Friday, March 16, 2007

Ailu vAilu Intolerant

Ailu v'Ailu (AA) is flimsy and deformed from all the stretching Orthodox Jews have put it through. An interesting idea, certainly accurate within its own context, is now employed in inappropriate situations, to an insincere, immature and intellectually appalling effect. If that famous Bat Kol would grace us today, it would certainly declare, "I retract my previous statement. You guys are objectively wrong."

There are many (ab)uses, but the most troublesome is when AA concludes a Hashkafic
discussion. "Sure, Satmar feels Zionism is a to'evah while Rav Kook considers it the sprouting of our salvation, but that is the beauty of Judaism- Ailu v'Ailu Divrei Elokim Hayyim." Similar statements are made regarding the confrontation of hassidut and litvak ideals, the contrast between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox outlook, or the cultural approaches of Sfardim and Ashkenazim.

These statements are stupid! This is why:
G-d has one Will. He has particular goals and desires for the world. Right? He doesn't want you to murder. He doesn't want you to kiss Prime Ministers of Iran. Conversely, he does hope you infuse this world with kindness, peace, Torah, mitzvot, tzedek, and mishpat. When you contemplate getting up for minyan, G-d cares- G-d is interested in you making the right choice.

So, when deciding between enlisting in Tzahal or sitting in the Mir, does He suddenly disappear with a thunderous, "I don't care- do whatever the heaven you like." When you tell an audience of Bais Yaakov students that "Tznius is a woman's ikkar avodah, like Talmud Torah is for men,"* can you imagine Hashem flatly murmuring, "no comment."
KHAS v'freaking SHALOM, you flaming deist!

These arguments matter to G-d and one side is wrong. That "wrong" position may not be evil incarnate. It could represent a very good, sufficiently efficient way to bring G-d's presence into our world. But the "right" choice, by definition, is more capable of doing so. When presented with both options, settling on anything but the ideal is tragic.

"But Ben, everybody is different! Everyone has their own special skills and taste! How can we all be supposed to approach G-d the same way!" Well, darling, just as different equations have different solutions, so too your unique self has a distinctive role. One single distinctive role. So ask yourself- for a person like me, with my particular strengths and tastes, am I performing at my full potential, or are incorrect and inefficient belief systems encroaching on my Avodat H? More importantly, note that certain personal attributes may not be ideal themselves. Granted, not every Jew contains the sophistication and clearheadedness to study Torah- and for that person, doing so is absolutely incorrect- but if they could press the magic button to change themselves, shouldn't they? Let's not glorify the b'dieved.

Which takes me from Hashkafa to Halakha. This too is troubling: "Some Gedolim hold brushing your teeth on Shabbat is not problematic. I looked into the issue and I see a glaring Issur Daaraita, but Ailu v'Ailu." From the times of the Mishna, Halakhic disputes faced a sole arbiter: Truth. What is Gemara but a back-and-forth of proofs, rebuttals, and counter-proofs! The tradition continued to the Rishonim, who refused to tolerate a differing opinion- they fought a Milkhemet Hashem, using all the tools the rational mind granted them. For if you can bring a proof for your shita, it is not one opinion in a world of AA, it is Right.

This idea scares some people. Our Western culture is one of tolerance and diversity, where right and wrong only exist in questions of terrorism (wrong), cigarettes (wrong), and more tolerance and diversity (absolutely right.) HaRaya!: scan the last five years of Disney movies for a moral message- apparently celebrating our differences is the only ethical ideal. To a degree, this is a fantastic accomplishment. On a practical level, tolerance leads to peaceful and united communities. On a practical level, diversity is an escape from the blinding beige of sameness. But the practical is rarely the truthful and never confuse a utilitarian sense of restraint or a useful willingness to hear every opinion with the strange philosophy that all sides are actually right. Pretend, if it suits you- but never believe.

