Jonathan Muskat

The Ethics of the One Truth/Multiple Truths Question

The question of whether there only is a singular truth or whether there are multiple truths is a fascinating, complex philosophical question.  It seems to me, though, that it is not only a philosophical question, but it is an ethical question, as well.

Perhaps the two most famous Rabbinic authorities that discuss this issue are the Ritva and the Ran.  The Ritva subscribes to the “multiple truths” theory.  The Talmud in Masechet Eruvin states that both the opinions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are the words of the living God, but the halacha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel.  In his commentary on this Talmudic passage, the Ritva cites the “French Rabbis” who asked how it is possible that both positions of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are the words of the living God if they are diametrically opposed to each other.  They answered that there is not one singular truth.  Rather, when Moshe ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, God demonstrated to him that every matter was subject to forty-nine lenient and forty-nine stringent approaches.  According to the Ritva, then, there are multiple legitimate perspectives regarding what the truth is; however, when deciding what to do, we need to decide which perspective we will follow and it was decided that the halacha is like Beit Hillel.

The Ran, however, subscribe to the “one truth” theory.  The Talmud in Masechet Bava Metzia states that Rabbi Eliezer had a different halachic view on a matter of tumah than the other Sages and he brought about a number of miracles and even a voice from Heaven to support his position.  Nonetheless, Rabbi Yehoshua responded that we follow the majority view even if the minority view is supported by a voice from Heaven.   The Talmud continues the story by stating that at that moment, up in Heaven, God was smiling and saying that His children defeated him.  In one of his drashot, the Ran explains this story to mean that even though the majority view did not represent the truth, being that it did not reflect the opinion of the Heavenly voice, God smiled and said that the majority view defeated Him.  There only is one objective truth and we need not follow the truth if it doesn’t reflect the majority view.

As I wrote at the outset, though, I believe that this question of one truth versus multiple truths is not merely a philosophical question, but it is an ethical question, as well.  Each of these positions convey the value of humility, but in a different way.  If I believe in multiple truths, then I believe that my perspective is not the only legitimate perspective.  If I believe in multiple truths, I believe that I can learn something from everyone, especially those who don’t agree with me.  If I truly believe in multiple truths, whether I am a Litvak and not a Chassid, or I am a Democrat and not a Republican, I am not merely tolerant of other opinions, but I value other opinions and I have what to learn from other opinions, even those that are diametrically opposed to my worldview, as Beit Shammai’s view was diametrically opposed to Beit Hillel’s view.  Recognizing that I do not own the truth certainly is a practice in humility.

If I believe in one truth then I believe that the position that opposes my position does not represent the truth.  However, I am willing to suspend my judgment and defer my view to the majority view.  I believe that I am right and you are wrong, and yet, I am a community-minded individual so I will follow the decision of the majority view.  This, perhaps, is a more extreme view of humility.  Even though I am convinced that someone else is wrong, I value relationships, I value unity and I value community.  I am humble and realize that I am not better than the rest of the community and therefore, even though I am convinced that I am right, I will defer to the opinion of the majority in my community.

How do we rule?  Are there multiple truths or is there only one truth?  I think that we need to be humble and consider both possibilities and the underlying ethical values behind these possibilities.  Let us be humble and consider the possibility that others also possess the truth from which we can learn, and let us also be humble and realize that in a given circumstance when we possess the truth but everyone else disagrees,  we will practice humility and defer to the majority.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.