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Is Judaism Really in Favor of Pluralism and Tolerance?

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 9, Issue No. 6, June 2015

Question: During the past two months, we have witnessed three major cases of a lack of pluralism and tolerance in the State of Israel, most of them carried out by Israeli Orthodox rabbis. They seem to believe that there is only one correct way to be Jewish and that those who deviate from that path are not real rabbis and should be shunned. Since these Orthodox rabbis from different backgrounds seem to share this lack of pluralism and tolerance, maybe they are simply reflecting the consensus of Jewish tradition. Is this true?

Responsum: Indeed, the past two months have seen three very clear cases of a lack of religious pluralism and tolerance in Israel:

  1. A) In May, the Mayor of Rehovot cancelled a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony for children with special needs because it was to be held at a Conservative/Masorti synagogue in Rehovot. It was then rescheduled at the President’s House with Orthodox and Conservative rabbis to co-officiate, but that ceremony was cancelled by President Ruby Rivlin himself.
  2. B) A Tikkun is held every year on Shavuot at the Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv, organized by the Tzohar Rabbis, who are supposed to be a group of modern, open Orthodox rabbis. After complaints last year, they promised to invite Conservative and Reform rabbis this year to teach at the Tikkun. Indeed, I was one of the rabbis suggested. But they then cancelled the invitations. After huge public pressure, they agreed that the Conservative and Reform teachers could teach at separate sessions without the participation of the Tzohar rabbis.
  3. C) Finally, in May-June the Chief Rabbinate of Israel wanted to forcibly retire Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as Chief Rabbi of Efrat, using the excuse that he had reached the age of 75. Rabbi Riskin is not only an illustrious leader of religious Zionism in Israel, but a community rabbi in the full sense of the term who personally knows all 8000 residents of Efrat. So what is his crime? He has trained and appointed women as religious leaders, he is lenient in matters related to conversion, and he is engaged in dialogue with Christians. In other words, his crime resides in the fact that he is different than the rabbis who run the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel.

There is a common denominator between all three stories: that there is just one way to be Jewish. We shall see below that this unfortunate and misguided approach is contradicted by thousands of years of Jewish sources. The bottom line is that Judaism is in favor of unity but opposed to uniformity.

I) Unity is Good

The Dangers of Disunity

  1. We read in Genesis 37:3-4:

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons. For he was a child of his old age, and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.

The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 10b = Megillah 16b) comments as follows:

A man should never single out one son among his sons, for on account of two sela’s weight of fine wool, which Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers’ descent into Egypt.

This Midrash warns us that the lack of unity between Joseph and his brothers led to tragedy. If not for the senseless enmity between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph would not have been sold into slavery in Egypt and the children of Israel would not have been enslaved there for 400 years. This is one of the basic lessons of Jewish history: internal disunity leads to tragedy, Destruction and Exile.

  1. In the 10th century BCE, the Ten Tribes broke off from the Kingdom of Judah and one thing led to another until the exile of the Ten Tribes in 721 BCE.
  2. In the second century BCE, war broke out between the Maccabees and the Greek Syrians. Many think that this war was caused by the wickedness of Antiochus, but according to II Maccabees (Chapters 4-6), the decrees of Antiochus were brought about by senseless hatred among the Jewish leaders who ceaselessly plotted against one another: Jason grabbed the High Priesthood from his brother Onias; Menelaus grabbed it, in turn, from Jason. Onias slandered Menelaus to the authorities who retaliated by having Onias murdered. Jason then tried to capture Jerusalem by force. As a result, Antiochus thought that the Jews were revolting against him. He captured Jerusalem, killed 80,000 Jews, plundered the  Temple, outlawed Jewish practices and defiled the Temple – all  on account of senseless hatred.
  3. History repeated itself 230 years later. As we have learned in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 9b): “But the Second Temple, where they were engaged in Torah study and mitzvot and gemillut hassadim [deeds of loving kindness], why was it destroyed? Because it contained sinat hinam [senseless hatred]”.

Indeed, so it appears from the legends about the Destruction in Gittin 56a. It is related there that there was enough food and wood in Jerusalem for a siege of 21 years. The Sages wanted to make peace with the Romans, while the biryonim [rebels, ruffians] wanted to fight them. When the biryonim saw that they are not succeeding in convincing the Sages, they arose and burned all of the wheat and barley in Jerusalem – and famine ensued. This story is confirmed by the stories related by Josephus (Wars of the Jews, IV, 6, 1 and V, 1, 1-5).

