocean’? The answer is that God only taught Moshe the general principles.” –Shemot Rabbah 41:6
“It is logically impossible for God’s Torah to be complete in the sense that it offers detailed rules for all cases, for the individual situations are constantly changing and are too numerous to be included in any book. Therefore God gave Moshe the general principles hinted at in the Torah, so that the wise of every generation could derive the ever-new particulars…Those are the principles mentioned as the 13 categories by which the Torah is interpreted.” –Sefer HaIkarim, Section 3 Chapter 23

Similarly Rabbi Yannai, a disciple of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, says, “If the Torah had been given hatucha, cut and dried [i.e. rigid and inflexible] then there would be no leg to stand on [ i.e. there would be no way to apply it to varied situations.] So “when God spoke to Moshe” (Exodus 23:2), means that Moshe asked: Master of the Universe, reveal to me what the halakha is. God responded: ‘Follow the majority rule’ – if there are more who argue to acquit, acquit. If there are more to convict, convict. Thus the Torah is interpreted with 49 facets for impurity and 49 facets for purity.” (TY Sanhedrin 4:2).

Thus God refrains from deciding one way or the other in the revelation, so that the judges may tip the balance according to the situation as the majority sees fit.

The principle of a Torah that must be capable of fitting the ever-new particulars of changing times is also why TB Sanhedrin 17a says: “No one may be seated as member of the Sanhedrin until they show that they know how to prove the purity of an impure dead animal (sheretz) in 150 ways.”

Why is this? “For no issue is completely evil and there is always a time or situation in which it will be good. Generally they are bad for the world, but there are places that the sheretz can be pure and beneficial” (Menashe from Ilia, 1767-1831). The rejected opinion has its place as true and useful in ad hoc situations as times change.

Pluralism should be understood not as contradictions between laws given at Sinai, but as the full spectrum of potential legal arguments or facets laid out in at Sinai.

Referring to the comment above by Rabbi Yannai, the Ritba, Rav Yom Tov son of Avraham Ibn Asbili, explains that Moshe was shown all the arguments, 49 pro and 49 con, but not the decisions that were to be worked out by majority rule in every generation. The pluralism is inherent to the arguments and the unity is the result of the authority of the majority in each generation. The new generation is not subject to the previous generation’s decision, for the new generation is itself actualizing a Divine possibility already given. Thus in the heavenly tribunal above they have the same arguments as below, because all the logical possibilities are given at Sinai, not their determination.

Pluralism of Torah can be understood as result of the anthropological diversity of its readers who cannot help but hear it differently. That can be a skeptical argument that human beings can never agree on any one reading of the Torah, because they are so different and because Torah is always heard and filtered through our particular angle. In fact, God took that into consideration and spoke in many voices to fit each person’s needs, so the Torah is itself already inclusive of the multiple ways it will be heard.

Pluralism of the Torah can be the result of God’s intentional Tzimtzum and refusal to determine the law that has been handed over to human beings who must decide on their own without regard to what God’s original intent may have been, says Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Rabbi Feinstein says God chose the way of Tzimtzum by producing a Torah with crowns that could be understood by various readings by analogical thinking:

“When there is a dispute, then it is decided by the majority rule even if they do not fit the truth of what God intended, for God gave the Torah to Israel to act according to what they understand the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. No longer will God interpret or decide the laws of the Torah for ‘it is not in Heaven.’ …So elu v’elu – ‘these and these are the words of the living God’ [cannot mean that God said the words of Hillel and Shammai but rather] that the rabbis can determine the law according to either Hillel or Shammai.” (Igerot Moshe, Orach Hayim, part one of introduction).

“It is not in the heaven,” means that one is obligated to be a judge even if one’s judgment is opposed to God’s interpretation, for God’s will is that human judges make the decisions. One receives a reward for making legal decisions even if one’s interpretation turns out not to be true to God’s opinion. Both views are considered the living words of God even if one of them is clearly contradicted by Heaven.

How can deciding against God’s truth be an embodiment of God’s will? For in Deuteronomy 17 one is instructed to do whatever one is told by the officials of the court. That means that God’s will is that humans make the decisions, therefore, even if we contradict God’s content, we are loyal to God’s will – “lo tasur”- for God appointed judges to replace the direct Divine role in legislation and judgment. And God instructed them to rely on sevarah, not just masoret (tradition). In that sense whatever human judges say are the “words of the Living God” – even if they change their mind as times change. Here is Ramban’s notion of human interpretation “constituting” the Torah and winning God’s acknowledgement, whatever they may say the law is.