And don’t get too cocky either. Let not your struggle for Truth convince you that you've actually found it. (Thanks Noah.) The opposite! Upon cognizing that Truth never travels by way of AA but only through serious debate and reason, you’ll find that most heart-felt ideologies melt into uncertainty. The pursuit for answers, you’ll find, tends to culminate with a towering and depressing question mark. So don't forget: It is the self-loving, arrogant believer in AA that quickly designates his personal views as G-d's Truth, while the dedicated rejectionist approaches the world with open ears and inquisitive mind: skeptical, but curious and fair.

And don’t be so frightened! Leaving behind the cozy comforts of AA may appear unpleasant, but bear in mind, you never believed in it in the first place. After all, has anyone ever applied AA to a religious group on their left?: Do Orthodox congregants accept the Conservative movement with warm calls for open tolerance? Has a single Haredi figure ever admitted, "We had Rav Shach and they had JB." Let's be honest for a moment- AA serves but one role: permitting a relatively unique belief (every group to its own degree and no more) to coexist with an emotional attachment to pseudo-traditionalism, simultaneously justifying the foolishness of the frum and the newness of the self. Or, in its Halakhic context, AA enables us to argue with a posek, while concomitantly declaring him infallible.

But more to the point, a simple analysis of the notion itself reveals just how awkward AA can be. When I previously discussed hashkafic issues I only addressed one facet, the behavioral effect of hashkafa. But behind every practical question of joining the army or becoming a hassid or teaching woman Talmud looms conceptual, philosophical discourse. What protects Israel- Torah or Torah with an army? Do a Rebbe's prayers bear supernatural powers? What is the role of women in intellectual and communal life? Answering AA to this form of query - saying two factual opposites are concurrently correct- intimates an irrational approval of contradiction. Yuch! Contradiction is anathema to the Jewish thinker. Halakha recoils from its gruesome countenance, Makhshava flees from its very mention, and so too any human field of study attempts to construct a sizable, useful set of information utterly free of contradiction. Denying this principle is forbidden in Torah, impossible in math and science, and, naturally, foreign from the way humans assess their everyday world.

For if you foster a genuine sympathy for "multiple-truth" or the "beauty of contradiction" you might find the implicit baggage difficult to maneuver with. Go ahead- take this post-modernist route: deny human ability to perceive a single Truth, better yet, deny the artificially constructed notion of Truth itself. Taken to its logical (and in modern times, relatively popular) conclusion, you'll soon realize that moral codes are relative, that one and one equaling two is a consequence of your social upbringing, and that the image before your eyes may be but the dream of a dozing butterfly.

So wake up! Ailu vAilu doesn't demand that sort of subjective nonsense from you. Come with me, my child, you are ready: let us discover Ailu vAilu anew, the way the Bas Kol intended it.

Ailu vAilu relates to a specific meta-Halakhic feature. The hiddush is subtle, and for proper explanation, we must contrast life on Pluto with the death penalty on Earth:

In scientific pursuits, an objective gem of information exists in the universe, waiting to be recorded by man. At times, employing deductive and inductive insight, that slice of knowledge is captured and brought down to Earth. But occasionally, the problem baffles us. After furiously attempting and rebutting every proof, vigorously digesting and reformulating every possible argument, we simply lack the information necessary to recognize the true understanding. With our set of data two mutually exclusive possibilities fit, but obviously only one is correct. This realization means failure, for there exists but one possible explanation, yet we remain unable to detect it. For example, there either is or is not life outside of planet Earth- only one possibility exists- and today's lack of information will never alter that fact.

This description applies equally to hashkafa. Hashem has, as it were, a particular vision for the world and particular method of functioning. Armed with Torah and logic we may uncover these details or we may not- but their eternal, unchanging existence is a fundamental tenet.

Not so for law. When our legal system is confronted with baffling situations, the court searches through potential precedents that may contribute to some form of proof. But when the proceedings fail to find fault in either side and we face two potential verdicts that both jibe with the system- the legalist delights. His decision- a personal selection between two respectable courses- morphs into law itself. (For contrast, imagine if a scientist could simply declare, "the results were inconclusive, but nonetheless I have ruled that there is life on Pluto!") At that moment of human decision, both alternatives beam equally Truthful. Both complement the current set of laws, and as such, are both legitimate. This characterizes a basic aspect of legal systems: they do not depend on pre-existing objective facts. A legal system never claims to reflect a higher emanation of Truth- it seeks only to find resolution within itself.

