Eilu v'Eilu:
Value of Choice or Value of Complexity

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In advocating for the importance of Eilu v’Eilu and the significance of this concept within the realm of Torah, I have always been drawn to those who present the spectrum of halachic opinions on a subject. By corollary, I have also been wary of those who speak in terms of the definite, the existence of only one correct halachic view. Over the years, though, I began to recognize a distinction between myself and many others who also promote the presentation of variant opinions within Halacha. To me, while one obvious result of the recognition of a spectrum of viewpoints will be the existence of different individuals abiding by variant conclusions and, as such, a role for individuality and autonomy within Torah, this is not the essence of Eilu v’Eilu. It is not about choice. It, rather, is about complexity. Eilu v’Eilu indicates the inherent dynamic and dialectic nature of Torah. For many others, though, it just seems to represent an allowance for, even a promotion of, simply, choice.

Is there a problem, though, with presenting the reality of the halachic spectrum as, simply, an offering of choice? Is not one valid halachic opinion as acceptable as another valid halachic opinion? T.B. Eruvin 6b states that, before there was a definitive, communal decision to follow the positions of Beit Hillel, an individual could choose to follow either the views of Beit Hillel or the views of Beit Shammai. It would seem from this gemara that this decision is autonomous, allowing a person to simply choose which position to follow based upon personal considerations. From the gemara’s further discussion, it would seem that this principle also applies today and, in situations of variant valid halachic viewpoints, an individual can decide which position to follow based solely upon his/her personal perspective. A close reading of the gemara, though, would challenge such a broad conclusion. There is a choice – but not in regard to individual halachic mandates rather in regard to the entire system. At first blush, it would seem that the gemara is stating that indeed there is individual choice but only to the extent that one can choose to completely follow the entire corpus of law of Beit Hillel or the entire corpus of law of Beit Shammai. Such a parameter does change the very nature of this choice – and there is concern that this is not recognized.

Why does Eilu v’Eilu seem to be such a contentious issue? Why is it that there are individuals who seem to be bothered by the very presentation of a spectrum of opinion? Some may believe that there has already been a definitive ruling as to which view in Halacha is to be followed and, thus, just as it was inappropriate to follow Beit Shammai after Beit Hillel’s views were established as the law, it is similarly inappropriate to present a spectrum of views when there is already a definitive ruling. Advocating for Eilu v’Eilu is thus seen as seemingly offering people choice when none, as perceived by these individuals, really exists. Indeed this is the essence of one of the fundamental disagreements between many of those who advocate against the presentation of a spectrum of halachic views and many of those who advocate for such presentations. The former believe that there is no longer choice in these many circumstances while the latter believe that there still is.

Another reason, though, may not only further explain why individuals are against the presentation of a spectrum of halachic views but may also explain the motivation of many individuals to indeed declare that there is a definitive halachic ruling. This is the concern that, if people were given the choice, such a decision will be made incorrectly. On a basic level, there is a concern that individuals will only look at the spectrum of viewpoints in regard to a specific issue and not consider the entire systems of those presenting these variant viewpoints. The choice allowed by the gemara is specifically a choice of systems, albeit that it seems to allow great autonomy to an individual in making this choice. But how many people consider entire systems within the spectrum of Halacha when they are considering differing views on a specific halachic decision? It may even be acceptable for a person to decide to accept a specific system solely based upon a desire to follow one specific halachic position found within this system – the key is the recognition that a specific halachic view cannot exist outside the system which begat it. The autonomy granted by Halacha operates within this realm. There is concern that, with the promotion of Eilu v’Eilu as a declaration of the value of autonomy within Halacha, this parameter on autonomy will not be demarcated.

