This may seem like a child's question, but it's one I never thought to ask as a child, so I never learned the answer.

Rabbinic traditions — even within continuous geographical lineages amongst ashkenazim, sefardim, mizrahim and the rest — are full of disagreements about all kinds of halakhic practices, all of which are represented by individual rabbis who presumably lived by their teachings and thus practiced differently from one another. Surely all Jews have their beliefs about which practices are “right” and which are “wrong”, but these differences are still a celebrated part of our greater tradition, and it’s not as though the rabbis with minority or overruled practices are rejected from the religion. So since the rabbis are all still rabbis, how could any of their particular practices be “wrong” in the eyes of Hashem?

I think this is a separate question from the halakhic questions of what contemporary Jews should or shouldn’t do — we’d tell them to consult their rabbis with those questions. But theologically speaking, how should we understand the holiness of the practices of the rabbis whose practices differed?

Edit to explain difference from this question: The question "how can eilu v'eilu be consistent with absolute truth?" seems more philosophical and less personal than what I'm asking, and thus I wasn't quite satisfied by the answers posted there. What I'm getting at is, how can we relate to all the diverse teachers and examples in our tradition without being worried or upset about them, given their different ways of practicing?

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    Try searching for the phrase "elu velu divrei elohim chayim" אלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים
    – Double AA
    Jun 26 '15 at 1:37
  • I know that one, but I feel like there has to be a more thorough answer. That one always sounds like people throwing their hands up and saying, "It's just a mystery!" But that's not satisfying, is it? Jun 26 '15 at 1:40
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    @ablaze I will try and elaborate on Double AA's approach and try and give it a more thorough treatment.
    – RCW
    Jun 26 '15 at 3:26
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    This is one of the best Jewish questions I've seen on this site or anywhere. It's a sin and a shame that our members decided to close it
    – SAH
    Jul 6 '16 at 17:17

First off, this is a perfectly valid and very important question, and it deserves a thorough, well thought out answer. While I'm not sure I can provide that, I'll try to give at least a small answer to try to explain this phenomenon.

There is a concept in the tradition known as "Shivim Panim Latorah" which loosely translates to 'there are 70 interpretations for the Torah'*. This means that, within the confines of a legitimate interpretation of the Torah, there are many different ways to interpret a commandment or custom. Assuming the law/practice in question was reached through a legitimate method of understanding the Torah, it is a valid way of keeping the Torah.

As per this article, the earliest source for the idea of Shivim Panim Latorah comes from Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15-16. The article also gives a nice explanation of the concept, well worth a quick read (it's only 4 pages, so not too heavy).

A comparison that I've heard is with the American legal system. There are local, county, state, and federal laws that all could be valid and constitutional, yet are at times contradictory. I was speaking to an Orthodox lawyer once, who mentioned that all his classmates in law school had difficulty understanding how that worked too, but he easily understood it due to Judaism's acceptance of conflicting opinions.

*This has been used by people who try to justify explanations of the Torah that are outside the realm of acceptable too. A clever response I've heard is "There are Shivim Panim, but that explanation is Shivim V'Echad". :)

  • Thank you for this source! Not only is the prevalence of the shivim panim idea illuminating here, I also found his B and C categories of interpretations of this particular verse of Bereishit to be helpful in understanding how such uncertainties can be understood as tov me’od! But I am interested to see how further answers can bring us to the next step of the question, from interpretation into halakha. Jun 26 '15 at 1:57
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    Similarly, I've heard "אלו ואלו, but not אלו ואלו ואלו" :)
    – MTL
    Jun 26 '15 at 5:25
  • I love that line, and the "shivim v'echad" one, too. Good dinner table material. Jun 26 '15 at 13:23

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עירובין דף יג עמוד ב אמר רבי אבא אמר שמואל: שלש שנים נחלקו בית שמאי ובית הלל, הללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו והללו אומרים הלכה כמותנו. יצאה בת קול ואמרה: אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הלל

חידושי הריטב"א מסכת עירובין דף יג עמוד ב אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים. שאלו רבני צרפת ז"ל היאך אפשר שיהו שניהם דברי אלהים חיים וזה אוסר וזה מתיר, ותירצו כי כשעלה משה למרום לקבל תורה הראו לו על כל דבר ודבר מ"ט פנים לאיסור ומ"ט פנים להיתר, ושאל להקב"ה על זה, ואמר שיהא זה מסור לחכמי ישראל שבכל דור ודור ויהיה הכרעה כמותם

Fundamentally, when it comes to Halacha it has been given over to man to utilize his Halachickly trained mind to determine the law. Therefore as long as each individual uses the proper Halachik method to yield a sevara and Psak Halacha (Legal Ruling) although it may not be the same as Moshe conceived or there is a dissenting position like in the argument of Hillel and Shamai they both none the less are considered valid Halachik positions.
Hashem is not as much demanding us to come to the same conclusion, as much as we need to be involved in the proper Halachik process. It is not about the result as much as the way of thinking if you will.

To put it in another perspective let me contrast it to another category of knowledge. When it comes to philosophy we don't say that all opinions are correct. The Rambam and Ramban argue about what it will be like in the times of Moshiach. One will be correct and one will be wrong. Or the argument about whether the snake in Bereishit is an actual animal or a metaphor for the internal desires (Seforno). Either the snake actually existed or not. Both can't be correct. Or if one person said God is physical and one said God is not. They both can't simultaneously be correct.

The reason in all these cases is that we are saying something about reality. We are trying to discover what really is. Therefore, there can only be one truth. However, when it comes to Halacha you are not studying the world around us, you are studying a Halachik reality. A halachik construct if you will. It is a system unto itself. Therefore it can tolerate different logical possibilities within the framework of Halachik thinking. Our job is not to wear the Tephilin of Moshe, our job is to wear the Tephilin of the Halachik system.

I would encourage you to read Rav Moshe Feinstein's introduction to his Responsa. It addresses these topics.

Thank you for the excellent question!

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    That is a pretty satisfying answer, thank you! And thank you for providing a little more context to the idea that Double AA quite rightly brought up. Halakha is essentially a process, not a result. That could work for me. Jun 26 '15 at 3:36
  • @ablaze Great, I am so glad. If you have any follow up questions please do not hesitate to ask.
    – RCW
    Jun 26 '15 at 3:59
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    @ablaze a deliberate limiting of choice creates a need to be aware of one's actions; awareness of which path is being taken leads to appreciation of its make up; appreciation of qualities leads to gratitude for it. Noticing differences between the traditions as to which choices to make will add to the thoughtfulness at the start of this process, and hopefully will thus increase the happy gratitude at the end? (no sources available for this thought, I'm afraid ;) ) Jun 26 '15 at 7:56

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