The same for Halakha. Hashem communicates His will to His people through very limited texts. As such, they are subject to multiple interpretations, many of which fit snuggly into our finite source information.. When that occurs, all such options are equally valid. Since neither the views of the House of Shamai or of the House of Hillel lead to direct contradiction with Halakhic precedent, both express legitimate courses of action. Both are divrei elokim hayyim.

Indeed, how much more so with Halakha, where the minority opinion lives on in the text and its commentaries, plumbed by generation upon generation of budding new students.

But bear in mind- despite the Ailu vAilu conclusion, Halakhic quarrels always commence with just that: quarrel, vicious and merciless. Throw proof-texts as spears and aim for the jugular. If the pasuk, braita, or Rambam challenges the opponent's approach, fling him into the sea of Wrong and remain alone on your island of Truth. Only after passing this unforgiving test can a shita claim the crown of Ailu vAilu. Prima facie respect of an opinion prior to sufficient critique grants idiocy in the place of legitimacy.

In my initial paragraph, I described AA's contemporary use as "insincere, infantile, and intellectually appalling." I wasn't kidding.
Infantile- blurring boundaries and ignoring distinctions in order to relate a specific Halakhic notion to realms unprepared for such comparison. Why? To fulfill a subconscious need for justification in the presence of others.
Insincere- despite its overly open-minded interpretation, AA is employed on an extremely subjective, close-minded basis.
Intellectually appalling- if a frum Jew would step back and consider the epistemological and moral significance of his statement, he would label himself a kofeir gamur.

So why are we so bound to this false interpretation? Why do our teachers relate to it as a Jewish value? Because, as heresy goes, its extremely useful. For the first time in Jewish history, variant strands of religious practice and personal culture exist in the same Jewish community. Lacking a proper education in AA, most religious individuals will resort to vicious intolerance. This does not have to be: one can respect the other as a Jew even if recognizing his faults, but, granted, it is difficult. Simply put, we lack the sophistication to maintain Ahavat Yisrael without resorting to AA- to express esteem without assuming multiple truth. So we fool ourselves: teach the masses that the other is right because it’s the only way to convince him that the other is human. Rejecting our masquerade would only lead to more sectarian tension and disunity, something the religious community obviously can not afford.

Thus, in its place we created a culture of comfortable compromise- to the point that Ailu vAilu is a basic part of our theological identity. But I can't imagine that the simple Jew of two hundred years ago ever considered it. When a Litvak businessman travelled through the heart of Hassadic Europe, he was probably tolerated with warmth- but certainly not gazed upon with the admiring eyes of today's naive Orthodox. Yisrael Sabba may have lived a full life, never having the term Ailu vAilu grace his ears. Although in contemporary society we rightfully value such diversity, let’s not cross the line and project our mistaken, post-modernist, shaat hadakhak philosophy onto G-d’s eternal Self.

Who knows: we might be wrong and He might not be so tolerant.


*I didn't make up the tznius quote in the fourth paragraph. It's compliments of a recent publication of speeches delivered by Ner Yisrael's late Rosh Yeshiva, R. Yaacov Weinberg.


Shmendrik said...

A lot of this stems from a misunderstanding of Eilu v'Eilu, which originally was meant to apply to a small category of Tannaitic disputes.

Ezzie said...

Hmm... was this whole thing from elsewhere? Obviously not. So which part? I didn't see the star until the bottom... Anyway...

While a number of the points made are true and wonderful and all that, the way they're put together contradict the main point being made. [Argh, I wish it weren't busy season and I had time to write a full post. Methinks you'll have to come over with Noah and Nava and whoever and we can actually discuss this! Oh yeah, long time no speak, too.]

