I'm under the impression that religious Judaism believes in absolute truths. That being the case, how does the concept of "eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chaim" (Eruvin 13b) work out? When two scholars argue, how can they both be right?
A simple parable for this idea is the idea of projection. If one looks at a cylinder, for example, it could be a square or a circle. In reality, it is both or neither.
Torah, in principle, is higher than human understanding. Therefore, as the Torah comes into human understanding it gets "filtered" through their brain (even two prophets would not use the same wording). Therefore, if someone applies the Torah approach to a problem and gets to one resolution, the result is true.
However, practically, as it comes into the world, there can be only one truth, which is known as "Halacha". Therefore, when one asks a shaila, he is expecting "what to do", not "there are two approaches" because this world, a physical world, is limited in the sense that one cannot do two opposite things at a time. Therefore, the halacha could go like either one or the other, and halachically, the other could be rejected completely, as if it wasn't there (Beis Shamai v Beis Hillel). In the source of Halacha, in the higher worlds, however, they are both true.
There are certainly absolute truths in regard to things that are known or things that are fundamental principles - it is absolutely true that HaShem created the universe and redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, for example.
When it comes to things that are really unknowable, the best we can do is base our understanding of them on sound principles handed down to us from Sinai.
One subset of unknowable things is, ironically, Halachah. What I mean by that is that we cannot know with absolute certainty (ie., we cannot know the absolute truth about) what HaShem wants us to do in any given situation.
Certain things are easier to determine than others - we can know that lighting a camp fire on Shabbath is prohibited. That is explicitly forbidden by the Torah. What about operating an electric wheelchair? That would depend on the definition of certain types of Melachah and the design of the wheelchair, and whether or not the neighborhood is in a public domain. Depending on the situation, and also depending on the analysis of the applicable laws, one Posek can reach a different conclusion than another.
The same is true for things that we would like to know outside the realm of laws. What happens to us when we die? What do certain esoteric verses mean when they describe the Heavenly Court? We cannot know these things for certain. Because of that we have to rely on the Sinaitic principles that we have, and different scholars can reach different conclusions based on the limited knowledge that we do have (verses, primarily, as well as earlier scholars' analyses of the same subject).
That is Eilu VeEilu in a nutshell.
There are many different interpretations of "Elu V'Elu". It is rather difficult to say that it literally means both sides of an argument can be true, since it is applied to disputes of facts. E.g. what were the events of a story, or what did so-and-so hold. They cannot both be literally true, since they were events that actually happened.
A more likely explanation is that "Elu V'elu" means both sides are legitimate interpretations. While only one of them may in fact be true, at the time of the dispute it is not possible to prove one side wrong. And one cannot ask God, since "Lo B'shamayim He" (The Torah is no longer in heaven, it has been given over to man to interpret). Since we cannot prove which side is right, a person can learn both sides without worrying that one of them is wrong.
Absolute truth exists, but in certain areas of dispute it is not possible to find it. So both sides are considered the word of God.
I think that what has to be discussed is your basic premise that Judaism believes in absolute truths. Judaism believes that Hashem is the absolute ruler and that he gave the Torah to Israel. There is also a concept of "Lo Bashamyim Hee" i.e. the Torah was given to Israel to "figure" out to the best of our ability based on rules passed down through tradition. Whatever is honestly derived based on these rules is given credence by Hashem that it is the truth, as exemplified by the incident of Rabbi Eliezer and the Rabanan. Hashem will judge man based on what is in the Shulchan Aruch. Absolute truths is basically irrelevant. Regarding Halacha the Torah instructs us to go after the majority for practical purposes. This never implies that the losing opinion was false.
I would like to offer a different perspective which is my own conjecture. I think we need to examine the full phrase which is "eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chaim" - these and these are the words of the living God (emphasis added). Then you need to ask, "why would God say both of these things?" The answer is because God learns torah!
