“Why?” Aug. 2012
Why! By Michael Even-Esh
Question: We recently had a death in the family. Our family wanted to have a Jewish ceremony and do the traditions. Since I had been to Israel and did Livnot and was a little active in the Jewish community, I was voted “in charge” of this. I went to consult with two different rabbis, and got two different opinions. They were diametrically opposed to each other! We decided what we decided, but I wanted to ask you a deeper question: How can it be that there’s no one definitive way to do *anything* in Judaism? I know the old Jewish joke about “two Jews, three opinions,” but I never knew we had it *this* bad. Help!
Answer: First of all, I’m sorry to hear about the death in your family. May you all be “comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Secondly, your question is an excellent one! This is a serious subject, and has been asked for literally thousands of years!
Imagine a religion in which there is one way to do things, one tradition, one ideology, one path, one absolute truth. Do we really want Judaism to be like this? Perhaps some people do (although I’m not sure I’d want to marry such a person…); after all, there are advantages! We would be doing one thing, thinking one thought, taking one path.
There’s a certain beauty of a people being “in sync.” But Judaism rarely has taken this path. Judaism has more often encouraged people to come to their own conclusions, to write their own commentary, to come up with their own new understandings.
Nature lovers and scientists alike know the importance of bio-diversity. The more diverse the flora and fauna, the more stable an ecosystem is. This might be true about peoplehood and religion also. The more diverse your members, the more stable and healthy your group. Or, as Monty might have put it: there is the People’s Front of Judea, and there is the Judean People’s Front.
We have a saying in Judaism: “There are seventy faces to the Torah.” Originally, this saying was meant to mean something else, but today it is most often used to stand for the following idea: there are many ways to interpret the Torah (70 is a number which symbolizes *many*). You understand the Torah your way, I understand the Torah my way. But we all are trying to understand the Torah (this implies that we are supposed to be constantly learning the Torah in order to decide how *we* will interpret it…).
Shabbat – for instance – is a major pillar in Judaism. It is a foundation stone. But there are many ways to celebrate Shabbat. Different ways of celebrating Shabbat would be – in my eyes – a way of expressing some of the “seventy faces of the Torah.”
How lucky we are to have a people\a religion\a culture, in which diverse interpretations are encouraged!
About 2,000 years ago, there were two major schools of thought in Judaism here in the Land of Israel. One school, Bet Hillel, took a more lenient view on Jewish law; the other school, Bet Shammai, took a stricter view of Jewish law. In many ways, they seemed to be diametrically opposed in their worldviews. But they got along with each other, even though they very often did not see eye-to-eye.
Now many Jews would claim, and perhaps rightly so, that there is a limit to one’s expression of diversity. For instance, could you eat pork on Shabbat and say that’s one of the seventy faces? Just to make a point: You can eat pork, and still be Jewish, and still be a fine human being; perhaps you simply don’t connect to the Jewish prohibition against eating pork. But could you say that eating pork on the seventh day is one of the ways you interpret Shabbat? That would be a long stretch…
But within the framework of Judaism, there is much room for diverse thought and action. The Talmud mentions this idea, often using colorful examples. Here’s one: “In Rabbi Ishmael’s School, it was taught: And like a hammer that breaks the rock (into many pieces; this is a quote from the Book of Jeremiah)…just as (the rock) is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings.” (Sanhedrin 34a) Interestingly enough, this idea was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael; it implies that there were other schools that did not teach it…
Therefore, in the spirit of fairness and diversity, we must add:
Some Jews would say: “Just because you are Jewish and just because you have your own interpretation of Judaism, that doesn’t allow you to do what you want, go against the Torah, and call it one of the ‘seventy faces of the Torah.’ In order to express one of the seventy faces of the Torah, you have to know the Torah, know the Torah laws, and follow them. Only then can you qualify to express one-seventieth of the truth.”
To that I would answer: That, too, is one of the seventy faces of the Torah!
In short, I think we should be proud that our people have traditionally encouraged diversity. I also think we should surround ourselves and constantly meet with diverse types of people, including those who do not share our worldviews. Unity is important; uniformity is not. Freedom of interpretation is a Jewish value that we should hold dear. So yes…”Two Jews, three opinions.” But more importantly: “One Torah, seventy ways to interpret it.”
Note: Questions that have to do with halacha – Jewish law – should be answered by a competent authority; this column only deals with Jewish values and ideology.