AvA is not claiming that ALL positions are the word of God, nor even close. But as you note, The same for Halakha. Hashem communicates His will to His people through very limited texts. As such, they are subject to multiple interpretations, many of which fit snuggly into our finite source information.. When that occurs, all such options are equally valid. Since neither the views of the House of Shamai or of the House of Hillel lead to direct contradiction with Halakhic precedent, both express legitimate courses of action. Both are divrei elokim hayyim.

Your following paragraph tries to show that even within this, there is quarrel - but that does not take away from what remains at the end of the day. While both sides can score points against one another, and demonstrate the flaws within, and perhaps even argue that one is "more right" than the other, each is limited by the weaknesses the other has noted. Each lacks the strength of the other. Both truly are "divrei Elokim chaim".

Case in point: We had a couple of brilliant girls here for Shabbos recently (one of whom your brother ate with here previously). One argued much like you are against AvA, regarding the charedi way of life. They gave no credence whatsoever to the charedi viewpoint, arguing that its flaws make it objectively wrong and therefore not to be followed. The other (and I) argued the reverse - that while we personally may agree with her, there are certain reasonings behind that way of life that could very well be argued to be more correct (again, even if we don't agree), and therefore it is a valid, albeit flawed, set of opinions that lead to a certain way of life. By the same token, if one DID agree with their premises, the way of life that the rest of us hold dear would in actuality be incorrect and also 'objectively wrong'.

Okay - so that's a short summation which hopefully makes sense. Ciao!

Shmendrik said...

Again Ezzie, that is a misunderstanding of what Eilu v'Eilu means. Now I agree with you, and think I disagree with Tzarich Iyun, that a certain level of tolerance is required, as well as an ability to see the flaws in one's own position and the benefits in other's positions; however, that is not what Eilu v'Eilu means. In fact, your formulation is quite problematic, as you state 'both truly are "divrei Elokim chaim"'
because each position has a weakness which counterbalances the other. But surely "divrei elokim chaim" can not be defined as "2 equally flawed positions".

I would recommend that you read "The Dynamics of Dispute", by Rabbi Zvi Lampel.

He explains the meaning of the "Eilu v'Eilu" concept quite well. It actually means something quite specific, and is not a wishy-washy feel-good expression as some believe.

Tzarich Iyun said...

Hey Shmendrik. I'm not against tolerance, bud, it's just important to realize that those we are tolerating may be wrong.
You sound like you disagree with me, but I can't figure out what are the exact sticking points. I'd be delighted to find out.

Ezzie said...

Shmendrik - Again, I wrote that in a hurry, so certain parts came across poorly. However, divrei elokim chaim can certainly mean 2 flawed positions - the point is specifically that while each has its flaws, they also have their strengths - the best would be to understand when to apply each approach. In that way, both really are divrei elokim chaim.

TI - While it is true that sometimes we must realize that those we are tolerating are wrong, it is also important to recognize that while for us their approach may be wrong, or even for most people, (heck, maybe we think even for themselves!,) there is also often some validity to their approach. A good case in point would be the charedi educational system: Perhaps we think that there are major flaws in the system that are enough to scrap the whole thing and change it completely. From their point of view, however, those flaws are necessary byproducts of the ends to which they strive. We may disagree with that end, with those goals - but if they ARE correct (which is a possibility, even if we think it doubtful), then their approach may actually be the best. In this, ailu v'ailu may very well apply. Yes, we may think they're wrong, and we may even be more likely to be "truly" correct - but they may be correct as well.

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

See this comment:

Tzarich Iyun said...