The discussion in Gittin 6b is enlightening
Rav Evyasar met up with Eliyahu Hanavi and asked him what Hashem is doing now. Eliyahu answered that Hashem is learning the Sugya of Pilegesh Begiv'a, and He is saying, 'Evyasar my son says like this, Yonasan my son says like this.' He asked, 'is there uncertainties in heaven'? Eliyahu replied, 'Eilu veEilu Divrei Elokim Chaim'
True, in that discussion there was a way to make both sides of the argument be "right". But, the principle is instructive. Eilu v'eilu doesn't necessarily mean you are both right or both things are true, it means that God is saying over both of these opinions this portion of study is reviewed in the heavenly study hall!
I would furthermore postulate that only certain select arguments are of such high caliber that God himself deems them worthy of repetition, otherwise every argument would be 'eilu v'eilu'.
"There are 70 faces to the Torah" (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15)
There's a difference between an explanation of a Torah verse that is wrong, and an explanation that our sages chose not to follow.
Shammai wasn't wrong. He was a scholar equally as great as Hillel. As Avi alludes to in his answer, there is a concept that when the messiah comes, we will follow Shammai's views. Actually, we do follow at least eighteen of Shammai's rulings (see mishanyos shabbos chapter 1).
In any case, the Heavenly Voice declaring that "These and these are the words of the living G-d" was simply teaching that Shammai was a genuine Torah scholar who sincerely reached a different understanding.
"Eilu v'eilu" does NOT mean that anything anyone says on a given Torah verse is valid.
Intentionally misreading Torah verses to obliterate severe negative commandments is wrong, misleading to uneducated Jews, and has no basis in Jewish practice. Using "eilu v'eilu" to justify negation of Torah law in favor of secular morality is a total fraud.
"70 faces to the Torah" means that, even today, there are varying practices that can all be classified as proper Jewish observance.
An Ashkenazi Jew can walk into a Sefardi or Yemenite or Persian synagogue, and fulfill his prayer obligations there. That same Ashkenazi Jew can enter the home of any of the above (assuming that the family is observant) and eat in their home. A European chassidic Jew from America can observe the sabbath with a Tunisian Jew from Israel (I've seen this myself), and the two will recognize each other's actions as that of a sabbath-observant Jew - even though the specific customs, mode of dress, accent in pronouncing the blessings and prayers etc, are quite different.
Judaism believes in an absolute Truth; halacha. However, there are many valid ways to fulfill halacha, and they all look, sound, feel, smell, and taste different from each other.
The short of your answer I believe is that Judaism does not believe in absolute truths.
However, it is true that many Jews do believe in absolute truths, so I'll answer the question regarding that subset of Jews.
The general explanation given for Eilu v'Eilu amongst people who believe that something either is or isn't, is that eilu v'eilu refers to eight different time periods.
- Before Matan Torah
- After Matan Torah
- After matan Torah before entering Israel
- After entering Israel, before a beis Hamikdash
- During the beis Hamikdash
- After the Beis Hamikdash is destroyed
- The time of moshiach before the beis hamikdash is rebuilt
- After the beis hamkidash is rebuilt and the Moshiach is here.
Many people will try to explain 'eilu v'eilu' as refering to a difference of opinion based on which of those 8 time periods you are talking about. That is, those 8 time periods are so vastly different from eachother, that the halacha might have conflicting outcomes.
Alternatively, one might argue that even within the same time period, the circumstances of each event help determine which of the two eilus is correct at any given moment.
The question is based on the premise that "eilu v'eilu" means that both are right. This is not necessarily the case. First of all, Rashi (כתובות נז. ד"ה הא) already notes that "eilu v'eilu" is only applicable in a machlokes in sevarah, where sometimes one sevarah can be correct while at other times the other sevarah can be correct. But in a machlokes about factual reality, such as when two amoraim are debating what an earlier amora had said, one position is actually false.
