Elu v’Elu

Rabbi Amitai Adler
April 9, 2012
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I heard, a number of years ago, a wonderful drashah by my friend and teacher Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, on the famous sugiya from Eruvin 13b concerning Hillel and Shammai. The Gemara relates that the schools of Hillel and Shammai were deeply divided concerning certain matters of halachah (Rashi clarifies that the quarrel was intensifying to the point of conflict, since it was almost like there were two Torahs). At that point, a bat kol (Heavenly Voice) is heard, which says elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim… (“These and also those are the words of the living God…”); and Aryeh pointed out that when this story is retold (and it is retold frequently), people inevitably leave off the end of the bat kol’s statement, which is …v’ha-halachah k’vet Hillel. (“…but the halachah goes according to the school of Hillel.”)

This last bit is actually quite central, for two reasons. The first is that the Gemara goes on to question why, if both were divrei elohim chayim, would the halachah go according to Hillel and not Shammai? The answers being that the school of Hillel not only taught their own interpretations, but they studied those of the school of Shammai as well: what is more, they taught the interpretations of Shammai before teaching their own. But first and foremost, we are told that Bet Hillel were nochin v’aluvin: aluvin means that they were humble (not arrogant); nochin is usually translated along the lines of “kind” or “kindly” (so renders Soncino, clearly in light of Jastrow’s secondary rendering of the word); but the word’s primary meanings have to do with being at rest, satisfied, relieved, comfortable, or easily assuaged. I would be inclined to render the word “easygoing,” or perhaps more to the point, “tolerant.”

The importance of this point cannot be understated: we are clearly taught that the halachah which is best to follow is that which is taught in the spirit of tolerance and understanding of other opinions and views.

The second reason for the importance of the last part of the bat kol’s pronouncement is that, as Aryeh pointed out, you have to pick a shitah (interpretation, or paradigm of interpretation) and go with it. Even when you know that elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim, you pick the one you agree with and you go with it, because practice is of paramount importance, not the fine nuances of either theology or legal theory, which may be debated endlessly. And, as I recall his implication, having picked a shitah to follow in practice, it should follow that the other(s), being also dvar elohim chayim, is to be respected in disagreement.

The failure to recognize that disagreement among Jews of good faith (so to speak) must be civil and respectful, and likewise the failure of halachists and halachic communities to learn from the noachut and alivut (tolerance and humility) that were Bet Hillel’s crowning merits, are what breeds sinat chinam (baseless hatred). This (especially the latter) is what we are taught caused the destruction of the Second Temple, and judging by the attitudes and actions prevalent in the Haredi world toward non-Haredi Judaism and non-Haredi Jews, and in some of the non-Haredi world toward Haredi Judaism and Haredi Jews, it is clearly a lesson we have not learned.

Even if one is convinced that one’s position is correct, one must still tolerate other opinions. This was codified into practice in the twelfth century by the synods of ShU”M (Speyer, Worms, and Mainz), who emphasized among their many halachic legislations that it was incumbent upon the bet din (rabbinical court) of one jurisdiction to respect the jurisdiction of other batei din, and not to attempt to override the halachic authority of other jurisdictions by making contrary rulings from outside the jurisdiction. They did this because when Jews do not have the luxury of civil and criminal halachah being largely in abeyance (but rather, civil and criminal halachah is the active law of daily Jewish life), the system is simply untenable without either a supreme halachic authority or tolerance of varying and dissenting halachic rulings; and of course, we have had no true supreme halachic authority since the days of the Sanhedrin– if indeed the authority of the Sanhedrin was unchallenged, which may be a presumption subject to debate.

What we are seeing today, and what we have been seeing to some degree for the past couple of centuries, is that even when civil and criminal halachah is in abeyance (since today, and more or less since the emancipation of European Jewry at the beginning of the 19th Century, we generally permit the secular courts of the land in which we reside to decide all matters not pertaining to ritual observance, save only for halachic marriages and divorces), eventually the system will become untenable even in regard to ritual observance, marriages and divorces, and questions of Jewish identity, unless we can respectfully and tolerantly agree to disagree on most matters, and can respectfully and tolerantly discuss how to construct and observe universal minimums of observance on such things as cannot be let lie (for example, the question of who is a Jew).

I am not unaware, of course, that not all of the Jewish People consider themselves “halachic Jews” anymore. But I use the halachic paradigm not only because it is traditional, and because I personally believe that some kind of halachic system (traditional or otherwise) is integral to the survival and coherence of the Jewish People, but because regardless of the framing of the language, the essential truth remains the same even if one does not ascribe to “commandedness.” Tolerance, humility, and willingness to respect opinions one does not agree with, if they are held in sincerity by basically good people are qualities whose absolute necessity to the continuation of the Jewish enterprise transcend any beliefs about the nature of commandment, covenant, and law.

No good will come of us trying to force one another to change our interpretations and opinions. None has ever come yet of such attempts. Pluralism is truly our only road to survival: we must learn to create space for everyone to be Jewish in the way that seems spiritually and philosophically needful to them, whether we agree with their opinions and practices or not.

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1 Comment

  1. Rabbi I enjoyed this article so much. If only all Jews would learn these important words it would make for more harmony among themselves.

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