Ezzie- I think I heard four arguments in your comments and I want to respond to each:
1. That many imperfect ideas and policies are still sufficiently good to fit into the world of AA. Maybe they aren't A+, but A- ain't half bad.
--Absolutely false! G-d wants what is truly best, or in my metaphor, the A+. Granted, A- is respectable, in fact, even difficult to achieve. But nonetheless, when confronted by the potential to improve our ideas and policies, maintaing an A- would be a shame; it would be an invalid and unacceptable decision.
Likewise, if unfortunately A- was the best available model, it would certainly be legitimate, despite its shortcomings. But only in that shaat hadakhak situation.
2.The above idea can even be seen in the world of halakha, where two opinions can "score points" against each other by pointing out flaws and weaknesses, and yet we consider both opinions to be valid.
--I don't think that description of Halakhic makhloket is accurate. When a flaw is located the problem is either addressed or not addressed. There are no in betweens- no ability to have varying levels of "fitting in" with precedent. The shita either fits or it doesn't. Granted, some defenses of a shita require straying from the pshat of a mishna or introducing a new girsa or developing a radical hiddush- but who says straying from pshat implies a qualitatively worse answer. It is just as legitimate, leaving both shitot both 100% flawless.
3. That there are basic assumptions which once accepted justify certain sectors' policies. Granted, you find faults in the educational polices of the haredim, but if you accepted their goals and assumptions, you would act similarly.
--Of course. Most debates between Haredim and MO occur on that basic level and would find resolution if one party would adopt the fundamental assumptions of the other. But that doesn't mean both policies fit into AA: one group has a better assumptions and one party has worse. It may be quite difficult, perhaps even impossible, to determine- but one side's assumptions are wrong.
4. Stop thinking you are right. Haredim do good things.
--True. Perhaps on certain issues we are wrong. Heck- we might be wrong about everything and Haredim might be absolutely perfect. Fine. Just recognize that on every issue, one side is performing better than the other. On that question one is right and other parties are wrong.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ben,

AA =Alcoholics Anonymous.
After your dalet kosot, all the contradiction will fall away.

abu yusef warshawsky
valley village

Anonymous said...

[...Now that I've finished this, I realize most of it could have been summed up with a few sentences. Oh well.]

Wonderful writing, good points.

A. See Jonathan Sacks here:
...and later lectures in that series, where he argues that the logical system you are using to analyze Judaism is foreign to it, and thus your conclusions are fundamentally flawed. A very interesting take. I'm neither knowledgeable enough in Judaism or philosophical thought to even guess whether he's right or wrong. See for yourself.

