Conflicts of Opinion and Their Philosophical Value
originally printed in The Written and Oral Torah

Although the Talmud states that conflicts of opinion arose because of moral decline and negligence in study, the sages also saw them as beneficial:

Every controversy that is for the sake of Heaven shall endure and every one that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure.
(Avot 5:20)

Both viewpoints are the words of the living God.
(Eruvin 13b, Gittin 6b)

The dynamism of Torah permits two or even more opposing viewpoints to be correct at the same time. Even though practice demands that we establish a law in accordance with one opinion, we can still maintain that these different viewpoints are true.

The halachah discusses life in all its aspects, and life is full of contradictions, as are human beings. Each person relates differently to life. Only by being put in a state of both interdependence and independence does one come to understand the complexity and totality of life. For this reason it becomes necessary for the halachah to allow, and even encourage, disparate opinions. Our desire to establish one way of doing things is a weakness of being human, for we find it hard to comprehend opposing theories as being simultaneously valid. Because the human condition dictates that something be either true or false, rules were made for establishing halachah. Yet, in the world of real truth, both theories might be valid or the first might apply to one situation and the second to another.

The debates of the sages show different sides of the same coin. Maharal writes:

One can maintain that wood is related to the element of water and be correct and one can maintain that it is related to the element of air and be correct. The same is true of the Torah. Nothing is totally impure, without a pure aspect. If someone declares an item pure and presents his arguments to prove it, he has only demonstrated one aspect of reality. Similarly, when one declares an item impure, he has only considered another aspect. One who declares something pure and one who declares it impure have both learned the Torah, but each one saw the item differently. However, God created that item as a whole, and He has the ability to create it in a manner that can be viewed in different ways. (Be'er Hagolah [Tel Aviv, 1955], pp. 13-14)

Thus, no opinion in the Talmud is incorrect; rather, each reveals one side of the real truth: "For the differences and contradictions originate not from different realms but from the place in which no contradiction is possible..." (Avodat Hakodesh) 1

Practical halachah is determined by which side of the coin reveals the most important representation of the issues involved. As Maharal continues: establish the halachah one must assume that one aspect is more important than another... though the other aspects should not be neglected. Indeed, one who takes account of all aspects will perceive the thing as a whole...

In nature, the work of God, one can also establish one element as being more important in the composition of something, even though the other elements are also present...

The schools of Shammai and Hillel started from different directions in their journey towards the same goal: to carry out the word of God. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that their arguments were settled when a divine voice proclaimed that both were the words of the living God, but that the ruling of the school of Hillel was to be followed in practice. However, this divine voice had no bearing on establishing the halachah; it simply confirmed what man had already decided. 2

The school of Shammai was generally strict whereas the school of Hillel preferred leniency. Both are God-given attributes and were employed when God created the world. 3 As such, it is easy to understand how they can both be the words of the living God though they seem to contradict each other, for they reflect different perspectives. Yet the establishment of a practical halachah dictates that one viewpoint be declared binding. Maharal writes that the school of Hillel's view became law because the world is more dependent on kindness than on strictness. R. Alexander Safran expands on this:

In the view of the school of Hillel, the Torah was made for man as he is in his present condition, weakened by his own sins. It must be expected, according to the kabbalists, that in the messianic age - when man finally turns back to God and regains his full strength and his original power of sight - the halachah will be applied in the strict form of the school of Shammai, the original conception of the Torah. Indeed, God originally intended to create the world using the strict criterion of judgment. It was only when He realized that the world could not thus survive that He added the criterion of generosity or mercy. The messianic age will see the glorious restoration of the first age and man will calmly endure the divine strictness because he will recognize in it the true mercy which human weakness will no longer be able to reduce to mere pity. 4 (The Kabbalah, p. 128)

The polarity of ideas found in the Talmud is the very proof of the vitality of the Torah, just as the polarity within nature is its grandest aspect. Modern physics has its complementary principles, as seen in the wave theory and the corpuscular theory of light. We can profitably view light as consisting of either waves or particles, even though the terms are contradictory. Similarly, the arguments in the Talmud are simultaneously true. "Through the constant tension they create, they guarantee the equilibrium of the Torah and the universe" (ibid.). As the Mishnah states: "there will be no end to conflicts of opinion until Messiah comes" (Eduyot 8:7).


1 By R. Meir b. Gabbai of sixteenth-century Turkey. Also see R. Yeshaya Horowitz, Shenei Luchot Habrit (Amsterdam, 1689), pp. 25b-26a.

2 See Yevamot 14a; Tosafot ad loc., s.v. "Rabbi Yehoshua."

3 See Rashi on Bereshit 1:1.

4 This seems to contradict the kabbalistic view, stated earlier, that the laws of the Torah will undergo a complete transformation in which the letters of the Torah will allow for a new text. Probably the kabbalists see the messianic age as spanning many stages - initially the readings of the school of Shammai will be adopted, and then the transformation of the text will occur.

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