Tanach as a Pluralistic Text

Pluralism is a word on a lot of religious people’s lips right now.  Can we inculcate in ourselves, our families, and our varied religious communities, the values that we cherish most while being truly open to discovering what we share in common and where we disagree with those whose traditions and values differ from ours?  Further, can we find in our very traditions support for such a worldview?

The prophet Michah seems to articulate this worldview when he describes a utopian vision as follows:

“And they will sit, each under his grape vine or fig tree, with no fear, because Hashem has spoken.  Because all peoples will walk, each person in the name of their God; and we will walk in the name of Hashem our God — for ever” (4:4-5, translation and emphasis mine).

Granted, this seems to place Michah in the pluralism camp, but can a broader argument be made for Judaism as a whole?  Yoram Hazony, in his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, thinks that one can, and argues that Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) — through its very structure — seeks to propagate a pluralistic mindset.

“The fact that the prophetic visions about the future condition of the world contradict one another so sharply, and that the compilation [Tanach] purposely juxtaposes these conflicting visions with one another (as the compilers of the Talmud would later do in their own treatment of the subject), strongly suggests that…many of the prophets themselves, did not view this aspect of their oratory as issuing in unequivocal statements of what necessarily had to happen.  Instead, these texts appear in our Bible as alternative visions of the ideals towards which the world of men is moving, and of the catastrophes that our failures may yet bring upon us along the way” (pg. 64).

One of the most popularly cited claims of pluralism in Jewish tradition is attributed to God in a Talmudic story.  In reconciling the debates of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, God claims “These and those are the words of the living God, but the halacha [law] follows the House of Hillel” (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b).  Hazony is going further, however, in claiming that the Tanach itself was written, in part, to further a pluralistic end.  While the story in the Talmud does suggest that there can be conflicting truths, the conclusion seems to be against pluralism, when the rubber hits the road.  Hillel is to be followed in matters of law, even as we keep Shammai’s opinions (as well as countless other minority opinions).  Hazony is arguing that, while decisions of a practical nature might have to be made, the Tanach, dealing as it does with the timeless issues that humanity has always struggled with, has no obligation to come to such succinct conclusions, and can therefore establish a culture of pluralism.  Without using that word, Hazony argues that:

“These observations point to a very specific purpose for the Hebrew Bible as an anthology of works.  If the understanding of each of the biblical authors is understood to be only partial, then the reader’s approach to the truth will, of necessity, have to be by way of a number of different viewpoints.  If this is right, then the purpose of the biblical authors…was…to assemble a work capable of capturing and reflecting a given tradition of inquiry…What is created is a space in which a certain discourse arises, and a search for truth that is, in effect, unending” (pg. 65).

As Hazony notes, rabbinic Judaism carried this tradition forward, cementing the idea of presenting multiple contradictory views of every subject under discussion as a cornerstone of the Jewish textual tradition (even if that discussion was, until very recently, the domain of a small subset of the Jewish community).  Being receptive to those viewpoints that seem foreign to us — as those of the House of Hillel surely did to the House of Shammai — is what is meant, to me at least, by the term ‘pluralism.’  Hence, a very persuasive argument can be given that Judaism has, from its earliest days as a well-defined religion, been in favour of a (textual) tradition that embraces pluralism.

[On a similar note, see this dvar torah (commentary on the weekly Torah portion) for last week’s parsha (portion)]


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