B. HALACHA: Interestingly, I was never taught Ailu V'ailu in the extreme way you described. I was taught AA meant that when you have two (or more) equally compelling and supported contentions, that both have value, and that depending on the individual posek, his outlook and his circumstances, one of those opinions ends up "winning" out. But there's no way to know (or reason to even say) whether that is "right," for the other opinion may very well have its time and place too (see the peirushim on "ein davar she'ein lo zman" in Pirkei Avot - this understanding is not new). The Maharetz Chayes (Zvi Hirch Chajes, whose intro to the Talmud is the basis for nearly everyone’s today) once famously wrote to the Chazon Ish during a particularly heated machloket that “we both know that you could have come up with a more lenient psak if you wanted to.” This is an example of acknowledgment of multiple possible “right” opinions, and the use of other factors (in this case, the historical circumstance of governmental regulation – another fun discussion for another time!) to choose between them.
This AA definition certainly wouldn't lend itself to the extreme formulations cited in your post (limiting of women's roles, affirmation of conservative and reform) all of which would be either accepted or rejected prima facie based on careful examination of halachic evidence and theological precedent [see R' Schreiber's emphasis on "hefayru toratecha" in the Rav's psak on women learning gemara which neatly fulfills both requirements]). Since halacha defines legislated uniform action, it by definition cannot be two things at once, but those two things can still be right (this is actually treading on Jonathan Sacks, who makes this point far more convincingly and in-depth than I do).
[NOTE: What I am describing below is a concept diffused throughout Judaism which has come to be described with the words “Ailu V’ailu” – I don’t think those words acquired such a definition until recent times, since I think AA is a halachic precept. So what I am attempting to explain is an ancient concept which now bears this newfound designation. Also, what follows is more my thoughts based on my small amount of Torah knowledge, and is probably flawed, but it's where I'm at. Read it straight, because it starts out very general with rather wishy-washy conclusions to be drawn, then gets down to the particulars as they relate to Jewish practice, history and texts.]
What if God's desire was that we follow his will, and that so long as one is attempting to do this, to the best of their ability, they're doing fine. With this approach, nearly all hashkafic controversies fall away as inessential to Jewish living, belief and practice. Yosef Albo, if you recall, had only 3 ikkarim. The rest is commentary, which, as any student of the beit midrash knows, tends to get over-emphasized in our world. Someone may be right or wrong in all these matters, but not with relation to God, who couldn't care less (about the result, not about the process; see below) (1). People who spend their time on these issues for the issues' sakes (not to strengthen an overall worldview and enhance Jewish life and observance) are therefore missing the point. They are serving their biases and whims, not God. It reveals a fundamental lack of perspective, as such people fail to recognize that by every hot-button issue that is to them so sacred, there are those who don't even have the question (case in point: many girls have either no interest in learning gemara, or DON'T LIKE learning it [I know Migdal Oz girls where this turned out to be the case] - nonetheless, I have encountered many feminists who cannot understand how anyone could not understand everything JUST LIKE THEM, and want to learn the same things, and WANT to extend women's tefillah opportunities, when most girls don't even have the desire to fulfill their minimun chiyuv in that regard today! And so on.).
Ailu V'ailu in hashkafa tells us: not everyone thinks like you, not everyone sees the world like you, and as such, they may be right from their personal philosophical perspective and you from yours. "But X issue is clearly important and essential to everything Jewish!" Check history, check the 13 (or 3) ikkarim, then check and see if what is central to you is really central to God. "Aseh retzono kirtzonecha."
This does not mean all these issues don't matter. On the contrary, if one is to be a complete and honest religious individual, one should explore all facets of one's relationship to God, and so long as one's conclusions are honest, they will enhance his avodas hashem, and enable him to better live it and articulate it. This violates no halacha, and yields tremendous gains. But by this very definition, I cannot supplant my conclusions to anyone else, because they will then have skipped all the deliberations that gave such conclusions their value. It’s about why you’re doing it, not what you’re doing.
AA simply reminds us that however important many issues may seem to us, we should not confuse our way of relating to God with his way of relating to us.
This turns the “Judaism has no set beliefs and is all about law and acts” argument on its head. The acts gain true significance only if they come through intensely personal struggle and resulting belief (and as such, can fluctuate, evolve, grow and change – a far more challenging religious outlook than found elsewhere). This is borne out by nearly all Jewish texts – it’s all about intellectual honesty and debate in the service of God (conflicting midrashim, aggadic statements, halachic views – divesting Judaism of these controversies would be to divest it of its meaning). [This is also, I think, why we strive (in a certain yeshiva) “to create talmidim and not Chassidim” - because such individuals will be more complete ovdei hashem. We have produced extreme right, extreme left, and everything in between, all with much more mutual respect for each other than anyone has a right to expect – because they evaluate each other by their religious honesty – by their internal process, not outward conformance].
Incidentally, you will find chareidim who are intellectually honest as well. They just accept different assumptions (often neither provable nor disprovable) at the get-go. But such people are still continuing this chain of struggle – anyone who immerses themselves in the dazzling yet contradicting works of our tradition can’t help but do so, constantly weighing, analyzing, and redrawing their lines in the sand. Often, the sole difference between us Modern Orthodox and them is how much one takes da’as torah into account – to chareidim, it’s divine, and thus sometimes (but NOT always – see the Slifkin controversy) all-encompassing (which, again, is honest, based on their assumptions), whereas for MO, it’s often about erudition and scholarly genius, which is more fallible, especially when new information or evidence comes to light. Based on our different assumptions, we work forwards, while chareidim work backwards. We “follow in their spirit” they “follow in their footsteps.” I happen to think our way is borne out by Jewish texts and history much moreso, and is therefore right before you even get to AA (every time a chareidi gadol quotes an Aristotelian ethic from the Rambam, or R’ Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, and many others, he proves this point), but considering the chareidi interpretation of the ratzon hashem, they are still following in the framework, and honestly too. So it comes out that they are in the ballpark according to their interpretation, not ours (since we take historical evidence into account, among other things) - this merits more thought (sorry, erev pesach!).
What it comes down to though, is this: many side issues often distract us from what is truly essential. If one never masters the basics (e.g. reading Crescas w/o knowing all the religious and philosophical works he’s drawing from, and within whose context he is writing), one CANNOT appreciate, or arrive at an honest conclusion with relation to said issues. If you don’t know Torah, you can’t know its stance(s) women’s issues, or organ donation, or our attitude towards non-Jews. You get caught up on sound-bytes – tidbits without context whose meaning is lost (2). It’s like watching “Judaism: Michael Moore Edition.” Such unconsidered opinions do NOT have the status of Ailu V’ailu. Only careful study and thought can yield one of Judaism’s many legitimate possibilities.
The Rambam emphasizes throughout the Moreh that to skip the preliminaries is intellectually lazy and dishonest, and those who do so will never have anything worthwhile to say. Our culture today, on the other hand, is centered around quick-fixes, immediacy (higher speed internet, fast food, on demand television, shorter, more scoring oriented hockey games etc.) and, as an inevitable result, knowledge-for-direct-gain. There is no concept of living a religious outlook so thoroughly that it shapes how you view things – because this requires (guess!) a lifetime of study and devotion, often with little to show for it, with only flashes of insight here and there. But that’s honest, and not McJudaism.