דכי פליגי תרי אליבא דחד מר אמר הכי אמר פלוני ומר אמר הכי אמר פלוני חד מינייהו משקר אבל כי פליגי תרי אמוראי בדין או באיסור והיתר כל חד אמר הכי מיסתבר טעמא אין כאן שקר כל חד וחד סברא דידיה קאמר מר יהיב טעמא להיתירא ומר יהיב טעמא לאיסורא מר מדמי מילתא למילתא הכי ומר מדמי ליה בעניינא אחרינא ואיכא למימר אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הם זימנין דשייך האי טעמא וזימנין דשייך האי טעמא שהטעם מתהפך לפי שינוי הדברים בשינוי מועט
R. Abraham of Vitirbo (Sefer Emunas Chchamim Ma'amar Sheini) actually ridicules the idea that "eilu v'eilu" means that both sides of a machlokes are correct (my emphasis):
וזהו מה שאמרו אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים והלכה כרבי פלוני כי בהיות כונת שניהם לטובה אף על פי שהאמת היה עם אחד מהם שהרי הלכה כרבי פלוני מכל מקום אל תחשוב שזה שלא כיון אל האמת לא זכה אבל בהיות כונתו לטובה למצוא האמת שמצא חבירו אעפ"י שהוא לא מצאה זכה כמותו נחשבים דבריו לפני הבורא כאותן של חבירו וזהו אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הם ולא כמו שחשבת ששנים יחלוקו בענין אחד זה אסר וזה התיר ויהיו אמתים דברי שניהם רחמנא ליצלן ואין מקום לדברים האלו שבדית מלבך ומדעתך את כלם ישא רוח
And this is [the meaning of] what they said "these and those are the words of the living God but the halacha follows Rabbi So-And-So": for because they both had good intentions, even though the truth is with [only] one of them as [evidenced by the fact that] the halacha follows Rabbi So-And-So, nevertheless do not think that this one who did not reach the truth did not merit. Rather, because his intentions were good – to find the truth that his fellow found – even though he did not find it he merited just like him, [meaning that] his words are considered by the Creator just like those of his fellow. And this is [the meaning of] "these and those are the words of the living God". Not like you thought that two people can argue about one matter, this one forbidding and this one permitting, with the words of both of them being true. Heaven forfend! There is no place for these words that you invented from your heart and your mind; they should all be carried away by the wind.
בכמה מקומות בש"ס מובא הבטוי אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים ערובין גטין נשאלה השאלה האם יכולים להיות שני דברים מתנגדים בתכלית הנגוד הללו מתירין והללו אוסרין יצאו ממקור אחד ב"ה
תשובה. במפרשי העין יעקב בערובין י"ג הריטב"א ז"ל והעיון יעקב ובפתח עינים כלם נתעוררו בזה ותרצו באופנים שונים ע"ש אין פנאי להעתיק דבריהם ועני אני מפרש הדברים ככה אלו ואלו האוסרים והמתירים כוונתם לברר דברי אלהים חיים שהיא התורה להכריע ההלכה לאסור או להתיר ובזה אין שום קושי ועיי' עוד ברש"י ז"ל בכתובות נ"ז ע"א מ"ש עוד בזה
Let me add a scientific perspective that gives insight into the world HaShem made. In quantum mechanics, the most successful physical theory ever devised, a thing and its opposite can be true at the same time. A particle could have both spin up and pin down. Schrodinger's cat can be both alive and dead. Only an observation can decide which is which, and until it is made both are true. Likewise, given two Jewish views, an authoritative halachic decision tells us which is the one Jews must follow, and until it is made both views are valid. (I am a quantum physicist.)
To straighten things out, it should be noted that "those and those" ONLY relates to Halachic statements, not factual. For example "bat is Kosher" is a Halachic question, but "bat is a bird" is not.
As Hashem willingly withdrew His presence in the Creation He left it to the Sages to decide on Halachic issues. Therefore whatever they might propose will automatically be considered "G-d's will" and therefore "true". Think about asking your kids to decide on your next trip and one says a lake and another says mountains. They are both true as you gave them the authority, irrespective of where your actual trip will be.
So if a Rabbi says "bat is Kosher to eat" and another says "bat is not Kosher" they are both true, but if one says "bat is a bird because it flies", Hashem does not back him up.