70 Faces of Torah and Eilu Va’Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayyim – The Limits of Pluralism

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
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Sacred Slogans

This post addresses two Sacred Slogans frequently employed in the name of pluralism. The first is that there are “70 faces of Torah,” referring to the multiplicity of possible interpretations, seen as the inspiration for religious blog names on Patheos and HuffPost. The second is “eilu va’eilu divrei elokim hayyim” – “these and those are the words of the living God.” Both of these Sacred Slogans are typically invoked to praise the institution of debate and to affirm that multiple – and sometimes contradictory – viewpoints can be equally valid.

When we examine the sources of these idioms we will find some affirmation of debates, but more significantly, we find their limitations.

70 Faces of Torah

The Rabbinic source for there being “70 faces of Torah” is Midrash Rabba Nasso 13:15:

Numbers Rabba Nasso 13:15
SEVENTY SHEKELS, AFTER THE SHEKEL OF THE SANCTUARY (Num. 7:19). Why? As the numerical value of yayin (wine) is seventy, so there are seventy faces [of expounding] the Torah.
במדבר רבה נשא יג:טו
שבעים שקל בשקל הקדש למה כשם שיין חשבונו שבעים כך יש שבעים פנים בתורה

The point of this midrash is affirmed through an extensive Talmudic history of exegetical disagreements and varying methodologies. Hillel the Elder listed seven exegetical techniques for exposition1 and R. Yishmael listed thirteen,2 so we should not be surprised when different methods yield different results.

But multiple exegetical tools do not imply infinite legitimate readings, or even practical ones. After acknowledging that the Torah has “70 faces” of interpretation, the next lines of the midrash affirm the uniformity of Torah, and crucially, the authority of the oral tradition.

Numbers Rabba Nasso 13:15
Why does it say ONE in connection with the dish? It symbolizes the Torah which must be one; as you read, One Torah and one ordinance shall be…for you (Num. 15:16).

As it says, “One Torah and one Law you shall have for you” (Num. 15:29) Why does it say ONE in connection with the basin? Because the words of the Written Law and those of the Oral Law were all given by one Shepherd; one God communicated them all to Moses on Sinai.
במדבר רבה נשא יג:טו
למה נאמר בקערה האחת כנגד התורה הצריכה להיות אחת

כמה דתימא (במדבר טו) תורה אחת ומשפט אחד יהיה לכם למה נאמר במזרק אחד שדברי תורה שבכתב ודברי תורה שבע”פ כולם נתנו מרועה אחד כולם אל אחד אמרן למשה מסיני

The “Oral Law” mentioned here is synonymous with the rabbinic interpretive and legislative tradition.3 This includes authoritative interpretations of biblical texts as well as the methods for exposition cited earlier. Furthermore, the oral rabbinic tradition covers the process for how interpretations become authoritative, and more importantly, restrictions on interpretations for what can be taught.

According to an anonymous Mishna, the punishment of the sword is brought by God for teaching Torah not in accordance with the law.4 A “rebellious elder” can be executed for instructing people to disobey a ruling by the Sanhedrin.5 And returning to the specific idiom of “faces of Torah,” R. Elazar HaModa’i says, “Whoever reveals ‘faces’ of the Torah not in accordance with the law, even if he has in his hands Torah and good deeds, has no share in the world to come.”6 

Or as a joke was once told to me years ago, “There are 70 faces to Torah, but there are not 71.”7

Eilu Va’Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayim – These and Those are the Words of the Living God

The idiom of eilu va’eilu appears in two contexts in Rabbinic literature. One involves reconciling an exegetical disagreement over interpreting Judges 19:2.8 In context, both opinions are harmonized and given equal legitimacy, essentially saying, “both are correct.” In doing so, the Talmud demonstrates how “These and those are the words of the living God.”9 There is no practical consequence to this dispute, so we will turn to the second context where the stakes are significantly higher: the dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai.

