One Jew, Two Opinions

Did Rebecca have to do wrong in order to do right?

Commentary on Parashat Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9

We have all heard – and used – the expression “two Jews, three opinions.” And although we employ it jokingly, even mockingly, most of us believe that it contains a kernel of truth. Now if two Jews have three opinions, then one of those two Jews has two opinions. Can one person hold two opinions concurrently? Apparently he can, and if he is a Jew, he often does!

It is in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, that Rebecca urges her son Jacob to impersonate his brother and thereby take for himself the blessing that father Isaac had intended for Esau his other son. And indeed, Jacob, dressed as Esau, does as his mother directed and dupes his father into bestowing upon him the blessing designated for his sibling. What clearly motivates Rebecca is a steadfast conviction that Isaac is about to transfer the leadership of the nascent Jewish people into the hands of a man who is supremely unfit for the task. She believes that the sacred mission that Abraham was tasked with by God and was then handed down to Isaac, will be perverted and bankrupted under the leadership of Esau. And she is furthermore certain that the only means at her disposal to prevent such a calamity is to facilitate trickery and duplicity on the part of her son Jacob.

That means that she is of the belief that the ends justify the means. Most commentators have nothing but praise for Rebecca and Jacob, others criticize what the two of them did, but be that as it may, there is broad support within the Jewish tradition for the premise of their course of action. Although it may or may not have been right in this case, there are in principle instances – many of them – in which one may and must do wrong in order to achieve right.

This is not obvious at all. Emmanuel Kant famously declared that if you are hiding an innocent fugitive and his bloodthirsty pursuers knock at the door with knives brandished and demand to know if the man has taken refuge in your home, you are obligated to tell the truth. And many believe it categorically immoral to kill another human being – even in war or self defense.

Judaism never even came close to such a way of thinking. The halachic (Jewish legal) system has always recognized almost all values to be relative. Rather than absolutes, we have a panoply of sometimes conflicting and mutually exclusive values that have to be balanced and weighed. The relationships between them are complex and multifaceted. Some of them can be arranged hierarchically, whereas others do not submit to easy and straightforward ordering.

Jewish morality is therefore situational and cannot be reduced to a simple code or diagram of yes and no. What is right in one case may be wrong in another. That is one of the reasons why the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is only formally the last word in Jewish law. Practically speaking, it is the foundation for glosses and commentaries and objections and further elaborations. And much of what we call interpersonal ethics, mitzot bein adam lchavero, is omitted from the Shulchan Aruch, not because it is not a central part of Judaism but rather because it cannot be reduced to an abstract list of does and don’t. In many instances it is better transmitted as aggadah – stories that convey values. And this is the reason why in so many cases, one must personally ask an expert in Jewish law in order to ascertain what the halacha (Jewish law) would be in a given situation. And this is also why different halachic authorities may proffer different answers. There is often more than one way to weigh the conflicting considerations, such that although halacha is binding, it is not always clear-cut.

The deeper and broader one’s appreciation of the dialectic of Jewish law, the more options one can see as vying for legitimacy. And that is why one Jew may and actually ought to, hold two opinions, or even three or four.

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