Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The "Seventy Faces of the Torah" Fallacy

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.


  1. Rabbinic search can be a painful topic (it is for me)

    I think here you overstate the case-70 faces does apply in practical halacha imho-it's just a question of who gets to decide when to apply it (e.g. on women yoatzot the level may be different than rabbis which may be different from whether to stand for kriat hatora...)

  2. Joel-
    Searches - Sorry to hear it.
    70 faces - I think we're talking about two different things. I'm talking about creative interpretation of halachah, not the question of how halachah applies to a given circumstance.

  3. OK-I see they them as distinctly related.
    Joel Rich

  4. Rabbi-

    Tell me if I'm wrong, but when people who are opposed to women's ordination discuss it, they are careful to mention that it's NOT a halakhic issue, rather one of mesorah/hashkafa/etc. It seems from your post that these are specifically the areas that ARE subject to 70 faces.

  5. There's a lot in this post that can be discussed, but I think one important thing to keep in mind is the crux of the issue: when does "re-interpretation" become "misinterpretation"? This is an issue that is hard to define scientifically, since Jewish law (much like general law) is not a science (as the Ramban famously pointed out in his introduction to the Talmud). I think the message of shiv'im panim is exactly that: one way is not the only true way of looking at an issue. As Professor Reuven Kimelman likes to say, "you can claim to know the truth and nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth." If that is the case, though, then where does critical thinking and machlokes fit in (assuming each side in a machlokes feels he is right based on the evidence)? Are all "70 faces" equally true, or are some only partly true?
    The question is complicated by the issue of judicial error, a topic discussed both within the Torah and one that forms an entire masechet in Mishnah (Horayot), which clearly shows that not all interpretations are valid: there may be "70 faces" to the Torah, but not "71." I feel this is an important point to bring up since often people are not willing to admit that even great rabbis are not infallible according to our tradition, and that shiv'im panim might not apply to them either.
    Aside from these general additions, I have two questions for you. First, you seem to think the concept of shiv'im panim applies only to hashkafah and not halakhah; given the existence of so many halakhic debates, I'm not sure why you would think that. Second, you might want to define what you mean by "creative interpretation" - looking at the development of Jewish law historically, I would say there is a great deal of creativity and innovation, which, though often subject to debate, frequently goes unnoticed. Might not a better question be "does the situation justify an innovation" or "does the innovation conform to traditional methods of interpretation"? (Of course, how to determine these methods would also lead to debate.) Another way of looking at the issue of innovation relates to the "re-interpretation vs. misinterpretation" issue. In that case, the relevant question might be, "When does an idea need to conform with the original intent of a text, and when can a text imply something that the author himself may not have thought of when he made the statement? And when do we say a certain interpretation distorts a text?" You might want to clarify these points in a future post.

    1. It would be interesting to apply ideas found in literary criticism and hermeneutics to this subject. For example, the intentional fallacy - does the author's intent matter at all? Can it even be ascertained? All we have is the text and that is what should be studied. I remember the story of Akiva against the other rabbis in the room. Akiva said stuff like, "If I'm right may the walls breathe, may the river run backwards" etc. But the other rabbis weren't impressed. They reminded him that the Torah was in their hands now and for them to interpret. Knowing G-d's intentions wasn't always relevant. Amazing stuff.

    2. Randy-
      Thanks for your comment. I believe you are referring to the debate involving Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. You might be interested in my post on that here.

  6. "Yes, there are 70 faces to the Torah, but the interpretation you chose is not one of them."

  7. Jeremy-
    I think those voices are claiming that this mesorah is a matter of halachah.
    My quick study of the applications of the "70 faces" finds that it is used more for aggadic derash on pesukim, in any case.

    Good questions, as always. Your comments often make me want to write a sequel post.
    Agreed re: judicial error, certainly.
    My reason for saying Shivim Panim is not halachic is simply that it would eradicate the entire justice system. "You say the Torah prohibits me from killing? I don't think that's what Lo Tirtzach means!" And so on...
    Further, no one who ever cited this "shivim panim" concept did so regarding halachah, until the current generation.
    There is a separate issue of "Elu v'Elu" - but I believe this to be a different concept, with a pedigree and sphere of its own.
    The differences between the two would make for an interesting PhD thesis.

    Please clarify?

  8. Rabbi Torzcyner,
    I am flattered that my comments would act as fodder for another post! I would add that your posts deserve just as much credit, since they stimulate the discussion in the first placce.
    The distinction between shiv'im panim and ellu va'ellu is interesting. It might explain why judicial error is so much more front and center for Hazal than kefirah/apikorusus issues. Certainly food for thought. I wonder who the first ones to apply shiv'im panim to halakhah were: were they rabbis or laymen?

  9. Joesph-
    Here's a thought, which is consistent with the classical uses of 70 Panim as well as Elu v'Elu:
    70 Panim is vertical, establishing the presence of non-exclusionary layers of meaning.
    Elu v'Elu is horizontal, offering equally valid, but exclusionary, alternative meanings.
    The thought was spurred by comments in Mishneh Halachos 5:169, on non-traditional interpretation of pesukim.

  10. Interesting - I wonder where the concept of כפטיש יפוצץ סלע (which, for whatever reason, does not seem to be quoted often) falls in - if I recall correctly, that has halakhic implications that seem somewhat similar to 70 panim.