The Importance of Unity

  1. On the other hand, we have learned in Berakhot 6a:
  2. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? — He replied to him: “And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth” (II Chronicles 17:21)…  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: You have made me a unique entity in the world, and I shall make you a unique entity in the world. You have made me a unique entity in the world, as it is said: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4), and I shall make you a unique entity in the world, as it is said: “And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth”.
  3. Indeed, our Prophets and Sages stressed over and over again that unity leads to salvation. The prophet Ezekiel prophesized that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel will be reunited (37:16-22):

Take a stick and write on it ‘Of Judah’… and take another stick and write on it ‘Of Joseph – the stick of Ephraim’… Bring them close to each other, so that they become one stick, joined together in your hand… Thus said the Lord God: ‘I am going to take the Israelite people from among the nations… and gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them a single nation in the land’…

  1. This is also stressed in Midrash Tanhuma (ed. Buber, Nitzavim, pp. 48-49):

According to the universal custom, if one takes a bundle of reeds, will he be able to break them at one stroke? But if he takes them one by one, even an infant can break them. So too you find that Israel will not be redeemed until they become one bundle…

  1. And so said Rabbi Yitzhak Abarbanel in the 15th century, in his commentary to Judges 21:5: “All the good of Israel and their survival hangs on their being unified together”.
  2. II) Uniformity is Bad

We have thus far seen that the Jewish tradition is opposed to disunity and strives for unity. One could easily conclude from these sources that the best way to achieve unity is by uniformity. If we all think the same and act the same then we will be united. Indeed, this is and was the approach of Communist Russia, Communist China and may other dictatorships. However, nothing could be further from the approach of our classic sources. Our Sages thought and taught that pluralism is essential when studying Torah, among people, and within Jewish law.

A)   Pluralism in the Torah – how so?

  1. Our Sages said that “There are seventy faces to the Torah” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:15-16).
  2. They taught in the Academy of Rabbi Ishmael: ” ‘And like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jeremiah 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings” (Sanhedrin 34a). In other words, the same verse is interpreted in different ways and this is perfectly fine.
  3. Pesikta Derav Kahana, a midrash edited in the land of Israel in the 6th century, goes one step farther (ed. Mandelbaum, p. 224; Braude and Kapstein translation, p. 249):

Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though He were a statue with faces on every side, so that though a thousand men might be looking at the statue, they would be led to believe that it was looking at each one of them. So, too, when the Holy One spoke, each and every person in Israel could say: “The Divine word is addressing me”… Moreover, said R. Yossi bar R. Hanina, the Divine Word spoke to each and every person according to his particular capacity…

In other words, the Torah at Mount Sinai did not have 70 faces but rather millions of faces – for 600,000 men plus women and children — one for each person who was standing at Mt.Sinai!

  1. In Avodah Zarah 19a, the house of Rabbi Yannai said: “Whoever learns Torah from one rabbi, never sees a sign of blessing”. The Talmud goes on to relate that after Rav Hisda taught this teaching to his pupils, they left him and went to study with Rava! Ironically enough, the Sages could not agree about this either. According to Avot Derabi Nattan (Version A, Chapter 8, ed. Schechter, pp. 35-36) one should indeed learn all of his Torah from one rabbi!

In other words, the Torah is pluralistic by its very nature. It has 70 faces and divides into many sparks and God spoke to every Jew at Mt. Sinai but each one heard and understood something different. Not only is it permissible to interpret every verse in different ways, but a student is required to study with different rabbis in order to be exposed to different interpretations.

B)   Pluralism among human beings – how so?

We have learned in the tractate of Berakhot 58a: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, he says: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ – for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other”. In other words, we actually recite a blessing to God for having created millions of people who are different form each other in their ideas and appearance!

In Midrash Tanhuma (Pinhas, parag. 10) Moses asks at the time of his death that God should appoint a leader for the Jewish people. And who is the ideal leader? “Appoint over them a person who tolerates every single person according to his opinion”. The ideal leader is not a dictator, but rather a person who tolerates every person according to his or her opinion and does not try to force upon them one unified opinion.

Rabbi Kook was such a leader. In his commentary on the famous midrash “Do not read your sons but rather your builders”, found in siddurim in the paragraph after Ein Keloheinu, he writes (Olat R’iyah, Vol. I, p. 330):

For the building will be built from different parts, and the truth of the Light of the World will be built from different sides, from different opinions, for “these and those are the words of the living God” (Eruvin 13b). From different ways of avodah [worship or work] and instruction and education, each of which has its place and value… and the multiplicity of opinions, which comes from the difference of souls and educations (sic!), that is the very thing which enriches wisdom and causes it to expand. So that in the end all things will be understood properly, and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the building of peace to be built except by all of the influences which appear to be in conflict with each other.

