Joseph C. Kaplan

Seventy Faces of Column Writing

My brother-in-law Monty, who always enjoys telling a good joke, sent the following meme to a family group: “The fact that there is a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.”

In addition to smiley face and “exactly” responses, Avi, a favorite nephew (note the indefinite article “a”), who is a thinker and particularly perceptive, took the meme seriously and wrote: “I think people who try to get to heaven know there’s no quick and easy way. You gotta work it step by step.” “I had exactly the opposite reaction,” I responded to Avi. “It tells me that heaven is so much closer and easier to get to – like a quick and easy walk upstairs in your house rather than a long car trek to Toronto.”

As I’ve noted more than once, I’m no theologian so I won’t write a lengthy discourse about heaven and hell. I’ll simply note a well-known Talmudic text relevant to the question of olam haba – the world-to-come. “Rav Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s teaches (Avoda Zara, 10b): Yesh koneh olamo be-sha’ah achat, ve-yesh koneh olamo be-kama shanim – Some acquire their share in the world-to-come in one moment, and others acquire theirs only after many years.”

So Avi and I, though in apparent disagreement, may both be correct.

A second Talmudic text (Eruvin, 13b) broadens this message beyond the world-to-come. “Shmuel teaches: For three years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed . . . until a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: these and those (elu ve-elu) are the words of the living God.” Or, as Bamidbar Rabbah (13:16) explains, “shivim panim be-Torah,” there are 70 faces to (or modes of expounding) the Torah.

My takeaway from this email exchange is that two people can read the same text and come to different conclusions. And the lesson of the Talmudic and Midrashic passages is that sometimes both conclusions can be correct.

I came back to these six paragraphs a few days after I wrote them and thought: “Hmmm, not a bad column. Good personal story, a shout out to two beloved relatives, references to three venerable Jewish texts relevant to the story, and a moral to boot. Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead.”

But there were two problems. First: My editor expects more that 320 words from me when I submit a column. And second: While my readers may not remember the substance of all my columns as I do, some might remember my penultimate one (“Non-lyin’ Eyes”) whose point was that we need to believe what our eyes tell us. It also strongly implied that in the cases discussed in that column, if your eyes are telling you something other than what mine tell me, get cataract surgery. So am I contradicting myself? Is there one way to see things or are there two or even seventy?

The first problem will take care of itself; indeed, it already has. But resolving the second will be the gist of this column.

In my 46-year career as a commercial litigator, I had hundreds, probably thousands, of hard-fought debates with other lawyers over the law and facts concerning our clients’ disputes. While I almost always thought that I had the better side of the argument, in my heart of hearts I also almost always knew that the opposing side had some validity too. Thus, the judge or jury would have two decent arguments to choose from, and would decide which was better, not which was absolutely correct.

Not always, though. While there are libraries full of legal tomes analyzing the law’s intricacies, there is also black letter law; that is, standard rules that are universally known and free from doubt, consisting of fundamental, and unchallengeable, principles. With black letter law there’s no real, serious debate; the side citing it is right and the other wrong. As can also be true about facts. While most are debatable, there is a legal concept of res ipsa loquitor – the thing speaks for itself. So to use an example from my first year torts class, if an air conditioner falls out of a building on a passerby’s head, they don’t have to prove negligence; the thing speaks for itself.

Jewish law, halacha, is similar. There are times in halacha when “these and those” are true, when there are 70 ways of looking at the law. But not always; sometimes there is no dispute, In fact, there’s an section in the Mishnah – the fifth Chapter of Tractate Zevachim, that many recite at the beginning of their daily prayers – that doesn’t have a single machloket (dispute). Sometimes, like black letter law, the halacha is clear and can’t be challenged.

And that’s why both of my columns can be true at the same time. Sometimes (and for what those times are today, see my earlier column), you have to believe your non-lyin’ eyes and understand that those who disagree with you are wrong. Most often, though, reasonable people (emphasis on reasonable) can disagree.

Which leads to the critical question: how are we to know when each paradigm applies. I wish I had an easy answer to this question. If I did, I’d write a book, reveal the secret, and make a lot of money. (And speaking of me writing a book, I’ll note that the book I actually did write recently, “A Passionate Writing Life,” is available once again at the Judaica House in Teaneck and on its website.)

So no easy answers. Rather, knowing the difference is one of the difficult things adults are asked to do; making decisions when there are no clear guidelines, distinguishing between issues without clear rules, recognizing right from wrong and good from bad when the Ten Commandments (which, parenthetically, absolutely do not belong on public school walls) don’t give you a clear answer.

It takes case-by-case analyses rather than broad generalizations; it requires focusing carefully on the issue being discussed and parsing it out, rather than waving away difficulties with a shrug; it needs careful in-depth thought, with an understanding and application of nuance and context. And after you’ve gone through that process, been as honest with yourself as possible, and decided when debate is possible and when res ipsa loquitor applies, you need a strong backbone to stand by your conclusions and withstand the criticisms that may be hurled at you.

Just like the seemingly clashing conclusions that Avi and I drew from the meme were both true, so too are the ostensibly different points made in this and the previous column. While my columns are as far from “the words of the living God” as one can possibly get, elu ve-elu, the words in this one and that one, contain, I hope, ideas that can be helpful in navigating the very difficult times in which we live.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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