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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

“BOTH” Are the Words of God

The Jewish world has just finished commemorating Tisha B’Av – a historical debacle (actually several) borne of serious disagreements between Jewish camps that led to internal civil strife and ultimate loss of sovereignty. Is history repeating itself? What do we need to recognize in order not to fall into the same trap?

We (Israelis, and the world in general) seem to be living in an era of highly contentious “politics” in the broad sense of the term. Not merely regarding which political party of ideology to vote for, but more profoundly questions about “truth” in general. Indeed, some are calling this the “post-truth” period in which your opinion is as good as mine, even when there is strong evidence to back up only one of us.

But the sense that we are in a novel situation in human history – regarding blurred lines between knowledge and opinion – is dead wrong. Human beings have always disagreed about values and even about “facts”. One difference between the modern period and those that came before is that in today’s democratic era, all citizens are allowed to voice almost anything they wish (other than directly causing immediate, irreparable harm e.g., yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theater when there’s no fire). Yet, the question remains: are all opinions equally “true”?

The Talmud provides an interesting answer – to my mind the most profound and perplexing statement it has to offer among thousands of its other aphorisms (Tractate Eruvim, 13b): “eylu ve’ey’lu divrey Elohim khayim” (אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים) – “this opinion and that [opposing] opinion are BOTH the Words of God [i.e., correct]”!

On the face of it, this would seem to be a paradox: how can opposing opinions both be correct? But not only is this saying “correct,” it is correct in two different ways.
First, our world is not static; things change, and what might be the proper “opinion” (e.g., right thing to do) one day, might not be the best thing to do in another time – or in another situation, circumstance, population group. Or perhaps especially when our understanding of the issue becomes wiser and more complete.

A great example of this actually comes from recent science (the one field that we generally think of as being purely “factual”). When I was growing up many decades ago, the Solar System map had nine planets. Unless you’re only in your Twenties, you probably recall this too. But around twenty years ago, astronomers “demoted” Pluto from a “planet” to being a mere large “astronomical body.” Why? Because their understanding of what characterizes a “planet” became clearer, and more information emerged about Pluto itself. In short, in the 20th century Pluto was a “fact” and then in the 21st century it became a different “fact”!

Second, when (usually in politics) we are involved with issues of values, opposing ideas can easily both hold truths – at least in part. For example, what to emphasize: personal freedom or social justice? Any policy that focuses on only one of these values will lead to disastrous consequences for society as a whole (if there’s no personal freedom, no one strives; if no social justice, crime and violence ensues).
Yet the Talmud does not take the “post-modern” position that “anything and everything goes” i.e., moral or political anarchy. Indeed, the above aphorism was announced by no other than the Almighty – who added one further statement: “… but the Law is according to the House of Hillel” (one of the two sides in the argument). In other words, human society has to live by some standards and accompanying rules if it is not to descend into chaos.

However, this does not mean that the “losing” side is “wrong.” Circumstances might change, necessitating the (temporary?) acceptance of Beit Shammai’s opinion. Or we might find that other decisions we take later on would somehow contradict Beit Hillel’s stance – almost demanding a switch to Beit Shammai to maintain internal (legal or social or philosophical) consistency. One would be hard put to think of any norm/standard/value that would never change no matter what the circumstances.
Which brings us to our contemporary situation. We have many differences of opinion on a national and personal plane. Someone has to make a decision – but that does not mean that they are necessarily “more right” than the “losing” side. Indeed, we ought to respect the losing opinion, not only because it might be no less “correct” than ours, but even if not so today, the other side’s opinion could well be more relevant and useful in a future of significantly changed circumstances.

If in the end you don’t agree with what I have argued here (of course, that would merely reinforce my general point!), let me conclude with one last item worth thinking about – from contemporary science. The very basis of reality (as we understand it today) is quantum mechanics in which physicists have conclusively proven (through the “double slit experiment”) that reality has a dual nature: photons, electrons, and other particle types that underly reality are immaterial waves but they are also physical matter! Hillel and Shammai certainly didn’t understand physics (modern physicists can’t “explain” this reality-duality either; it just “is”) – but the Voice from Heaven that announced “eylu ve’ey’lu” most assuredly did. As individuals and also as a society we would do well to internalize that truism regarding our personal beliefs, social norms, and political opinions.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com