post

“THESE AND THOSE ARE THE LIVING WORDS”

The pluralistic vision in which different religious paths are upheld as authentic may rightly be described as one of R. Epstein’s primary foci.
“Each and every tsaddik holds fast to a path in the service of God according to his understanding (ke-fi sikhlo),” he claims. “The deeds of the tsaddikim are not identical to one another. Some serve God in this way, and
others worship in a different manner.”14 Modesty leads the worshiper
to acknowledge the validity of other approaches, although only in the
messianic age will individuals realize the full truth of all ways of serving
God—including one’s own. Then it will become clear that divergent spiritual paths are like the points along the circumference of a circle; every
charismatic leader, though so different from all the others, is equidistant
to the divinity at the core.


The embrace of multiple opinions in regard to the halakha is a well documented, though complicated and often controversial, aspect of the
legacy of Talmudic discourse and its medieval commentators. Several of
R. Epstein’s homilies build upon this, emphasizing that cultivating humility is critical for understanding the plurality of different legal rulings. For example, R. Epstein cites his teacher R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk
as having taught the rebellion of “Korah and his community” (Korah
va-edato) was thus named because the participants all hated and undercut
one another. Disagreeing over how best to usurp Moses’ power, every
rebel thought his model of leadership was the only authentic substitute
for the prophet’s ministry.16 R. Epstein then extends the discussion to the
realm of halakha:Shammai and Hillel disagreed precisely for the sake of heaven. One argued that the halakha is this way—the adornments of the bride must be
thus. The other said it is not so! The halakha is that way, and the bride’s
adornments must be like this. Their intentions included no ulterior motivations… But their disciples, meaning Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai,
were different. Some of them were driven by personal interest, saying,
“My teacher is greater and more godly…” [Their disagreement] was
mixed up with pride, arrogance, and other such selfish motivations.


The disciples of Shammai and Hillel, claims R. Epstein, were caught up in
factional infighting over the power of their exalted teachers. The phrase
“my teacher (rebbe) is greater and more godly” likely gestures toward the
competition—and conflict—that broke out between rival Hasidic leaders
in the decades after the death of the Maggid. This reading seems all the
more likely when one considers the original Yiddish that surely lies behind
this Hebraic formulation: “mayn rebbe iz greser vi dayn.” These disagreements between Hasidic tsaddikim were rooted in a range of ideological as
well as socio-economic factors, and they became quite fierce. R. Epstein
suggests that the key to overcoming this morass lies in appreciating the
differences between each style of leadership.
Disagreements that emerge from intellectual matters rather than
prideful conceit are particularly worthy. Hillel and Shammai offered variant legal rulings, but these divergences are to be celebrated rather than
mourned. R. Epstein’s description of their equally-valid halakhic positions

Categories: post