A single option strangles; too many paralyze.
Perhaps it’s today’s immediate communication on the internet, but many of the rapidly-developing human crises, and not just those of the Torah-aware Jewish world, seem to be the result of literally all or literally nothing confrontations. Does everyone have to live in lockstep, uniform and regimented, in religion, politics and values? Is it any better if we pretend that absolutely everything is equivalent and that every interpretation and set of values is equally valid?
Complexity Theory, in general, talks about the extremes of stagnation and chaos. We find that variation and diversity are absolutely necessary, but not as a limitless absolute. Our physical universe, as we are coming to know it, seems to define the limits in which it is able to exist. Life on Earth, and human life specifically, have much more limited boundaries. We, as humans (unaided by instrumentation, but, actually, even relying on ever-improving instruments since they, too, will eventually reach their limits) are only able to perceive an infinitesimal sliver of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
Rabbinic tradition (BaMidbar Rabbah 13:15) teaches, יש שבעים פנים בתורה, yesh shivim panim b’Torah, there are 70 faces to the Torah. This is indisputable Jewish tradition, but it’s often hijacked to justify ideas that actually run counter to Torah. Too often, the reaction to this abuse of saying “anything goes” has been the unhealthy and unreasonable and incorrect narrowing of spirituality into dogma. Our current reality as Jews places us very much in the middle of this literally all or literally nothing war between stagnation and chaos.
It’s instructive that the Midrash selects a very definite number, 70 (and that it derives this number from יין, wine, which figures centrally not only in ancient Temple service, but also at today’s Shabbat tables, means that it’s not an arbitrary choice of number. (The Gematria, numerical value of the letters יין is 70.)) and doesn’t just say הרבה, harbeh or רבים, rabim, or another word that means “many”. It certainly doesn’t say just 1 or even just 2 or 3. And while it says 70, as a friend recently pointed out, שבעים פנים ולא שבעים ואחד, shivim panim v’lo shivim v’echad, seventy faces and not seventy-one!
Beyond all the symbolic meanings of 70, it is both a definite number that can be easily counted as well as certainly being many more unique interpretations (of Torah or any other non-trivial system) than any one person, no matter how brilliant, would be able to keep in mind. (My guess, based on fancy, is that it would take a minimum of ten individuals to contain all seventy sets of information.) On the other hand, it is more than just one or two or even five or six, competing opinions that a very few exceptional individuals might have the capability of retaining.
Perhaps the challenge is to evaluate which interpretations and paths are, authentically, included in the 70 without giving up on the challenge and trying to shrink all possibility down to 1. I think we were created with the ability to do just that. God, who could have created a one dimensional or an infinite-dimensional Torah, created one of 70 to force us to both stretch our imaginations and our hearts as well as to limit our narcissism.
I’m reminded of the Greek allegory of Icarus. We’re meant to fly, but we need to remember that we’re not God.