Even by rabbinic standards, the disputes between the Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are legendary. According to the Mishna, Hillel and Shammai exemplified a “dispute in the name of Heaven” which is destined to endure.10 Despite this praise of arguing for the sake of Heaven, these disputes cannot be considered entirely positively. A Talmudic passage laments that initially there were not as many disputes in Israel because people could simply follow the court’s decisions. However, “as the students of Hillel and Shammai proliferated and they did not serve their masters as needed, so many disputes proliferated in Israel that the Torah became like two Torahs.”11 

There are conflicting accounts as to the civility of these disputes. One Talmudic passage states that even though the schools of Hillel and Shammai argued over questions pertaining to marital status, they would still marry within each other’s communities, fulfilling the verse, “Love truth and peace” (Zech. 8:19).12 On the other hand, the Yerushalmi records that on one particularly contentious day, “the students of the school of Shammai stood below and killed the students of the school of Hillel,” with another report saying, “six went upstairs and the rest stood over them with swords and spears.”13

These disputes were ultimately resolved, and it is this resolution that we find our Sacred Slogan: “These and those are the words of the living God.”

B. Eiruvin 13b
Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.
בבלי עירובין יג:ב
אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל: שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל, הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו. יצאה בת קול ואמרה: אלו ואלו דברי א-להים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הלל.

Significantly, the Divine Voice speaks in clauses that determine the limits of eilu va’eilu.  It does not say, “even though the law is like Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai’s opinion is also the words of the living God,” which would make the focus one of pluralism: regardless of the legal outcome, Beit Shammai’s opinion retains theoretical validity. Rather, as phrased, “both are the words of the living God, and law is like Beit Hillel,” this means that even though a position may be theoretically valid, it becomes halakhically incorrect when the law is finalized.

This point is even stronger in the Yerushalmi:

Y. Yevamot 1:6 3b
It was taught: A Divine Voice emanated and said, “These and those are the words of the living God, but the law is always like Beit Hillel.”
ירושלמי יבמות א:ו דף ג טור ב
תני יצאתה בת קול ואמר’ אילו ואילו דברי א-להים חיים הם אבל הלכה כבית הלל לעולם

Where the Bavli writes “and the law is like Beit Hillel” the Yerushalmi writes “but the law is always like Beit Hillel.14 The disjunctive “but” is an explicit contrast between the two clauses. Both may be “words of the living God,” but only one of them is law.15

Once the halakhah is established in favor of Beit Hillel, the opinion of Beit Shammai is not only lost as a legitimate option, but the cost of following Beit Shammai becomes severe. The Yerushalmi emphatically declares, “Whoever violates the words of Beit Hillel is liable for death,”16 The following mishnaic narrative illustrates this point.

According to Deut. 6:7, the shema prayer should be recited, “When you lie down and when you get up.” According to Beit Shammai this refers to one’s physical posture when reciting the shema; in the morning one recites it standing up and in the evening one recites it lying down. According to Beit Hillel, “lie down” and “get up” do not refer to posture but to the time people lie down or get up. Meaning, the point of the verse is only to teach that the shema must be said in the morning and night.

R. Tarfon relates that once he was traveling on the road and lay down in order to fulfill the opinion of Beit Shammai, and in doing so, put himself in danger from bandits. His fellow sages were not sympathetic. Their response was, “You deserved to be guilty for your own fate because you violated the view of Beit Hillel.”17 The Yerushalmi records an even harsher, but internally consistent position that had R. Tarfon not recited the shema at all he would only have been guilty of not performing a positive commandment. But because he violated the words of Beit Hillel, he was liable for death.18

To fully appreciate the severity of R. Tarfon’s actions, consider that he technically did not violate Beit Hillel’s opinion since he was still reciting the shema at night. By reciting the shema at night while lying down, R. Tarfon wasn’t following Beit Shammai instead of Beit Hillel, but trying to fulfill both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel at the same time. R. Tarfon’s transgression was not even the act of lying down since even according to Beit Hillel there is no obligation to rise or sit for either recitation of the shema. Rather, the problem with R. Tarfon’s actions was his explicit intent to fulfill a rejected opinion, even when it did not come at the expense of the halakhah. This is the extent to which halakhically rejected opinions may not be accomodated.

