by R. Gidon Rothstein
I had an idea I wanted to share, and was about to sit down to write it. Then I heard a man speaking, confidently, about a topic I strongly suspected he was neither capable nor qualified to address. (I have heard him before, on a range of occasions and issues, and he is often in error, never in doubt.) Coincidentally, if there is such a thing, I have been reading And There Was Light, Jon Meacham’s book about Abraham Lincoln, with a great focus on slavery, including the many leading intellectuals and religious figures who considered the institution, as put into practice in the South, with all its cruelties, to be God’s law.
Even the Greatest
It gives me pause. Perhaps we expect the uneducated or intellectually challenged to be wrong or misguided, to be vulnerable to deceit or grift, but I always sort of hoped intelligence and training would save us from at least egregious errors.
Sadly, not so. Remember that the Torah set up a sacrifice, a par he’elem davar shel tzibbur, to be offered should the the majority of the people follow an erroneous ruling of the Sanhedrin—the Sanhedrin! The top seventy Torah scholars in the nation!
Or, in an idea found in Kiddushin 70b (and elsewhere, but that was recently in Daf Yomi), R. Abba says in the name of Rav that if a student quotes a tradition before there is a practical example, we believe him, but if he quotes it for the first time to support a ruling on a topic, we do not. When Rema cites the idea in Yoreh De’ah 242;36, he limits it to a student who quotes someone else; were the Torah scholar to advance his own argument, with proofs, we judge the claim on its merits. Apparently, self-interest might still lead to valid logical claims, but runs too great a risk of him misquoting (I assume misremembering) what he heard from one of his teachers.
Our best and brightest can go wrong, on serious issues, and unequivocal truth is hard to find.
Living in a World of Uncertainty
Other than throwing up our hands, what to do? I propose we can find some guidance in a famous statement of R. Abba, this time in the name of Shmu’el (although I rarely hear it quoted in his name). On Eruvin 13b, he says Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel tussled for three years over whose view should be accepted in halachic practice, until a bat kol, a Divine Voice, announced that eilu va-eilu divrei Elokim Chaim, ve-halachah ke-divrei Beit Hillel, both views are the words of the Living God, while the practical law follows Beit Hillel.
Leave aside the debate about whether we accept the halachic ruling in the pronouncement, I have never heard anyone doubt the truth of the first half. Today, many take it to mean there is some truth in each of the positions in a dispute about Torah. Earlier readers, such as Ran, thought it meant one side might be wrong but their view still deserves to be part of Torah discourse, because they put in the correct effort to understand the Torah.
Either way, it should qualify the confidence with which we carry our own opinions. We might be wrong, no matter how talented we are, no matter how hard we worked; we might be Beit Shammai in this instance. Or, if eilu va-eilu means all sides capture some parts of truth, we might be seeing too little, could benefit from taking account of those other divrei Elokim Chaim views.
Where We’re Sure We’re Right
Always? Do we always have to think maybe the other person or group’s really right, or has some rightness to his/her view? I don’t think so; there are propositions our tradition has digested fully and carefully, reached unanimity or close to it. We believe in one God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who took us out of Egypt, gave the Torah at Sinai, and will redeem us fully in the future, with an eventual bodily resurrection of the dead. Full stop, no doubt.
Even the idea that God has no physical body, which has one famous opponent, R. Moshe Taku (who, as far as I have ever seen, is only known for this argument of his), seems to have won the day fully enough that I would hold its truth with unshakable confidence.
These are Jewish truths, as are many other propositions of the Torah, pretty universally accepted, such as: Jews fast on Yom Kippur, do not eat leaven for the seven days of Passover, on the first night of which they tell the Passover story and eat matzah. And more.
So yes, there are truths we assert confidently, without being overweening, because we reflect the broad consensus of Jewish thought, not because it is our idea.
Good Behavior Matters, Too
Aside from truths of content, there are truths of conduct. Some issue might still be arguable, but if the adherents of one side violate other well-accepted standards of human conduct in pursuit of their goals, they become wrong for that very reason. (Other adherents of the issue need not necessarily abandon their view because of this, although they might want to question their holding to a view that includes such people.)
