(I had intended to write an entirely different essay on my interpretation of the sugyah in Sanhedrin dealing with the stubborn and rebellious son. But as I was scrambling to finish this article before Shavuot, I suddenly came up with what follows. I will reserve the first idea for next post.)
For those of you who don’t read Hebrew, the headline reads: Shavuot Night Learning The captions are (right to left, top to bottom):
1. What my wife thinks I do
2. What my son thinks I do
3. What a traditional Jew thinks I do
4. What a secular Jew thinks I do
5. What I think I do
6. What I really do
Shavuot is a few hours away, and this year I am taking the holiday off, which means rather than teaching all night I am free to wander the city and enjoy what other people are teaching. I last did this 2 years ago, which gave me the opportunity to attend a lecture by the late Professor David Hartman. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember him discussing ‘אלו ואלו’ (‘elu v’elu’) from tractate Eduyot – the bat kol or divine voice declaring ‘These and these are the words of the living God’ – that is, the opinions of both the schools of Hillel & Shammai are right, even though they disagree with each other.
Ever since I began teaching, I’ve been entertained by the idea that two opposite opinions can not only co-exist, but that each is inherently true. I even ran across a commentary quoting Rav Ovadiah Yosef that Moshe received the commandments from Sinai with 49 reasons to do it one way and 49 reasons to do it the opposite way. It’s up to subsequent generations to choose which is right. (49, of course, is the number of days between Passover & Shavuot, but that’s a discussion for another time)
This helps me understand the significance of what the bat kol meant. It wasn’t only talking about Hillel and Shammai. It’s telling us that ‘elu v’elu’, themselves, are the actual words of the living God. It’s not merely that all approaches lead to living Torah, but Torah can only be kept alive through confronting and ultimately embracing the opposite opinion. This is the heart of Torah shebe’al peh, the process through which it lives, catalyzed at the very point of contention.
Tonight I will drop into a local pluralistic beit midrash to learn with them. I then plan to attend a traditional shiur at the local Orthodox synagogue. Around Jerusalem, and in other cities, people will be participating in tikunim in synagogues and yeshivot, on street corners and in museums, in private homes and open spaces. Some will approach learning from a feminist perspective, some will see it from al male oriented point of view. Some will be reading Amichai or looking for Jewish values in artwork and song. It will be an all-night celebration of ‘elu v’elu’ where everyone participating will be keeping Torah alive through the dynamics of engagement and discussion, of exchanging ideas even if we don’t share the same opinions.
May we all be able to keep the ‘elu v’elu’ going long after the tikun is over.