C. Now for the support of this interpretation of hashkafic AA:
From our historical vantage point, I think we can safely say that though the Rambam and the Ramban both call each other kofrim (by implication) in numerous places, God was pretty happy with them both. Similarly, though the Ritva eviscerates anyone who calls the asmakhta and mnemonic, saying they have no chelek in olam haba, I think God was equally proud of R' Yehuda HaLevi and the majority (so far as I've read) who disagreed. The message seems to be (in pithy aphoristic form): if we care about God, he cares about us. Judaism does NOT think someone always has to be right, eternally and objectively. Most things we can never know for sure, so it’s how we arrive at what we choose to do that matters, not so much whether what we choose is “right.” There’s certainly a framework, call it ikkarim if you will, but never confuse that with other issues, or widen it to encompass that which it was never meant to.
But what about the fact that all these great men listed above voiced their opinions in such a way that clearly excluded their opposition in the most explicit of terms? Didn’t the Ritva really think R’ Yehuda Halevi was a kofer? I say no. The aforementioned individuals carefully weighed all the sources, came to their philosophical conclusions and trumpeted them - just as when they deliberated and found a certain practice to be chillul shabbat, and said you were chayav mita for it. If you were reading their books, you obviously wanted to know their opinion, and they gave it to you, no holds barred. BUT, I'd like to posit, under no circumstances did they think that a genuine talmid chacham and oved hashem was going to burn because he disagreed with either their philosophical point, or their halachic ruling (the exception, of course, being Rabbi Chait's Rambam). On the contrary: if such a person was honest, thoughtful and righteous - Ailu V'ailu divrei elokim chaim (for historical proof: see the 60 page poem the Ramban wrote as a letter to the “Gedolei Hador” of France who banned Sefer HaMadah and Moreh Nevuchim [books the Ramban took to task MANY times in his peirush al hatorah and vehemently disagreed with] in which he venerates the Rambam and those books in particular, especially for what they did for those with a more philosophical bent to whom these books offered much comfort - note the nod to honestly arrived at differing religious perspectives).
I believe someone whose beliefs merit the distinction of being labeled Ailu V’ailu reaches the level of the Ramban and the Rambam and all the illustrious names listed above.

(1) There are, of course, practical ways these beliefs will influence halachic psak, which makes “aseh lecha rav” so important – find a Rabbi on your hashkafic wave-length.
(2) Case in point – centuries before anyone morally disputed the concept of slavery, the Talmud was “apologizing” for it (e.g. “one who buys himself a slave, buys himself a master” “give him your only pillow” etc.). This is not an attitude evident in the simple text, which seems to regulate acceptable slavery! And indeed, the Bible was used by many Christians to justify the practice. Their “one meaning, one time, for all-time” forced them into this interpretation as most likely. But any understanding of the underlying themes of the Bible – “man in God’s image,” “don’t oppress the stranger,” “remember you were slaves in Egypt / strangers in a strange land” - and an understanding of an evolving tradition which moves towards higher ideals through history, gave the Rabbis no trouble in explaining away slavery – indeed, it forced them to minimize it at a time when it was accepted!