Even when an opinion has not been formally rejected, the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai teach the importance of intellectual integrity in following halakhic opinions. According to the Tosefta, whoever follows the stringencies of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai is a “fool who goes in the dark,”19 while those who selectively follow their leniences are called, “wicked.”20 The Talmud addresses how this baraita would apply after the law was decided like Beit Hillel with one option being that this principle applies to all similar Tannaitic disputes.21 The point is that just because two opinions may be valid independently, we do not get to pick and choose which valid opinion we follow just because we want a particular conclusion.22

Conclusions

Torah acknowledges there are multiple interpretations and opinions, but not all of them are valid. In fact, rejected opinions are recorded precisely because they are rejected so that people do not follow them thinking they are legitimate.23 My sense is that people often cite “70 faces of Torah” or “eilu va’eilu” as a means to assert unearned legitimacy, insinuating that even if their opinion is not normative, it falls within the parameters of acceptable opinions. This is not to reject the possibility of a range of valid interpretations. However, even by the rules of these pluralistic sacred slogans, there are certain opinions which are not valid and others which may not be taught at all, specifically when they fall outside the boundaries of halakhah.

How halakhah is decided is a much longer conversation.

Notes

  1. T. Sanhedrin 7:5
  2. Sifra Baraita of R. Yishmael
  3. As referenced in the introduction to the Sacred Slogans series.
  4. M. Avot 5:8
  5. M. Sanhedrin 11:2
  6. M. Avot 3:11. Even according to one rabbinic interpretation which states this refers to someone who denigrates Torah scholars, teaching Torah incorrectly is still really bad (B. Sanhedrin 99b).
  7. Sadly I forget in whose name this was said. I’m remembering being told this in the name of Prof. Nehama Leibowitz but I cannot confirm the attribution.
  8. B. Gittin 6b
  9. This approach cannot reconcile every exegetical dispute because some opinions are mutually exclusive. For example, Rav and Shmuel disagree if the “new king” mentioned in Ex. 1:8 refers to an actual new king or the same king who issued new decrees (B. Eiruvin 53a, B. Sotah 11a). While there are reasons for both opinions to make them plausible interpretations, only one of them can be historically correct since the “new king” cannot refer to a new king and the same king simultaneously.
  10. M. Avot 5:17
  11. B. Sanhedrin 88b
  12. T. Yevamot 1:3 (1:13 in Lieberman), B. Yevamot 14b
  13. Y. Shabbat 1:4 3c
  14. Unlike the Bavli, the text of the Yerushalmi states that the law “always” follows Beit Hillel. There are several cases where Beit Hillel defers to Beit Shammai (M. Eiduyot 1:12-14), but those could be considered exceptional concessions rather than a matter of a legal decision.
  15. Cf. Justice Robert H. Jackson, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final” (Brown v. Allen, 1953), though the Rabbinic Sages are not infallible.
  16. Y. Yevamot 1:6 3b
  17. M. Berachot 1:3
  18. Y. Berachot 1:4 3b
  19. Ecc. 2:14
  20. T. Sukkah 2:4 (2:3 in Lieberman), T. Yevamot 1:3 (1:13 in Lieberman), T. Eiduyot 2:3
  21. B. Eiruvin 6b-7a
  22. Two notable exceptions to this rule are the laws of eruv (B. Eiruvin 46a) and mourning (ibid) where the law always follows the lenient opinion. However, these exceptions are themselves codified as halakhah. The range of what (or more precisely, who) counts as a legitimate opinion for this consideration is beyond the current scope.
  23. M. Eiduyot 1:4-6

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