Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Negative-Historical Judaism as an 'Elu'

Gittin 6B:
דכתיב (שופטים יט) ותזנה עליו פילגשו רבי אביתר אמר זבוב מצא לה ר' יונתן אמר נימא מצא לה ואשכחיה ר' אביתר לאליהו א"ל מאי קא עביד הקב"ה א"ל עסיק בפילגש בגבעה ומאי קאמר אמר ליה אביתר בני כך הוא אומר יונתן בני כך הוא אומר א"ל ח"ו ומי איכא ספיקא קמי שמיא א"ל אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן זבוב מצא ולא הקפיד נימא מצא והקפיד אמר רב יהודה זבוב בקערה ונימא באותו מקום זבוב מאיסותא ונימא סכנתא איכא דאמרי אידי ואידי בקערה זבוב אונסא ונימא פשיעותא
Commenting on the text, And his concubine played the harlot against him, R. Abiathar said that the Levite found a fly with her, and R. Jonathan said that he found a hair on her. R. Abiathar soon afterwards came across Elijah and said to him: 'What is the Holy One, blessed be He, doing?' and he answered, 'He is discussing the question of the concubine in Gibea.' 'What does He say?' said Elijah: '[He says], My son Abiathar says So-and-so, and my son Jonathan says So-and-so,' Said R. Abiathar: 'Can there possibly be uncertainty in the mind of the Heavenly One?' He replied: Both [answers] are the word of the living God. He [the Levite] found a fly and excused it, he found a hair and did not excuse it. Rab Judah explained: He found a fly in his food and a hair in loco concubitus; the fly was merely disgusting, but the hair was dangerous. Some say, he found both in his food; the fly was not her fault, the hair was. (trans. from Soncino Edition)
Here we see the oft-mentioned, rarely invoked principle of אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים, elu ve-elu divrei elokim hayyim, 'Both [answers] are the words of the living God.'

The more famous application of this principle in the Talmud is by the halakhic disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. We generally decide in accordance with Bet Hillel, but nonetheless '
Both are the words of the living God.' In the piece quoted above, from Gittin, the dispute is not halakhic but concerns historical fact. The principle is often used in a more general sense in disputes. Often the side that wishes to be or be perceived as a peace-maker will invoke it to legitimate both opinions. Sometimes the weaker side will invoke it to legitimate what it realizes is the weaker opinion, although this is often in the eye of the beholder.

I recently heard a shiur concerning the status of the kotel and its sanctity. The issue mainly concerned the identity of the kotel. Was it a wall surrounding har ha-bayit? Was it a wall of the 'azarah itself? Posekim were mentioned for both positions. Fortunately for us the pesak is that it was a wall surrounding the har ha-bayit. What was interesting was that in the entire discussion there appeared to be no recognition of the wall itself. How long was it? Never mentioned. Does it appear to function as a retaining wall for a platform? No mention. What about the style of the cut stones? Nothing. I don't want to mention any names in this post because it doesn't particularly bring honor to them. One modern teshuva was cited which gave an ingenious proof from a mishna in Masechet Me'ila concerning the type of money used to build the walls of the Temple, sanctified or secular. It concluded that the kotel is in fact of a lesser type of sanctity and it is permitted to approach it. But it was evident from the teshuva that the posek thought that the kotel was built by Shlomo!

I couldn't help but remember a paragraph from The End of Days : Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg
One reason for Al-Aqsa's sanctity [Ahmad Agbariya] explains, is that it was the world's second mosque, built by Adam forty years after the mosque in Mecca....Archaeologist say [what Muslims call Old Al-Aqsa--a pair of long vaults directly under the mosque building] were built in roman times, as passages that led from the Mount's southern gates into the Temple....Agrabiya says the halls are the mosque that Adam built at the begining of time. If so, there's a Roman style to Adam's stonework, like the pair of columns topped with floral capitals at one end of the passageway.
What is a modern halakhic discussion doing without apparent recognition of the plain fact that the kotel is Herodian and a retaining wall for a platform built atop the peak of har ha-bayit? I wonder (okay, facetiously) if such discussion and such a shiur is divrei elokim hayyim. Is this Negative-Historical Judaism?

In any case, the probable way out is the fact that the Gemara in Gittin quoted at top actually concerns itself with whether or not the two positions contradicted one another. If so, they cannot have both been true. But the Gemara harmonizes them and explains that they both could have been true. Could have been true, but were they? I'm not sure that is the point of the Gemara or the idea of elu ve-elu at all. If so, then I suppose that it doesn't matter if a halakhic discussion about the kotel is aware or unaware of what the kotel actually is, although I have to admit that seeing the type of thing I quoted from Gorenberg's book in modern teshuvos and shiurim throws me for a loop.

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