Indeed, Rabbi Kook was not the only modern rabbi who stressed the values of pluralism and tolerance. Similar ideas were expressed by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv of Volozhin (1817-1893) in his commentary Ha’amek Davar to Genesis 11 (see the article by Perl listed below) and by Solomon Schechter in an address delivered at HUC in 1913 (see the article listed below)

C)   Pluralism in Jewish law – how so?

One might reply to the above: Pluralism in interpretations of biblical verses is fine; pluralism in human beings is fine; but what about Jewish practice? Don’t we all have to observe the same laws and customs? Let us look at a classic passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:2, ed.Venice, fol. 22a):

Rabbi Yannai said: If the Torah had been given sliced (i.e., with one clear answer to every question) there would be no room for the leg to stand [i.e., no room to maneuver]. How do we know this? “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Moses said: Lord of the Universe, tell me what is the halakhah? God said: “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2) – if those who acquit are in the majority – acquit, if those who find guilty are in the majority – find guilty, so that the Torah will be interpreted 49 faces impure and 49 faces pure…

In other words, Moses wanted God to give him a clear answer to every question. God replied that the Sages in every generation must debate every issue and decide by majority vote what to do. Indeed, we know from a number of famous stories in the Talmud that this is what the Sages did. After debating an issue and arriving at a majority opinion, they would force the minority to follow their opinion (see Mishnah Eduyot 5:6; Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9; Bava Metzia 59a-b; Berakhot 63a-b; Eruvin 13b).

However, after the era of the Sanhedrin or Jewish parliament ca. 425 CE, there was no longer one group of rabbis who could decide by majority vote. As a result, Jewish law became much more pluralistic. As I have written elsewhere (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 117-118):

The fact that a Rabbi or a group of Rabbis rules in a certain way does not mean that all Jews will do or must do what they say. Throughout Jewish history, contradictory halakhic rulings coexisted side by side. In the Talmud we find expressions such as “In Sura they followed Mareimar, but Rav Shisha the son of Rav Idi followed Abaye” (Sukkah 46b and Pesahim 115a (according to all of the manuscripts; the printed editions read “Surya”). Cf. Gittin 89a for Sura vs. Nehardea and Bava Metzia 73a for Sura vs. Kafri. On the conflicting traditions between Sura and Pumbedita, see David Goodblatt, HUCA 48 (1977), pp. 210-216 and  Assufot 8 (5754), pp. 99-129 (two articles)).  In the Geonic period, we find a series of halakhic disagreements between the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita ( They were collected by Simhah Assaf in Tekufat Hage’onim Vesifrutah, Jerusalem, 1957, pp. 261-278 and cf. the articles inAssufot cited in the previous note). According to Sefer Hahilukim Bein Anshei Mizrah V’anshei Ma’arav, there were at least 55 halakhic differences between the Jews of Babylonia and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the Geonic period (Mordechai Margaliot, ed., Hahillukim Shebein Anshei Mizrah Uvenei Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, 1938). In medieval times, there were hundreds of differences between Ashkenazim and Sefaradim. For example, the Sefaradim practiced yibum while the Ashkenazim practiced halitzah; the Sefaradim allowed bigamy while the Ashkenazim forbade it on the basis of Rabbeinu Gershom’s decree (See H. J. Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, London, 1958, especially Parts II and III). In modern times, there were many halakhic disagreements between Hassidim and mitnagdim, between the various hassidic dynasties and between various Sefardic ethnic groups. A Sefardic Jew who disobeyed an Ashkenazic Rabbi was not a “sinner”, he was simply relying on a different custom or Rabbi. So too in the case under discussion. A woman who reads this pesak and continues to pray a private petition once a day instead of reciting the amidah three times a day is not “a sinner”; she can rely on the author of the Arukh Hashulhan and other poskim who so ruled. I would try to convince her that their interpretation is incorrect, but she is not a “sinner”; she is simply relying on another valid halakhic opinion.

In conclusion, the attempt of certain Orthodox rabbis inIsraelto impose their specific halakhic opinion on all the Jews of Israel (and the Diaspora) contradicts the way that Jewish law has worked since the dissolution of the Sanhedrin.

May we aspire, rather, to the Jewish ideal of unity without uniformity. In the words of Rabbi Kuk: “the multiplicity of opinions, which comes from the difference of souls and educations (sic!), that is the very thing which enriches wisdom and causes it to expand”.

David Golinkin


11 Tammuz 5775


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שרלו, הרב יובל, “מחלוקת – וצדיק באמונתו יחיה” רשות הרבים, תשס”ב, עמ’ 244-242

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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