The fact is, though, that a further review of this gemara will actually indicate that, in choosing specific halachic practices, one does not really even have to follow the entire position of Beit Hillel or that of Beit Shammai. A further reality is that our halachic standards today are actually a mixture of opinions of both, albeit, by far, not an equal mix. This would clearly show that it is actually not necessary to follow an entire system. What the gemara concludes, though, is that one cannot choose differing views that actually, in theory, oppose each other. On the surface, this may not even be easily seen. The concern is for the acceptance of contradictory, theoretical principles upon which these different laws are based. The allowance for one to choose either the positions of Beit Hillel or those of Beit Shammai is actually a call for individuals to recognize that specific halachic details emerge from integrated, whole halachic systems – and that while there is great flexibility given to the individual in this realm of the system, this autonomy must remain on this level. Halachic details do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as expressions of overall systems developed from a realm of halachic theory. If one is able to develop a new halachic theory that is able to combine positions of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that would be contradictory within their respective systems, that is acceptable. But you can’t choose to take one from Group A and one from Group B simply because you like them.

With this recognition, we begin to understand that the nature of halachic autonomy is actually very different than the general understanding of autonomy. In the general world, to argue for autonomy is to argue for the right of an individual to choose based upon one’s personal perceptions or desires. In a certain way, Torah also allows individuals this right in regard to certain choices. As Pirkei Avot 1:6,16 directs us: Asei lecha Rav, effectively choose for yourself a Rabbi. As this statement is directing you to choose someone to teach you or direct you in Torah, the choice must be personal for the one making this choice, by definition, does not have someone providing Torah direction by which to make this choice – after all that is the person he/she is choosing. The choice permitted by the gemara between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is of a similar nature. From that point, though, any choice moves to the realm of the intellect. The question is no longer which choice you like but rather which choice do you think is the more correct one pursuant to the structured system that you accept.

The first uniqueness of Eilu v’Eilu is in its declaration that Torah provides choices because Torah does not provide one clear answer or direction. This, however, is not similar to the choice that an autonomous society may provide. Eilu v’Eilu does not simply say you can choose. What it says, rather, is that there are different intellectual possibilities that may emerge in the attempt to understand Torah – effectively yielding different Torah possibilities. The choice we are called upon to make, then, beyond the preliminary choice of which system to choose initially, is, more specifically, what do you conclude to be the most correct presentation of God’s Will? Initially, this may be a choice that reflects some personal perspective but, as one furthers one’s investigation and analysis, the question transforms more and more into which system is correct, i.e. presents the clearest and intellectually consistent presentation and understanding of the facts. No doubt, there may be a personal element in how this question is also answered but the subjective issue is no longer which position I like but rather which position do I think is intellectually the best one, i.e. most correct.

This leads into the second uniqueness of Eilu v’Eilu. In that this concept articulates the idea that differing understandings within Torah (still within, of course, certain parameters) are all possible and adherence to one over another is acceptable, our perspective of the essential truth that not only allows for this but actually promotes it (see Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Hakdama, Iggrot Moshe) goes through a metamorphoses. Our call to relate to Torah, to study Torah, demands of us not only to be committed to the particular system and path that we follow but to understand the entire collection of systems as a whole. Torah is beyond monolithic; it is a realm of conflicting principles interacting with each other. In the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Majesty and Humility, Tradition 17:2, it is a world that reflects a unique dialectic where “[t]he conflict is final, almost absolute. Only God knows how to reconcile; we do not.” This is what Eilu v’Eilu articulates.

So while it is true that Eilu v’Eilu supports a certain level of choice and as such autonomy within Torah -- this does not reflect its ultimate value. First, the choice that it promotes is not similar, on so many levels, to the autonomy that exists in the secular world. We are called upon not to just choose what we wish but rather to make a decision as to what we think is most correct – given the effort and knowledge that we must acquire to exercise this choice. The Torah calls upon us to participate in the very process that provides for us God’s instructions as to His Will. This, indeed, incorporates our individuality and our directed autonomy. But beyond this, Eilu v’Eilu is the ultimate expression of the complexity of God and His moral universe. It is the opposite of simplicity just as the Unity of God is beyond our very determined comprehension.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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