We may not take the conservative traditionalist view of Rabbi Eliezer never to teach anything not received in tradition, never to decide a law not already written in some book. Rabbi Feinstein asks rhetorically:

“Is there an end and boundary to Torah, God forbid? If we rule only according to what is written in books, what shall we do when questions arise whose answers are not found in the books….Certainly even now in our time Torah can grow. Even if we rule according to what is written we cannot rule just because it says so but because of its rational appeal.”

Rabbi Arye Leib Heller, Baal Ketzot HaHoshen, explains:

“Truth follows the consensus of scholars, based on human reason, for God gave the Oral Torah as a complete gift …to be whatever the wise determine it to be…[Why is it the Oral Torah which was given to Israel?] For if all of the Torah was written in God’s own hand, then we would have no say based on human reason over a book belonging to God, however regarding Oral Torah – it belongs to us.”

Pluralism can be a celebration of ongoing Divine revelation through the medium of human individualism and intellectual creativity (the Maharshal). The result is that the revelation to Moshe is not unique and not greater and not exhaustive relative to those to later scholars.

Therefore, the Maharshal opposes written legal texts like the Shulchan Aruch that limit creativity as an expression of the infinite continuing revelation of scholars. Relying on text discourages independent thinking. People assume what the pragmatic law is determines the limits of what has value in halakhic thinking. The Maharshal refuses to give greater deference to earlier scholars, for they are not closer to the original, and their judgments do no exhaust the infinite richness of ongoing Torah revelation as mediated from God to human beings through their intelligence.

Pluralism must be the process of infinite search for truth, an endless learning process rather than the true result, for truth cannot be achieved by any human being.

Rav Yitzchak Reines (1839-1915), leader of Mizrachi, in his book Ora vSimcha, holds that pluralism is the endless process of applying the general principles of written Torah to reality, which is synonymous with the function of Oral Torah. By definition that process is endless. What God wants from us is not to reach the truth but to pursue the truth as process rather than a product. “The Torah gave room for doubts and disputes, because God wants everyone to search for truth without necessarily finding it; for God loves the pursuit of truth more than truth itself. In fact no human being can grasp the truth in hand, so the purpose of human life is only the pursuit of truth,” he says.

Reb Haim of Volozhin holds the same view of the ultimate value of the endless search for truth. Then he uses it as a fulcrum to demand that each individual be true to one’s own view of truth, even against higher authorities.

Pirkei Avot 1:4: “Yosi ben Yoezer says: May your home be a place for scholars to meet and one should be mitaveik in the dust at their feet and drink thirstily their words.”

Reb Haim explains this excerpt in a surprisingly paradoxical manner. The term mitaveik gains a double meaning in his Ruach HaHaim – it is both to sit in the dust at their feet in humility and to wrestle with them in the dust like Jacob with the angel:

“It is forbidden for student to accept the words of his master if he has critical questions about them (kushiot). For sometimes the student has the truth and the student can be like a twig that ignites a log. [The student can, by challenging the teacher, push him to great enlightenment]…In ‘May your home be a place for scholars to meet and one should be mitaveik in the dust at their feet,’ mitaveik should be understood in the context of Jacob wrestling with the angel, for wrestling is a form of making war and there is a war of mitzvah [in the metaphoric sense of milchamta shel Torah, the war of Torah study].
Thus we [are] to wrestle the great holy rabbis who live on earth as well as those whose souls are in Heaven, the great authors whose books we have. For we have permission to wrestle with them and make war with their words and to resolve the difficulties in their views. We shall not give deference to personages, but we shall only love truth.
However, we as students must be careful not to speak in arrogance when one finds something to dispute. Do not imagine yourself as great as your master/teacher or as the author of the book against which you are raising objections. Know that sometimes you have not understood the teacher or author’s intent, so maintain great humility. Say to yourself that even though I am unworthy, this is a matter of Torah and I ‘must wrestle’ but only under condition that remain ‘in the dust of their feet,’ i.e., with an attitude of humility and deference arguing before them from my position on the ground.”

The message of the pluralist creative interpreters is that Torah is not merely preserved as the traditionalists argue but that it must continue to develop creatively.

Seder Eliyahu Zuta (Chapter 2) describes an argument against Karaite presented as the loyal slave, who when asked to care for wheat and flax, kept it intact in a locked treasure box. “When God gave the Torah to Israel, the Torah was granted as a raw material – grain to be made into flour and flax to made into a garment.”

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