Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Adar 5759 - Feb 24, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
Why are there Differences of Opinion In Judaism?
by Rav Yehuda Greenwald

The following is the final section of our translation of Chapter 7 of Loda'as Bo'oretz Darkecho

Part IV

The first part discussed the existence of differences and the idea of a disagreement that is lesheim Shomayim. It also dealt with the fact that sometimes very strong language is used to express these differences. The second part discussed the place of hashkofo in all the differences, and how to look at the controversies. The third part was about the fact that gedolei Yisroel are truly great people, and even when they appear to take a strong stand, they can distinguish between the various issues and not let the differences get out of hand.

"Do I have to relinquish my own views about issues?"

Question: "According to what you have said I understand that I must relinquish my own thoughts and ideas about matters in which there is a difference of opinion, that I should not adopt any one side."


Certainly not. A Jew does not have to relinquish his own view and outlooks. On the other hand, he must know the limits of his capability to express his view in pivotal matters that require da'as Torah and not see his own view as decisive. Likewise he must thoroughly study the topic being discussed exactly in the same way that he studies a sugya in the gemora. As long as he has not done this he is not permitted to make any final decision.

This is difficult for us. We come from a world that champions an individual's freedom of speech and allows every person to say whatever he thinks. This freedom of speech includes speaking in a way that might cause another person's death (as indeed happened in the past, when public figures committed suicide because of suspicions against them, although they had not yet been judged in court). In the secular world each person instantaneously decides his view, even when he has no basis for it, and announces it with full confidence in its being correct. Afterwards when it turns out that his view was faulty from the start he does not even bother to apologize.

I can testify about myself that many times I told others my critical view about one issue or another in the chareidi world. Some of those times, after clarifying this matter with prominent rabbonim, I found out that I was mistaken in a certain detail or lacked information. Occasionally I was in a state of confusion when I discovered that the Torah World takes into consideration a certain detail that I was not even aware of. I felt mortified for my ignorance.

"How can I decide which side to take in a machlokes of Gedolei Yisroel?"

Question: "If all this is so, how can I decide which side to take in a machlokes between Gedolei Yisroel? How can I determine which of the two gedolim is correct?"


We have now reached the most complex problem: what to actually do. When a person encounters contrasting views among gedolei Yisroel he is baffled, and asks himself: "Who is right, and how can I decide who is right?" It seems to me that there are several practical bits of advice that can help us.

First, we must clearly know that we are not required to decide about all the various differences of opinion. Furthermore, we are not obliged to have an opinion about each topic in the world. True, in the modern world, in which the media gushes out a deluge of assorted information about all sorts of topics, a person feels he is familiar with everything and therefore is permitted to express his opinion on all subjects.

A program called "Sixty Seconds About Science" will make him feel like an expert in science. "A Minute of Hebrew/English/French/or Whatever" turns him into a certified linguist. Seeing and hearing sports shows will prompt even elderly women to think that they are proficient in the sport.

When a professional meets another person possessing merely superficial knowledge of that profession, but who anyway expresses his opinion about it, the professional is staggered and wonders how that person dares to do so. I remember how surprised I was to hear people analyzing criminal court cases that the media broadcasted. These people told others their superficial opinion with as much self-confidence as if they were veteran lawyers. The same happens in all areas of life: a person does not want to be caught looking as if he is ignorant about something.

This is not the case in the Torah world. Anyone who has studied Rashi has come across the phrase, "I do not know how to explain this." R' Akiva Eiger zt'l asks baffling questions on a Tosafos, but concludes, "May Hashem enlighten me." He feels that he is lacking in understanding, not the Tosafos. "I was not zoche to understand their holy words" is a familiar sentence frequently found in the acharonim.

Someone can ask a talmid chochom a halachic question and he may answer: "You have to ask a moreh horo'oh" or "I am not knowledgeable about this topic." Gedolei Yisroel many times refer people asking them questions to other gedolim and are not embarrassed to admit that they are not proficient in that topic. Do we really need to rule about each machlokes in which gedolei Yisroel disagree, or will perhaps our honor not be belittled if we remain with doubts?

Second, we need to learn a major principle from morei horo'oh. When they understand that someone is asking them a question about something that did not actually happen, they refuse to answer. One rav told me that when he was a talmid in yeshiva, some boys called up an eminent poseik in Yerushalayim to clarify a halocho. It was actually only an interesting question that they had thought about when they were studying the subject. As the poskim always do, the rav started asking the boys questions about what actually happened. Since this was only a theoretical question, they could not provide practical details and immediately became flustered. The poseik understood what was going on and said: "I only rule about real halachic questions."