Anonymous said...

CORRECTION: Though the Maharetz Chayes was certainly an extraordinary individual and scholar, he wasn't quite bright enough to travel into the future and argue with the Chazon Ish, who lived centuries later. He did, however, famously dispute the Chatam Sofer, which is what I was referring to.


Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

Yosef Warshawsky! I haven't spoken to you in a loooooooong time, how are you doing? Email me privately and we can talk off-the-record.

Alex said...


Please consider writing news pieces or an op-ed for Jewrusalem: Israeli Uncensored News. We strive to present different views and opinions while rejecting political correctness. Ideally, we try to make the news "smart and funny." Thus, your input is very welcome.


Leor Hackel said...


First of all, nice blog. I have to disagree with your take on elu v'elu, though, even if I agree about some of its common misuses. Specifically, I think a vast array of sources gives much deeper significance to this klal than you have here. (This topic is far too huge for me to post fully about it here, but If you would be interested, I have a very worthwhile miniseries of shiurim from Rav Chaim Eisen exploring this topic.) Just to focus on one part of what you said, though (most sources pointed out by R' Eisen):

"This description applies equally to hashkafa. Hashem has, as it were, a particular vision for the world and particular method of functioning. Armed with Torah and logic we may uncover these details or we may not- but their eternal, unchanging existence is a fundamental tenet."

The Gemara invokes the phrase "elu v'elu" twice in all of Shas. One is the famous instance concluding "vhalacha k'beit Hillel." The other time, though, takes place in an aggadic context, in a machloket over what happened in the incident of "pilegesh b'givah." After the machloket is described, Eliyahu HaNavi is quoted describing G-d sitting and learning this sugiya, repeating both sides of the machloket. Wh? "Elu v'elu divrei elokim chayim hem." Notice what it is not there, though-- no "v'halacha k'__." The point is, hashkafik issues can be all the more open to elu v'elu than halachik ones. Halakhic questions need to come down to a bottom-line psak. Non-legal issues do not, as long as they stay in a certain legitimate framework, and can remain in the realm of elu v'elu. (I know the example cited has to do with interpreting Tanach, but I think non-legal issues can be grouped together for these purposes--after all, didn't those pesukim have one original intent? Didn't the story only happen one way? There are other similar Gemarot, i.e. on Esther's kavana was in inviting Haman to her seuda.)

As for halakha: The Gemara itselfs describes the numerous "panim letahor" and "panim letamei" inherent in any issue, extolling those who could find them these different sides and svarot. Elu v'elu reflects that multifaceted nature of the world, and it is the job of the Chachamim to determine which facets they see as primary. That does not mean that one side had G-d's will, and one did not. G-d's will is for us to figure this out as best we can. I'm guessing you've heard this concept before and aren't giving it much credit, but it is reflected throughout countless Jewish works, and contains a lot more depth than I think you're granting it. Personally, I think it makes the halakhic system all the more beautiful.

CAN elu v'elu lead to a total rejection of the concept of truth? CAN it be overused in an apologetic "everyone's ok" way? And can there be halakhic or hashkafic opinions that are just plain wrong? Yeah, sure. But that doesn't mean that's what elu v'elu is supposed to be. I don't believe we need to treat a subjective approach to truth as a rejection of it. The epistemological and moral conclusions you come to are, I think, unnecessary. I can recognize the bounds of human subjectivity--including my own--while still affirming that I see the reality I see. Subjective reality is, in fact, real to me, and I can pursue truth while recognizing that it may always remain elusive to me on an absolute plain while I live in this world.

In contrast, I think that to ignore entirely our limitations in favor of a vision of monolithic truth is not fully honest about the realities of the alma d'shikra in which we live. Again: no, that doesn't mean I believe in a postmodern rejection of truth/morality. I think life has more gray shadings than that, and somewhere in there falls this klal and the search for truth.

Kol tuv,