A Matter of Opinions

 by Andreas Wittenstein

Hostility forces people of action to take a stand. It polarizes opinions by pushing people into corners whose walls shield their backs and sides, yet limit thought and action. Medieval honor then demands those corners —no matter how foolish— be defended at mortal cost. To pursue righteous action in this world, Jews have to be decisive, which might easily trap us in corners. Yet our reputation for deliberation and broadmindedness confounds those who prize resoluteness above wisdom.

צֶֽדֶק צֶֽדֶק תִּרְדֹּף Tsèdèq tsèdèq tirdof.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” —Deuteronomy 16:20

Why might Jews be so multiopinionated, anyway? Actually, it’s a mitzvah, arising from our pursuit of justice.

No Jew may make an important decision alone, for the only single judge is G‑d. We must always weigh our options judiciously, Maimonides taught, for the fate of the world may hinge on our every decision. To decide alone or claim truth is to have but one opinion. In Hebrew justice, the more difficult (קָשֶׁה qàshèh) or great (גָּדוֹל gàdol) a decision, the more opinions we must consult. Even petty cases require a בֵּית דִּין béit din of 3 judges, while capital and confusing cases require a סַנְהֶדְרִין קָטָן sanhèdrin qàtàn of 23 judges, and only a סַנְהֶדְרִין גָּדוֹל sanhèdrin gàdol of 71 judges may make the greatest and weightiest decisions, such as declaring war. Moreover, judges themselves must be chosen impartially by larger bodies, to avoid skewed opinions.

Nor should a Jew abdicate decision, thus having effectively no opinion. Not even G‑d forces us to obey, instead letting us act of our own will. So mere humans who claim to force G‑d’s will on others usurp power not even G‑d claims. And to unquestioningly obey humans is to worship idols before G‑d.

עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַחַזִיקִים בָּהּ ‘Éts khayim hi’ lamakhaziqim bàh.
“It is a tree of life to those who grasp it.” —Proverbs 3:18

G‑d, Torah, and the world are unfathomably complex and ultimately unknowable. The Torah is a tree with one trunk sprung from one seed planted by one G‑d; but a living, growing tree with thousands of branches, millions of twigs, and billions of leaves, flowers, and fruits. Its every word, Isaac Luria taught, has myriad faces, each visible and comprehensible to only one Israelite present at Sinai, and passed down through the generations. Among talmudic scholars who recorded this Oral Torah, the best-respected Rabbis could quote the most numerous and diverse opinions and argue the most sides to elucidate G‑d’s will.

Since then, famous scholars have misguidedly tried to summarize the Talmud with a single opinion representing the gloriously divergent arguments on each matter. Their summaries —including Maimonides’s מִשְׁנֶה תּוֹרָה Mishnèh Toràh, Joseph Caro’s שׁוּלחָן עָרוּך Shulkhàn ‘Àruch, and Jacob ben Asher’s אַרְבַּעָה טוּרִים ’Arba‘àh Turim— unfortunately stultified Oral Torah, canonized single-minded opinions, and established authoritarianism and dogma.

Sadly, many people have only one opinion on important issues, trapped in corners that shield from them other viewpoints. Worse, many people have none, irresponsibly deferring to authoritarian idols. A person with one or no opinion is dangerous, a mere step from dogmatism, another step from fanaticism.

We must be extraordinarily diligent to seek and weigh diverse opinions for the difficult and weighty decisions facing us in these hostile times. The opinions on the situations in the Holy Land and Iraq, for example, are surely as numerous and diverse as the people affected. Yet ill-advised leaders on all sides refuse to seriously entertain nonviolent solutions. I believe such narrowmindedness is fundamentally wrong. But don’t take my word for it. Think it over for yourself. Get a second opinion, and a third. And not just from like-minded experts.

—from our November 2002 Newsletter

Copyright © 2002 Andreas Wittenstein