The Ku Klux Klan pursues ideas and ideals I find abhorrent, but were they to promote these ideas in ordinary political ways, I would have thought we had to deal with them. Except they also pursue methods which exclude them from civil society, until such time as they change and renounce those criminal paths. (Where they pretend to do so, but really continue to accept them, is a particular challenge. Imagine a lawyer for some group of gangsters, who presents him/herself as law-abiding but actually abets criminal activity. A challenge.)
Sadly, the same has become increasingly true on the left; for an example close to home, I have long disagreed with those I thought excessively sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But now that they have celebrated wanton and mass murder and rape, they have disqualified themselves from being part of the conversation, unless and until they recognize what they have done, and recommit to being human beings.
Where There’s Debate
To get back to Beit Shammai, any time there are legitimate other views out there, in Torah or not, our awareness of the elusiveness of truth should mean we hold our own views somewhat loosely. This is true in halachah, let alone other topic areas where we have even less certain a mechanism for deciding how to proceed.
Think of your favorite debate among rishonim, authorities prior to the Shulchan Aruch, where one view was accepted by world Jewry. What’s the status of that other view? We likely don’t think it’s wrong (halachic authorities will often rely on such views in difficult circumstances), which means what we are doing isn’t the sole right way to act. It might not even be right at all, we might later find out, might turn out to be one of those versions of divrei Elokim Chaim that later proved wrong.
Within halachah, this calls for us to expand our readiness to respect other views, out of an appropriate humility about the validity of our conclusions (or, more often, of the Torah giants we have chosen to follow, in contrast to those who others have). In the world of kashrut, for example, to follow Shulchan Aruch, Rema, and the most accepted later authorities incorporates certain stringencies.
As heirs to their legacy, those stringencies obligate us, and we should continue them. Those who do not follow them, however, or find new stringencies to add, are doing…what? They’ve not necessarily violated kashrut rules, it’s that they might not be adhering to custom as much as they were supposed to. An important shift in perspective.
Stepping Away From Halachah
Where there’s no halachic consensus, or where the issue isn’t primarily halachic, as is true for many political questions, the idea applies sevenfold. I am sure taxes are the wrong answer, you are equally sure of the opposite. Who’s right? We have no idea. Of course, you’ll say but history shows, or economics, or political science. And I’ll say it shows the opposite.
It bears saying again: no one really knows. (Political scientist Philip Tetlock wrote a remarkable book called Expert Political Judgment, where he showed how often experts are wrong, and do not learn to do better. He developed something called superforecasting, a key element of which is gathering information from as wide a range of sources as available, and constantly reconsidering whether the views one held before are still true. Because the best we can do is make a reasonable guess, and keep revisiting it.)
A corollary: I should hold my opinions less strongly, because confident as I might be, no one really knows. As Niels Bohr or Yogi Berra said (actually, probably neither of them), it is hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But if so, when we meet to discuss it, we’re each hazarding our best guess. Which is fine, and necessary, but should inform the attitude we bring to our view, and reduce our irritation or disgust with those misguided enough to think elsewise.
To live our lives, we must make decisions with lack of sufficient information to find the one right answer, on many, many issues. We have to choose, and we should choose, and we should believe in what we choose fully, so we can dedicate ourselves to it with the passion and commitment life deserves. While we also remember others who dedicate themselves to what they chose might be less wrong than we are used to thinking, might deserve more of a hearing than we sometimes give, might have insights we can and should include in our own worldview.
Because even the greatest among us—and I doubt any of the greatest among us are reading this—don’t know the truth, they know the truth they’ve reached, by great hard work. Often a truth the rest of us accept gratefully for their having found it, but still a truth open to debate and adjustment. And the rest of us have even less reason to be that sure.
It’s hard to do both, and it’s necessary to do both, to hold our own view strongly and passionately, while having the intellectual humility to be open to other possibilities, and those who hold them.