I was surprised to receive no comments on yesterday's Rabbinic Search Committee post, despite well north of 100 visitors. Odd.
Well, today we have a new topic: The "Seventy Faces of Torah" fallacy.
You know what I mean: The argument that our understanding of the Torah's text should not be limited to traditional approaches, but we can (and should) invent our own interpretations.
As I heard it applied the other day: We should be able to ordain women as rabbis today, because although millenia of halachic writing contain only 2 active references to women deciding law, still, we have the right to find more of the Seventy Faces.
Without entering the discussion about women’s ordination here – the topic requires more depth than this post – I believe that this argument stumbles in the “Seventy Faces” fallacy, the idea that there are שבעים פנים, seventy faces, to the Torah.
In itself, the idea of Seventy Faces is robust and well-cited in post-talmudic Judaism, found in the Zohar and cited by Ibn Ezra, Ramban and others in their classic commentaries to the Torah. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, despite his staunch opposition to Reform, embraced the flexible concept in his introduction to Horeb:
"Because in the sphere of knowledge of the law everything rests on traditional principles peculiar to this sphere, and no individual view on the significance of or reason for a law can have any binding force, a greater measure of freedom has therefore been given to every individual mind to work out and form such views according to the thinker's own will.
"As a result, we possess a collection of the most diverse views of men of the highest gifts from the earliest times down to our own day. Nevertheless, the cautious thinker will find guidance for himself in the legal tradition itself.”
Indeed, Ibn Ezra (in his introduction to Chumash) even applied the idea to the means by which halachah is derived from pesukim.
But the doctrine of “Seventy Faces” is about finding personal messages and meaning in the Torah. The fallacy is in applying "Seventy Faces of Torah" to practical halachah, as in, “You think that driving on Shabbat is prohibited, but there are seventy faces to the Torah.”
Such an approach is fallacious because it logically contradicts the authority of any halachic precedent or system, and so renders the Torah's entire system of courts, adjudication, penalization and redress meaningless.
Imagine the Jew who lights a fire on Shabbat, apparently violating, “You shall not kindle a flame in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath,” but claims that “kindling a flame” refers to creating domestic strife.
Imagine the Jew who grabs someone ‘s wallet and runs away, apparently violating, “You shall not steal,” but claims that “steal” refers specifically to deception.
“Seventy faces of the Torah” is, as Rav Hirsch noted, an attractive concept for explaining the “significance of or reason for a law.” But when it comes to applying the law, or determining the law, then as Rav Hirsch himself noted, our freedom of personal interpretation ends and we are bound not to say anything that contradicts standing law. (See Dayyan Grunfeld translation from the German, 3rd edition, it’s on page clviii)
One who would innovate in halachah, whether to be lenient or to be strict, must find a way to do so that is consistent with the existing halachic canon. Breaking from it, under the banner of personal innovation, renders the halachic system meaningless.