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Of Kabbalists and Kings: Rav Moshe Feinstein and Halakhic Pluralism by Moshe Simon-Shoshan

June 23, 2010 by  
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In this forum, Rabbi Gidon Rothstein recently presented his critique of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s manifesto on contemporary pesaq. Without commenting on Rabbi Cardozo’s essay or R’ Rothstein’s response, I would rather like to focus on one small but crucial aspect of R’ Rothstein’s argument.  R’ Rothstein attacks R’ Cardozo’s use of the Talmudic concept of elu va-elu divrei elohim hayyim  “These and these are the words of the living God,” to advocate for a pluralist approach to halakha, in which opposing views may be regarded as both being correct. R. Rothstein writes:

[T]urning to elu va-elu itself, while Kabbalists did, indeed, find an interpretation in which it meant that all those opinions were right, most rishonim (and R. Moshe Feinstein, in his introduction to Iggerot Moshe) understand the phrase as allowing us to tolerate a wrong opinion as long as it was reached through valid process. 

I think that this statement is an inaccurate depiction of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s opinions on this matter and unnecessarily downgrades the place of pluralistic approaches to halakha within our tradition.

Let us begin with R. Moshe. In his introduction to Iggerot Moshe, R. Moshe sets for forth a theory of two distinct types of truth.  The first is ha-emet galya klapei shemaya “the truth as it appears from the perspective of heaven”. This is the divine truth, which is like God Himself, unified and straightforward. There can be only one right answer to any halakhic question:  pure or impure, permitted or forbidden. Those who advocate alternative conclusions are simply wrong.

R. Moshe also posits the existence of another type of truth, which he calls ha-emet  le-hora’ah, “truth for the purposes of ruling.”  This is a truth that emerges not from heaven but from the Torah scholar’s painstaking analysis of the halakhic sources and application to present circumstances. In this realm of truth there are indeed potentially multiple and conflicting valid answers to a given question, as different scholars may come to different conclusions. These divergent responses are to be considered equal both on the epistemological level and, in absence of decisive pesaq, on the practical level as well. It is in reference to these multiple truths which co-exist with in the realm of ha-emet  le-hora’ah that R. Moshe invokes the principle of elu va-elu.

R. Moshe emphasizes that the absolute truth of ha-emet galya klapei shemaya in fact has no role to play with in halakhic discourse. Only the relative truth of ha-emet  le-hora’ah is relevant to pesaq.  He expresses this in a striking interpretation of the significance of the crowns atop the letters of the Torah:

On the basis of what I have explained, the use of the term “crowns” is precise. For God made the letters of the Torah into kings. That is that the sage should proceed by comparing cases and he should rule according to his understanding of the meaning of the letters of the Torah. When there is a dispute, one should act according to the understanding of the majority of the sages of Israel, even though they may not have arrived at the truth and are not in accordance with God’s opinion. For God gave the Torah to Israel so that they should understand that which was transmitted at Sinai, both orally and in writing, according to their own understanding. God no longer interprets or rules on the laws of the Torah for ‘it is not in Heaven.” Rather, God stipulated from the beginning that he would agree to the understanding and interpretation of the sages of Israel. Thus the letters of the Torah are kings, for we do what emerges from the Torah according to the sages of Israel, even though it might not conform to God’s opinion.

Around the same time that scholars elsewhere in America were embracing the New Criticism, R. Moshe declared authorial intent to be irrelevant to halakhic hermeneutics. Meaning is inherent in the words themselves and it is the close reading of the text of the Torah by qualified scholars that determines the law. In some cases there may be multiple possible reading of the relevant texts and as such there will be multiple legitimate rulings as well.

Striking as they are, R. Moshe’s claims are not entirely original. R. Moshe was likely influenced by R. Aryeh Leib Hacohen Heller’s introduction to his own master work, the Ketzot Hachoshen, which makes similar claims about relationship between truth and psaq. R. Heller in turn drew on the Derashot Haran.

I would concede to R. Rothstein that R. Moshe’s (and his forbearers’) view of halakhic pluralism is relatively moderate. They still believes in a realm of divine truth in which there are right and wrong answers to all questions, even if this realm is irrelevant to terrestrial halakhic jurisprudence. For R. Moshe, pluralism is a strictly human condition.

A careful reading of the Talmudic source of the doctrine of elu va-elu will reveal a still more radical position.  The crucial passage in the Gemara reads:

            Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shemuel:   For three years there was a dispute Between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel,

The former saying: ‘The law follows our views’ The latter saying: ‘The law follows our views.’

A voice from heaven proclaimed: ‘Both are the words of the living God, But the law follows Bet Hillel.’  

Since both are the views of the living God, Why did Bet Hillel merit having the follow their views?

Because they were kind and modest;

They used to their views and the views of Bet Shammai;

Further, they used to mention Bet Shammai’s views before their own. (Eruvin 13b)

The phrase ‘Both are the words of the living God,’ would appear to suggest that the positions of Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel both emerge from the Godhead and enjoy equal status before the Divine Throne. Indeed it is particularly in the higher realms that such opposing positions can co-exist. When they confront each other in lower realms, a conflict ensues. One or the other must triumph. However, this conflict cannot be adjudicated on the basis of the inherent metaphysical qualities of the different positions. Both sides are equal in the eyes of God. The decision is thus made on the basis of the moral and social contexts that each side acquires in this world. Ultimately it is the ethical superiority of the transmission and transmitters of Bet Hillel’s rulings  that makes them normative.

This notion of heavenly pluralism is further expounded by the Ritva in his commentary on this Talmudic passage:

The rabbis of France z”l asked: How is it possible that they can both be the words of the living God, this one prohibiting and this one permitting? They answered: When Moshe ascended on high to receive the Torah, he was shown regarding every thing, forty-nine reasons to prohibit and forty nine reasons to permit. [Moshe] asked God regarding this. He said, so that it should be given over to the sages of each generation, and the ruling shall be like them.

For the Ritva, the primordial Torah which resides in heaven is not a rigid blueprint that defines the contours of existence. Rather it is a complex web of conflicting potentialities, which can never be fully actualized in this world. Each  poseq must choose which aspects of this heavenly Torah to access in making his decision.

Pluralistic approaches to halakhic debate are thus an integral part of our tradition. Such sophisticated models of halakhic jurisprudence and rabbinic authority are particularly important to the contemporary Modern Orthodox community as it faces challenges on multiple fronts.

For further discussion of the various approaches to Elu Va-Elu, see “Elu Va-Elu Divre Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy,” by Mari Ve-Rabi Harav Michael Rosensweig (Tradition 26:3, 1992 4-23).

*Moshe Simon-Shoshan teaches at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University and writes for the Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is the author of Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

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