Elu Va-elu Divrei Elokim Hayyim and the Question of Multiple Truths

The[i] Mishnah in Masekhet Avot teaches about two types of Mahloket. It states, “Every dispute that is [for the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not [for the sake of] heaven’s name—it is not destined to endure.” The Mishnah continues to explain, “What [is an example of a dispute for the sake of] heaven’s name? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. What [is an example of a dispute not for the sake of] heaven’s name? The dispute of Korach and all of his followers.”[ii] [iii] Pinchas Kehati, in his explanation of the Mishnah, explains that a “dispute which is for the sake of Heaven’s name” is one whose participants are motivated by an honest search for truth and not for the sake of argument and provocation. Such a dispute, he further explains, is destined to endure and produce positive insights and permanent solutions to the issues under investigation.

A well-known sugya in Yevamot describes the prolonged mahloket between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. “R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The Halakhah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The Halakhah is in agreement with our views.’” A resolution was reached when “a bat kol issued, announcing, ‘elu va-elu divrei Elokim Hayyim’- ‘[The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the Halakhah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel’.”[iv][v] The ambiguous pronouncement of the bat kol, ‘elu va-elu divrei Elokim hayyim,’ has been the subject of much analysis by commentators.

Elu va-elu divrei Elokim hayyim is a puzzling concept. If the purpose of mahloket is to make decisions on matters of Divine law, how can both sides of a dispute be divrei Elokim hayyim? Does this statement imply that both sides of the dispute are correct? Can multiple or contradicting opinions coexist in the system of Divine law. A study of the opinions on “elu va-elu” will provide insights on the question of multiple truths in Jewish law.

One way of approaching this complexity is to view the study of the different sides of a mahloket as a means to thorough Talmud Torah. A beraita in Masekhet Hagigah implies that in Torah study there is an inherent importance to the minority view. Rav Elazar Ben Azaria states, “Should a man say: How… shall I learn Torah? Therefore the text says: ‘All of them are given from one Shepherd.’ One God gave them; one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: ‘And God spoke all these words.’” [vi] Rashi, commenting on the word “them,” explains that when one sees two contradictory opinions in front of him, he should understand that they stem from the same Torah. Similar to the pronouncement of the bat kol of “elu va-elu”, this text asserts that all of Torah is derived from one source—God. Rav Elazar Ben Azaria continues to instruct, “You too, make your ear like a mill-hopper [which collects the grains in a mill] and acquire for yourself a perceptive heart to hear the words of those who declare impure and the words of those who pronounce it pure, the words of those who prohibit and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who declare fit.” Here Rav Elazar Ben Azaria instructs one seeking how to properly learn Torah to open his or her mind and study both sides of the mahloket, for both sides are Divine. This approach is taken by the author of Netivot Hamishpat and Hida. The author of Netivot Hamishpat writes that although false, Halakhic errors serve an important function.[vii] He compares the search for the ultimate Torah truth to a diver searching for precious stones. The diver, he states, needs to first undergo the process of uncovering the worthless stones before he can reach the capability to discover the nuances between the worthless and precious stones. Therefore, in Torah study, one must fully understand even the incorrect view in order to fully comprehend the correct and true view. Hida takes a similar approach in explaining the significance of the incorrect opinion. Commenting on elu va’elu, he compares the true and the false to light and darkness. He asserts that just as light would be distinguishable without a background of darkness, truth is only distinguishable when contrasted with falsehood. Both commentaries explain that the learning of the false side has inherent worth, in order to fully grasp the correct Torah opinion, and, as Hida closes, “For this entire process there is a heavenly reward.” [viii]

Although that attitude beautifully describes the process of Talmud Torah, it does not seem to explain the significance of the sugyas striking language nor the Halakhic implications of elu va-elu divrei Elokim hayyim. What does it mean to say that both opinions can be true? In contrast to the previous opinions which suggested that both sides of a mahloket are important because they clarify the correct opinion, Rashi implies that there is the possibility of multiple correct opinions in Halakhic discourse. He first explains that when a debate revolves around the attribution of a doctrine to a particular individual, or a fact, there is only room for one truth. For a conceptual dispute he continues: “However, when two Amoraim enter into a halakhic dispute, each arguing the halakhic merits of his view, each drawing upon comparisons to establish the authenticity of his perspective, there is no absolute truth and falsehood. About such issues one can declare elu va-elu divrei Elokim hayyim—both represent the view of the living God.” [ix] Rashi renders both sides of a mahloket legitimate and true. This is different from the prior sources that implied that only one opinion can leave victorious, though both essential for the understanding of the correct view. When it comes time to draw a conclusion for the Halakhah, Rashi states that “On some occasions one perspective will prove more authentic, and under other circumstances the other view will appear to be more compelling. The effectiveness of particular rationales shifts as conditions of their application change, even if only subtly.” Rashi says that both sides can be true, but in the end one will be more appropriately fitting for the situation than the other.