This is a wonderful way to divide between the different machlokos between the gedolim or shittos: any topic that is not actually relevant to us should be put on the side without dealing with it.

I, for example, do not understand why I need to engage in the differences of opinion between one type of Chassidus and another when they have no practical difference for me. It is true that the yetzer hora loves involving us in disputes. In that way it can "gain" some loshon hora, some rechilus, and sinas chinom. Engaging in a dispute enlivens even an apathetic person, and is actually the "chareidi alternative" to arguments about sports or politics.

However, if we want to live according to the truth we must adopt the approach of refraining from engaging in any matter not actually relevant to us. When someone asks us, "What do you think about . . .?," your answer should be, "I don't really know" or "It does not interest me" or "I am unable to answer such a question."

Third, when the topic is truly pertinent to us and we are perplexed, we should feel a critical need to have a rav guide us. This is the only way to deal with this occurrence sensibly. We must simply approach a reliable rav and ask him our relevant question. We must ask him the question in an exact way, with all its details, and ask for guidance how to act.

You will certainly ask me which rav you should go to, since many times the answer to a question differs according to which rav we ask. The answer is that we are not talking about an immediate and one-time need to ask a rav when a specific halachic question has arisen. We are talking about having a permanent rav, an eminent person, to whom one feels connected to. That rav must be a person one feels he or she can rely on and before whom he effaces himself.

When a person has such a pertinent topic that he must ask about, he will go to that rav, will listen to his answer, and will act accordingly even when he is not personally pleased with the answer.

In this way one can save himself from all the personal inclinations and interests that divert man from the virtuous way and that sway him from one opinion to the other. The Sforno writes on the Mishnah (Ovos 1:16), "Make a rav for yourself and remove yourself from uncertainty": "Even though [Chazal] say that someone who wants to do like Beis Shammai is allowed to, or who wants to do like Beis Hillel is also allowed, since both are the words of the Living Elokim, it is fitting for a person to establish a connection with a specific rav according to whose decision he will always act, and according to whose psak he will consistently rule. In this way he will remove himself from uncertainty. Now his heart will not waver sometimes to do like this and sometimes like that, as [Shlomo Hamelech] says: `A fool walks in darkness' (Koheles 2:14)."

Now he is "covered" as far as Heaven is concerned, since he is doing what is required of him and is acting according to his rav's ruling.

There are those who will claim that in practical matters a person must surely know what is the precise truth even in a topic open to a difference of opinions. We must remember that "what is hidden is for Hashem, our Elokim, but what is revealed is for us and our children forever" (Devorim 29:28). A person is limited when it comes to knowing the unbiased truth. What is required of him is to clarify what is da'as Torah, what is Hashem's will in this matter. After he has made a maximum effort to know this and these efforts were done without personal interests, he has done all that is required of him. It makes no difference what the actual truth is, since doing Hashem's will is the only objective truth in the world.

We find a wonderful example of this in the gemora. In the machlokes between R' Yehoshua and R' Eliezer HaGodol about the tanur of achno'i a simple halachic principle overcame even signs from Heaven that supported R' Eliezer.

The gemora (Bovo Metzia 59b) tells us that the Chachomim were engaged in the question of whether a certain kind of oven is tohor or tomei. R' Eliezer and the Chachomim disagreed over this question. R' Eliezer answered all of the questions Chachomim posed, but they did not accept the answers. Afterwards R' Eliezer said to them: "If the halocho is like me let this carob tree prove it." The carob tree was uprooted from its place. The Chachomim said to him: "No proof can be brought from a carob tree." R' Eliezer again said to them: "If the halocho is like me let the aqueduct prove it." The aqueduct began to run backwards. They said: "No proof can be brought from an aqueduct." Again he said to them: "If the halocho is like me let the walls of the beis midrash prove it." The walls of the beis midrash started to incline . . .. He said again: "If the halocho is like me let Heaven prove it. A Bas Kol came forth and said to them: "What do you want from R' Eliezer, whose opinion is the halocho in every case?" R' Yehoshua stood up and said: "`It is not in Heaven'!" What does "It is not in Heaven" mean? R' Yirmiyah said: "The Torah has already been given on Mount Sinai and we do not pay attention to a bas kol, since the Torah has written (Shemos 23:2), "You shall incline after the majority."

