The words of the living God

There are many ways to interpret Jewish law, and many ways to observe it.

Orthodox Jews synagogue_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Orthodox Jews synagogue_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
We live in an age in which there are multiple interpretations of Judaism even among those who accept religion as the fundamental component of Jewish life. Not only do we have various organized religious groups such as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, each with its own standards, but within these groups we often have different factions as well. Orthodoxy consists of many groups, ranging from the ultra- Orthodox to the modern Orthodox. We have seen the phenomenon in Israel of one official rabbinic court voiding all the conversions of another rabbinic court. It is not unusual to find more than one interpretation of what Jewish law permits or forbids.
But none of this is new or unique to modern times. What we have is no more complicated than situations that we have faced in the past. During the days of the Second Temple, for example, there were three major groups within Judaism: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. These three groups disagreed on the interpretation of the Torah, on Jewish theology, on the observance of mitzvot and even on the Jewish calendar, observing major holy days at different times.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE only the Pharisees survived.
Their version of Judaism – rabbinic Judaism – became normative.
Nevertheless other versions of Judaism continued to exist, although the rabbinic authorities considered those who practiced them to be heretics. Furthermore, rabbinic edicts were not always followed by everyone, a situation not much different from our own.
Within the rabbinic group there were also differences of opinion and practice. The most well-known was the controversy between the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai. Although eventually the opinions of Hillel’s school were accepted in almost all cases, prior to that for many years both versions existed side by side. For example, the mishna in Yevamot cites differences in some very basic matters concerning eligibility for marriage as well as questions of ritual purity.
“Nevertheless Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai… neither of them refrained from using the utensils of the other for the preparation of food that was ritually clean” (1:4). The Talmud suggests that they informed one another so that they could know what to avoid. In any case this indicates a degree of respect that could serve as an example today to those extremists among us who prefer intolerance to tolerance.
These two schools often held vigorous debates on matters of belief and on matters of Jewish law. On the former they often managed to reach a consensus, reconciling their differences. According to the Talmud, eventually a decision had to be reached concerning specifics of practice and after a lengthy debate – three years – the matter was settled by a bat kol – a heavenly voice – that declared, “The decisions of both these and those are the words of the Living God, but the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel” (Eruvin 13b). The Talmud then goes on to explain that this was not that Beit Hillel’s decisions were better, but that the authorities of the School of Hillel were “kindly and modest and studied both their rulings and those of the School of Shammai… This teaches that he who humbles himself is raised up by the Holy One.”
I am reminded of the words of Solomon Schechter, who, in the early years of the 20th century, as head of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, spoke at the commencement of the Reform Hebrew Union College and called Reform Jews “members of His Majesty’s loyal opposition.” Living in an age of pluralism, a little humility would be welcome on the part of all religious authorities of whatever persuasion. “Both these and those are the words of the Living God” would be a good slogan for us all.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).