One of the most remarkable maxims in the Talmud is the concept of “Elu Ve-elu Divrei Elo-him Chayim”, “These and those are the words of the living God.” (See for example Eruvin 13b) This is a halachic-philosophical concept which states that, even when there are opposing views among the Sages of Israel concerning Jewish law, all these views, being rooted in the divine word, are considered to be authentic and treated as if they come from God Himself. Just as light emanates from one source and separates into a spectrum of colors once it enters our space, so it is with the word of God. This is the great secret behind the vitality of Halacha. There are no final halachic conclusions. Everything is open to debate. What was left for the Talmud and later authorities to do was to decide which of these views should be practically followed in day-to-day life. In that way, they prevented the Torah from fragmenting into many “Toroth” and creating confusion in Jewish communities. (Sanhedrin 88b) Most of the time such decisions were made on the basis of a majority opinion among the Sages. This is not because the other opinions were considered to be invalid and untrue, but because one opinion was more conducive to the majority of Sages or the general public, or was more practical in day-to-day life, and often less demanding. Many times, it reflected a more broad approach to religious and moral issues and was less rigorous.
On a deeper level, however, this maxim is Judaism’s pragmatic realization that there is no such thing as the “Greatest Good”, in which everything can be accomplished to its full manifestation without resulting in less desirable consequences. It fully realizes that this ideal is not within the realm of possibility in this world. It acknowledges that certain values clash and cannot be reconciled or even combined, not just for purely practical reasons, but even conceptually. Only in God Himself can this be possible, not within the world of human beings.
One cannot combine full liberty with complete equality. Justice and mercy, knowledge and happiness often collide. How much equality, how much liberty, how much kindness, how much truth? The idea, then, of a perfect solution to human problems, moral dilemmas and religious demands cannot be coherently conceived. This is true even within the world of Halacha. Even God’s pronouncements sometimes clash, and more so their interpretations. There is no such thing as an “ideal” halachic solution. All that can be done is to find the best “trade-offs” in which less harm is done, or more is achieved, by following one opinion over another, but not because one is more valid than the other.
But even this is not always possible. Sometimes, one is forced to choose between two supreme values which compete; one cannot decide which is better and which is worse. In that case, other criteria are used to establish the practical Halacha. Most remarkable is the case where the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) discusses the famous disputes between Beth Hillel and Beth Shamai. The reason, says the Talmud, why the practical Halacha nearly always follows Beth Hillel and not Beth Shamai, is that the former was kind-hearted and modest and mentioned the opinion of Beth Shamai before its own! In other words, the Halacha was decided according to Beth Hillel not because of any supreme academic-halachic argument, or majority vote, but because of modesty! This is most telling and shows the profound virtuousness of Jewish Law. The Sages also realized the truth of the well-known dictum of the American philosopher, William James: not to make a decision is also a decision. They had the courage to make a decision, even knowing very well that there were equally good arguments on the other side.
What many people do not realize is that in cases of extreme moral dilemmas, it is almost impossible to find an ideal solution which settles everything in the most favorable way. Many believe that once a moral solution is found, all others are completely faulty and invalid, never to be considered. Reality, however, proves this to be far from the truth.
Only a few weeks ago, the State of Israel was confronted with one of the most difficult choices it has ever faced. Up against one of the worst forms of blackmail in all of world’s history, it had to decide whether to free an incarnate of evil, the arch murderer Samir Kuntar, who killed a Jew in cold blood and crushed the skull of his 4-year-old daughter, vowing to kill as many Jews as possible once he would be free. In exchange, Israel would receive two of its soldiers, alive or dead, from the terrorist organization, Hizbullah, which is equally committed to killing the maximum number of Jews, and sees its objective as ensuring the destruction of the State of Israel.
The stakes were high. On the one hand, there were serious concerns that negotiating with terrorist organizations will only encourage them to kidnap more and more soldiers in the future. On the other hand, to fail to rescue any soldier who falls into enemy hands would shatter one of the most basic principles of the Jewish State: bringing every soldier home, at all costs, preferably alive, but even dead, so that he would at least be granted a “kever yisrael”, a Jewish burial. Failing to do so could very well weaken the resolve of future generations to take up arms in Israel’s defense. Again, other families would (and did!) object, maintaining that to free arch terrorists would only encourage the kidnapping of more soldiers. These people threatened not to allow their children to serve in the Israel army, once the Israeli government would start freeing arch terrorists!
This is a typical “secular” example of the Talmudic principle of “Elu Ve-Elu Divrei Elo-him Chayim”, “Both are the words of the living God.” Both arguments are strong and sound. Neither one is more convincing than the other. It all depends from what angle you view such an immense problem.
Even if we totally disagree with the Israeli government’s decision to free this arch murderer so as to bring home two dead Jewish soldiers, nobody can condemn such a decision as totally wrong or evil. We can only respect it, while strongly objecting. Such an objection is completely legitimate and is, indeed, always acknowledged in Israeli society as completely fair. (1)
This is not to say that the Israeli government did not completely fail in its dealing with the aftermath of this tragic exchange. It most certainly did, and once more proved its incompetence. Instead of turning its decision to bring its soldiers home into a major moral victory, to be noticed by all, it allowed its enemies, once more, to convince the world that Israel capitulated out of weakness and is on the brink of collapse. No greater mistake could have been made.
I will expand on this in my next TTP.
(1) I am fully aware of the Mishna in the Talmud in Gittin, 45a, which states that it is forbidden to redeem captives for exorbitant ransoms so as not to incite further kidnappings. As several halachic authorities have stated, this ruling probably does not apply in the case of the Israeli army, since soldiers are sent to war with the explicit understanding and stipulation that they will unconditionally be brought back home, alive or dead. More than that: The Mishna does not discuss the case in which it is almost certain that the captives will be killed by the kidnappers. There are different halachic opinions about such a case.