Imagine the drama in that beis midrash, when overt miracles happened to strengthen R' Eliezer's argument: a carob tree was uprooted, an aqueduct ran backwards, the walls of the beis midrash started to incline, and at the end even a Bas Kol emerged from Heaven and proclaimed that R' Eliezer's opinion is the Divine truth. Is there need of any additional proof to determine what the truth is in this sugya?

However, against these irrefutable proofs Chachomim determined the halocho differently because of the rule "You shall incline after the majority." Even HaKodosh Boruch Hu agreed to them, as the gemora tells later: "R' Nosson met Eliyahu the novi and asked him what HaKodosh Boruch Hu did at that time when Chachomim decided against R' Eliezer. He said to him: `Hashem laughed and said, My children were victorious over me.'"

Rav Nissim Gaon (Brochos 19b) writes that Hashem tried Chachomim with these Divine signs to see "if they would set aside their tradition and gemora because of that Bas Kol."

It is likewise in our matter. All that is required of us when we encounter a machlokes between gedolim is to know what Hashem wants from us. The Torah revealed that when there is a doubt, "You shall come to the Cohanim, the Leviim, and the judges that shall be in those days, and inquire, and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment, and you shall do according to the sentence which they of that place which Hashem chooses shall tell you, and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform you; according to the sentence of the Torah which they shall teach you, you shall do. You shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall tell you to the right hand or to the left" (Devorim 16:9-11).

Chazal likewise teach us: "Make a rav for yourself and remove yourself from uncertainty." Even if a rav is mistaken we have fulfilled our obligation, as Chazal comment on the posuk, "You shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall tell you to the right hand or to the left": "even if they tell you that the right is the left and the left is the right" (ibid., Rashi).

In order to avoid any mistakes I again declare that I do not mean that a person should refrain from independent thought in topics regarding him. No, definitely not! He should study the topic thoroughly, do research on it, clarify it, and develop his own opinion. Afterwards he should go to his rav and ask him to analyze whether his view is correct. This must, however, always be done in a modest way, after he knows his proper standing.

I want to point out that many people need to examine themselves in this matter. It seems to me that many award legitimacy to some differences of opinion in order to remain with their own personal views and world outlooks (or at least to remain with those views that they hastily formed before they matured in Torah). They frequently say, "Since this matter is a matter of dispute I can remain with my own view," or "anyway this topic is not so clear to the gedolei Yisroel." In this way they feel they have a right to express their opinion without analyzing themselves according to da'as Torah.

One elderly Yid made some extremely blunt statements against an acrid machlokes in Klal Yisroel. I asked him if he had ever asked a godol beTorah why and about what they are arguing. He answered in the negative; it seems that he had been quite satisfied with the private theories that he had built by himself. I was astounded. How could he dare reach long-range conclusions without examining himself? Whence does he draw this confidence to decide in this matter when he is not even equipped to do so?

I once spoke to a person who had once been observant but went off the way. He had questions, some known to all, about various subjects. I asked him whether he had ever spoken to a godol who is proficient in these subjects about his questions. He stammered that he had never done that. Again I was astounded. How is a person able to make such a drastic move without examining himself? Certainly the gedolei Torah had deliberated those same questions and could have enlightened him.

When a person goes over to the gedolei Yisroel and speaks to them he is zoche to much enlightenment. One day a friend of mine, a baal teshuvah with whom I was acquainted, came to visit me. He said the view of Maran HaRav Wolbe about a certain subject amazed him. I said to him: "All right, you have a question about this. Let us together go and ask the Mashgiach himself."

He tried to avoid doing this with all sorts of excuses, including the excuse of his being too busy and not having time. I told him: "This is a sign that you are not serious and you do not have a true desire to know the answer. You have already made your decision and are not prepared to examine what you have decided."

Eventually he agreed and we went to the Mashgiach. On the way I told him that if he wanted to gain any benefit from the meeting he must ask his question in an open and clear way without any misgivings. He decided to meet my challenge, and when he walked into the Mashgiach's room he straightaway said: "I want to ask an insolent question. How could it be that the Mashgiach . . .?"

We then were privileged to hear a long and detailed answer in which the Mashgiach clarified the whole picture, offering a distinct stand delimiting the boundaries of the machlokes.

The only solution to the difficult problem of how to decide in a machlokes between gedolei Yisroel is what Chazal taught us: "Make a Rav for yourself and remove yourself from uncertainty."

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.