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Does Judaism really favor pluralism?

Numerous scriptural sources promote tolerance for multiple viewpoints: Yes to Jewish unity -- no to uniformity

Recently, we have witnessed three major examples of intolerance in the State of Israel. First, the Mayor of Rehovot and the President of Israel refused to allow a Conservative/Masorti rabbi to officiate at a Bar/Bat mitvah ceremony for children with special needs. Then the Tzohar group of supposedly open Orthodox rabbis refused to allow Conservative and Reform rabbis to teach on Shavuot at Tzavta in Tel Aviv. Finally, the Chief Rabbinate tried to forcibly retire Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, because he has trained and appointed women as religious leaders, is lenient in matters related to conversion, and has engaged in dialogue with Christians.

There is a commom denominator between all three stories: that there is just one way to be Jewish. We shall see below that this unfortunate and misguided approach is contradicted by thousands of years of Jewish sources. The bottom line is that Judaism is in favor of unity but opposed to uniformity.

On the one hand, we know from Jewish history that disunity leads to tragedy, Destruction and Exile. This is the lesson of Joseph and his brothers and of the Ten Tribes who broke off from the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century BCE and were ultimately exiled in 721 BCE.

This is also the lesson of the Maccabean conflict. According to II Maccabees (Chapters 4-6), the decrees of Antiochus were brought about by senseless hatred among the Jewish leaders who ceaselessly plotted against one another.

Similarly, according to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam [senseless hatred]”. This is confirmed by the stories about the Destruction found in Gittin 56a and related by Josephus (Wars of the Jews, IV, 6, 1 and V, 1, 1-5).

On the other hand, our classic sources stress the importance of unity. As we have learned in Berakhot 6a: “What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe?… ‘And who is like Your people Israel, one nation in the earth’ (II Chronicles 17:21)…”

The prophet Ezekiel prophesized that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel will be reunited (37:16-22), like two sticks being “joined together in your hand…”

This is also stressed in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Nitzavim, pp. 48-49): “if one takes a bundle of reeds, will he be able to break them at one stroke? But if he takes them one by one, even an infant can break them. So too you find that Israel will not be redeemed until they become one bundle…”

And so said Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel in the 15th century, in his commentary to Judges 21:5: “All the good of Israel and their survival hangs on their being uinified together”.

We have thus far seen that the Jewish tradition is opposed to disunity and strives for unity. One could easily conclude from these sources that the best way to achieve unity is by uniformity. If we all think the same and act the same then we will be united. Indeed, this is and was the approach of many dictatorships. However, nothing could be further from the approach of our classic sources. Our Sages taught that pluralism is essential when studying Torah, among people, and within Jewish law.

Pluralism in the Torah – how so? Our Sages said that “There are seventy faces to the Torah” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15-16). “‘And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jeremiah 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one Biblical verse convey many explanations” (Sanhedrin 34a).

Similarly, the house of Rabbi Yannai said: “Whoever learns Torah from one rabbi, never sees a sign of blessing” (Avodah Zarah 34a). In other words, one must study Torah with different teachers and thereby listen to different interpretations.

Pluralism among human beings – how so? We have learned in the tractate of Berakhot 58a: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, he says: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ — for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other”.

In Midrash Tanhuma (Pinhas, parag. 10) Moses asks at the time of his death that God should appoint a leader for the Jewish people. And who is the ideal leader? “Appoint over them a person who tolerates every single person according to his opinion.”

Rabbi Kuk was such a leader. He wrote (Olat R’iyah, Vol. I, p. 330): “For the building will be built from different parts, and the truth of the Light of the World will be build from different sides, from different opinions, for ‘these and those are the words of the living God’ (Eruvin 13b). From different ways of avodah [worship or work] and instruction and education, each of which has its place and value… and the multiplicity of opinions, which comes from the difference of souls and educations (sic!), that is the very thing which enriches wisdom and causes it to expand. So that, in the end, all things will be understood properly, and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the building of peace to be built except by all of the infleunces which appear to be in conflict with each other.”

Pluralism in Jewish law – how so? We have learned in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:2, ed. Venice, fol. 22a):

“Rabbi Yannai said: If the Torah had been given sliced [i.e., with one clear answer to every question] there would be no room for the leg to stand [i.e., no room to maneuver]… Moses said: Lord of the Universe, tell me what is the halakhah? God said: “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2) – if those who acquit are in the majority – acquit, if those who find guilty are in the majority – find guilty, so that the Torah will be interpreted 49 faces impure and 49 faces pure…”

In other words, Moses wanted God to give him a clear answer to every question. God replied that the Sages in every generation must debate every issue and decide by majority vote what to do. Indeed, this is what the Sages did. After debating an issue and arriving at a majority opinion, they would force the minority to follow their opinion (see Mishnah Eduyot 5:6; Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9; Bava Metzia 59a-b; Berakhot 63a-b; Eruvin 13b).

However, after the era of the Sanhedrin (ca. 425 CE), there was no longer one group of rabbis who could decide by majority vote. As a result, Jewish law became much more pluralistic. As I have written elsewhere (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 117-118):

“The fact that a Rabbi or a group of Rabbis rules in a certain way does not mean that all Jews will do or must do what they say. Throughout Jewish history, contradictory halakhic rulings coexisted side by side. In the Talmud we find expressions such as “In Sura they followed Mareimar, but Rav Shisha the son of Rav Idi followed Abaye”. In the Geonic period, we find a series of halakhic disagreements between the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita. According to Sefer Hahilukim Bein Anshei Mizrah V’anshei Ma’arav, there were at least 55 halakhic differences between the Jews of Babylonia and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the Geonic period. In medieval times, there were hundreds of differences between Ashkenazim and Sefaradim… In modern times, there were many halakhic disagreements between Hassidim and mitnagdim, between the various hassidic dynasties and between various Sefardic ethnic groups. A Sefardic Jew who disobeyed an Ashkenazic Rabbi was not a “sinner”, he was simply relying on a different custom or Rabbi.”

In conclusion, the attempt of certain Orthodox rabbis in Israel to impose their specific halakhic opinion on all the Jews of Israel (and the Diaspora) contradicts the way that Jewish law has worked since the dissolution of the Sanhedrin.

May we aspire, rather, to the Jewish ideal of unity without uniformity. In the words of Rabbi Kuk: “the multiplicity of opinions, which comes from the difference of souls and educations (sic!), that is the very thing which enriches wisdom and causes it to expand”.

About the Author
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. in Jerusalem.
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