There are those who describe the equal status of different opinions in the heavenly realm and explain how these opinions are subject to human interpretation and decision. Ritva quotes the opinion of the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, who ask how elu va-elu divrei Elokim hayyim is possible if one side says assur and one side says patur. They respond that at Har Sinai, when Moshe went to receive the Torah, God showed him every matter was subject to forty-nine assur and forty-nine patur approaches. Moshe asked God how it would be possible to discern the Halakhic conclusion. God responded saying that “scholars of each generation were given the authority to decide among these perspectives in order to establish the normative Halakhah.”[x] [xi] All of the halakhic options presented to Moshe by God were correct and license was given to human scholars to defend their individual opinion. Man’s obligation of applying halakhic principles would be able to account for the potential existence of many valid, yet technically mutually exclusive, solutions to the same problem. Maharshal also acknowledges that the potential for multiple truths is based in Kabbalah. He states, “The Kabbalists explained that the basis for [elu va-elu divrei Elokim] is that each individual soul was present at Sinai and received the Torah by means of the forty-nine paths (tzinorot). Each perceived the Torah from his own perspective in accordance with his intellectual capacity as well as the stature and unique character of his particular soul.” Every person standing had his unique way of understanding the Torah; therefore, Maharshal says that “this accounts for the discrepancy in perception inasmuch as one concluded that an object was tamei in the extreme, another perceived it to be absolutely tahor, and yet a third individual argues the ambivalent state of the object in question. All these are true and sensible views. Thus, the wise men declared that in a debate between true scholars, all positions articulated represent a form of truth.”[xii] Similar to the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, Maharshal holds that multiple—even contradictory—human interpretations can be true.

The most contemporary view is that of Rav Moshe Feinstein, who explains the concept of elu va-elu divrei Elokim and how we can practically come to a conclusion in Halakhah. In Masekhet Shabbat there is a Tannaitic dispute as to whether activities regarded as preliminaries to a brit milah can override Shabbat melakha restrictions. In the introduction to his teshuvot, Iggrot Moshe, Rav Moshe presents the story of people in Rabbi Eliezer’s town who would cut wood to produce charcoal to make a knife for performing a brit milah on Shabbat.[xiii] In the end, we do not pasken like Rabbi Eliezer, and one might think that all of these people were punished for the extraneous hilul Shabbat they committed. However, the end of the narrative goes on to explain that all of these people lived to old age, and when external decrees were placed on berit milah, this city was exempt. Rav Moshe explains that even if in the end Rabbi Elazar was wrong, they merited because it was still a mitzvah for the townspeople to follow his pesak. How is this possible? Rav Moshe clarifies that there is a distinction between emet kelapei shemaya—correct in heaven—and emet le-hora’ah—correct for instruction. Emet kelapei shemaya means that in shamayim there is definitely one correct pesak and the others are incorrect. Nonetheless, on Earth we have the concept of “lo ba-shamayim hi” and that man has authority to interpret the Torah. Emet le-hora’ah demonstrates that if a learned, God-fearing person comes to a conclusion in Halakhah using the correct methodology, even if ultimately the conclusion is wrong in the heavens, it is considered correct on earth for practical purposes.

Returning to the mahloket of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai in Eruvin, how is it that although both sides of the dispute were considered divrei Elokim hayyim, the prevailing opinion is that of Beit Hillel? The end of the Mishnah in Avot states that a dispute is sofo le-hitkayem when it is le-shem shamayim. Kehati explains that the criteria for knowing whether or not a mahloket is le-shem shamayim is the relationship between the pleaders of the argument. He states, “If [they two sides of the dispute] display a unity of purpose and an intense personal attachment toward one another, this is evidence that their statements are genuine and that their efforts are for the sake of Heaven.”[xiv] Such a relationship between the pleaders is visible in the case of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The Gemara continues, “Since, however, both are the ‘words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the Halakhah fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, studied their own rulings as well as those of Beit Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs.”[xv] Beit Hillel merited the victorious opinion because they showed the utmost respect for their opposing opinion. Also, their love for one another is apparent in a different discussion in Yevamot. The Gemara explains that although they disagreed on matters of Halakhah regarding marriage, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai nonetheless respected each other’s opinions. As it says, “Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace.” (Zecharia 8:16)[xvi]

[i] This article is heavily based off the article “Elu Va-Elu Divrei Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy” by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig which originally appeared in TRADITION 26:3, 1992 and the recording of the Shiur Machshava - Eilu V’Eilu by Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh, which can be found on yutorah.org. The article and shiur gave me a framework for the topic and insights to many of the sources I cited in the article.

[ii] M. Avot 5:17

[iii] Translation from Sefaria.com

[iv] Eruvin 13b

[v] Translation from Soncino English Babylonian Talmud

[vi] Hagigah 3b

[vii] Introduction to Net’ivot haMishpat on Hoshen Mishpat

[viii] Petah Einayim LiHida Bava Metzia 59b

[ix] Rashi Ha Kemashmalan Ketubot 57a

[x] Hiddushei HaRitva Eruvin 13b

[xi] A similar narrative is found Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 4:2,

[xii] Yam Shel Shlomo Introduction to Bava Kamma

[xiii] Shabbat 130a

[xiv] M. Avot 5:17

[xv] Eruvin 13b

[xvi] Yevamot 14b