Dear Jew in the City-
How can there be many “right” ways to live a Jewish life? There seems to be only one way, living within the parameters set by the Torah. And if there is variation in the levels of observance within those parameters why is it acceptable to choose anything other than the highest levels of observance?
That’s an excellent question and there are a lot of different ways one could approach it, so I’m briefly going to hit a lot of different beats. Any one of these could potentially be fleshed out into a full discussion in its own right.
For starters, the Torah tells us – regarding the Torah itself – that lo baShamayim hi, it is not in Heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12). This means that the Torah is no longer in God’s metaphorical “hands.” Rather, He has given it to us and it is our responsibility to interpret it. This principle was famously invoked in Baba Metzia 59b when a Heavenly voice took sides in a halachic debate. That’s all well and good but the Torah is no longer in the Heavenly court’s jurisdiction.
There are other verses and dicta that stress the idea that the Torah is subject to many different understandings. For example, Psalms 62:12 says, “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.” The Talmud in Sanhedrin (34a) understands this to mean that a single verse can have multiple meanings and all of them can be correct.
Perhaps the most famous expression of this idea is the dictum that there are shivim panim laTorah, 70 facets to the Torah. This idea originates in the Midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah (13:16) and was popularized through its use by the ibn Ezra, the Ramban, the Zohar and others. Now let’s try to see how this idea can explain different halachic practices.
Our lives are all different. Some people have stable home lives, others have dysfunctional family situations. Some people are financially secure, others barely make ends meet, if they do at all. Some people have good health and others are chronically ill. The variations are limitless. If life isn’t “one size fits all,” how can we expect the Torah to be so inflexible as to expect the same thing from all people all the time?
Let’s examine an example: Let’s say that a person in a particular community is a chronic offender in a certain religious matter and the local authorities want to censure him but there’s a concern that doing so might drive this person farther away from Torah observance. Should they go ahead with the reprimand? I think we can agree that there are a lot of variables in this scenario. How big is the chronic offense? How are others being affected? How likely is the possibility that the chastised offender would actually leave Judaism altogether? If he did, would it be because he was sincerely discouraged in his religiosity or would this be a political move on his part, designed to get back at the religious authorities? So the question, “Should we punish a chronic offender if it might drive him farther away?” is one that doesn’t have a “one size fits all” answer and automatically leaping for the most stringent approach could do more harm than good.
Having illustrated that the halachic process allows for shades of gray, let us now apply the concept to something more mundane than our previous example. Throughout the laws of kashrus you will observe that in various cases of doubt, our practice is often to act stringently but that sometimes, in cases that will cause a person a significant financial loss, one is permitted to act leniently. Does this mean that we can eat non-kosher food if it will cost us money to throw it out? Of course not! It means that in a gray area, it’s better to act stringently but not everyone can afford the luxury of doing so. Not everyone can afford to throw away a chicken or a piece of meat and it’s not fair to obligate everyone to do so just to uniformly abide by the highest standard.
These are just some obvious examples of why one might follow a lenient position but the underlying principles apply even without such obvious downsides. Sometimes we are lenient just to be intellectually consistent. I’ll explain:
One of my favorite Talmudic dicta is that one who is always lenient is a wicked person, while one who is always stringent is a fool (Chulin 43b-44a). It’s fairly easy to see why one who always looks for the shortcut should be considered wicked but why is always acting stringently considered foolish? Isn’t that just the more pious way to act? Rashi explains why it’s foolish by referring us to the Talmud in Eruvin (7a), as follows.
If a corpse’s spine is complete, it conveys ritual impurity when one is under the same roof. There is a difference of opinion as to what renders a spine incomplete: missing one vertebra or missing two vertebrae. Whichever standard is used, the same rule for determining completeness also applies to rendering an animal non-kosher. Therefore, if an animal is missing only one vertebra, there are two possibilities: either it is still considered complete or it is considered incomplete. Each of these results in a stringency and a leniency:
In this case, taking a stringent position across the board reveals the lack of an actual position because either opinion, when applied consistently, will lead to both a stringent outcome and a lenient outcome. That’s not only okay, it’s desirable. One should make an honest evaluation and apply the outcomes appropriately. As a colleague of mine once observed, it’s easy to just act stringently all the time – it takes effort to figure out when one should be lenient.
I have heard some people lament what they perceive to be the failure of Orthodoxy to find and apply leniencies, followed by numerous examples of such shortcomings. While I concur with the premise that one should not always go straight for the stringencies just because they are the most expedient way to settle an issue, I simultaneous disagree with the assertion that one should necessarily look to apply every leniency simply because they are leniencies. An intellectually honest approach is to evaluate a situation and to reach a conclusion that is appropriate given all the facts at hand.
There a lot of reasons why some people may act stringently in an area while others act leniently. As with anything humans do, these reasons can be good and valid, or an over-application of principles that may not be appropriate in every scenario. Whether one acts leniently or stringently, it’s important to act with thought in one’s religious observance and not to kneejerk react. A well-rounded person will find that applying his principles consistently, he may have more leniencies or more stringencies but a person should never be all of one to the exclusion of the other. As the Talmud teaches, that would make us either wicked or foolish, neither or which is a particularly good thing.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent