Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lessons from Hillel: There Is Generally No One "Right" Way in Halacha

There is a lesson that many conversion candidates and newly religious Jews are not told until they've made a fool of themselves: There are different interpretations of halacha, and it's possible for all these interpretations to be halachically valid and accepted. In other words, the modern orthodox, the "just plain orthodox," the chassidim, and the chareidi practice vary significantly, but they are all valid interpretations of Jewish law. (Of course, some individuals may say differently!) Depending on the issue, there is not only one "acceptable" way to perform a ritual act. We can respect each other's practice and learn from each other.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin discusses this idea in his book Hillel: If Not Now, When?, describing a conflict two thousand years old.

From the Gemara (Eruvin 13b):
For three years, there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, "The halacha is according to our view," and the latter asserting, "The halacha is according to our view." Then a voice from heaven announced, "Both these and these are the words of the living G-d, but the halacha is in agreement with the school of Hillel." 
But since both are the words of the living G-d, for what reason was the school of Hillel entitled to have the halacha determined according to their ruling? Because they were kindly and humble, and because they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai, and even mentioned the teachings of the school of Shammai before their own.

In other words, if your rabbi says something that conflicts with a book you read, they are probably both "right" and valid answers. Books with halachic rulings/explanations are usually "strict" rulings in order to be "acceptable" to the greatest number of people. That doesn't make the book "more right" than community practice where you live or the practice of your neighbors. Your practice can be different from what a book says, and that can be just as halachically permissible. Rabbi Telushkin quotes radio talk show host Dennis Prager as saying, "One of the most important days in the life of a religious person is the day he meets a person of a different religion, or of a different denomination within his own religion, who is both a good person and intelligent."

The life lesson here: don't tell others that they have the halacha wrong just because you read a different answer somewhere else. Usually, you just look arrogant and ignorant of Jewish practice. When you encounter something unfamiliar, take a mental note and ask a halachic source later.

The lesson in middos: When we disagree with other Jews, we should respect the "living word of G-d" in the other opinion. Beit Hillel respected the rulings of beit Shammai and was humble enough to feel they could learn from their opponents.

The "trivia" lesson: As a general rule, when Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree in the Gemara, we almost always hold by Beit Hillel.


  1. This is one of the most frustrating things about Judaism for me. Even though I've come closer to finding my comfortable level of observance, I still have a niggling feeling that I'm not doing it "right" or strict enough when I'm among other observant Jews who hold differently.

    - Ilene

  2. I wish everyone held your view about there being multiple correct interpretations of halacha. Unfortunately, too often I run into people who feel their way is the only right way. One of the common examples of this is when people won't eat in each other's homes because of differing interpretation of kashrut.

    1. Originally posted: November 17, 2011 at 3:59 PM

      I think kashrut isn't the best example for what I think you want to say. I would fully support someone not eating in my home because I hold by cholov stam and they hold by cholov yisrael, etc.

      I think the better example is when new-to-Judaism people have told me that I'm doing netilat yadayim "wrong" because I wash each hand 3 times and don't alternate. Or people who don't hold by the eruv and accuse those who do of violating Shabbat. In other words, people who criticize me (or you or whoever) of being "wrong" when the alleged "violation" has nothing to do with them. What does it matter to that person if I'm washing my hands wrong? But as for kashrut, if they're going to be in the position of eating it, I would much rather someone say they can't eat at my home than to sit beside me at a table and criticize the lunch I prepared for myself. Does that distinction make sense? If the difference of halachic interpretation affects the person and he or she is uncomfortable with that, I'm totally fine with him excusing himself. But don't tell me I'm wrong and that I have to change my practice when it's a well-supported practice.

      Funny, in re-reading that, it sounds like a rant about some specific event in my life. It's not. I actually rarely run into this issue (because I picked communities that were a good fit for me), but I was really struck by this section when I read the book last week.

  3. It's worth noting the Gemara's (Yevamos 13a-14b) comments about Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai's willing to intermarry. Despite the fact that Beis Hillel considered some children to be mamzerim [halachic bastard] (which Beis Shammai permitted), they did not hesitate to intermarry. This is given as the epitome of "Truth and harmony they love" [Zecharia 8:19]

    The Gemara asks an obvious question, and notes that of course, they did NOT marry someone who they considered to be a mamzer. However, they would voluntarily disclose this information if they thought that the other party would consider the match to be problematic, even though according to their standards, it was perfectly found.

    The idea that a person would willingly and gladly disclose information that directly contradicts and goes against his view of halacha in favor of another who, by a proper halachic procedure, arrived at a different conclusion is thus presented as the ideal approach for disputing parties.

    [I saw this noted for the first time in R' Lampel's excellent "The Dynamics of Dispute"; the book itself offers a thorough and comprehensive, if novel and occasionally unsubstantiated, view on how disagreements can develop in a Law rooted in Divine revelation]