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Why are there so many arguments between the rabbis in the Oral Law?

by Rabbi Baruch Emanuel Erdstein

  

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A cursory look at the Talmud seems to show a myriad of disagreements of opinion between the Sages, many seemingly never resolved. Lacking a deeper perspective, a person could ask, “Is this what Torah study is all about – quarrelling back and forth? Is this all there is to the Jewish pursuit of wisdom? It seems so unpleasant (G-d forbid)!”

We must understand that, far from being “arguments for arguments sake”, the differences of opinion of the Talmudic sages stem from a deep commitment to clarify our relationship to the Divine, rectifying Creation and revealing G-d’s presence in the world. In addition, the nature of the Divine and His Creation is far more dynamic than static one-dimensional “truths.” In order to present the depth of the wisdom of the Torah – as well as the soul’s potential to reveal it – the Sages engage in a process through which entire world-views are explored and tested, expressing the potential hues of the light of G-d’s infinite wisdom. This is the way the Creator desires, allowing us a certain participation - or partnership, if you will - in the perfection of the world and the demonstration of His greatness.

This can be understood by a well-known metaphor describing the ostensibly argumentative nature of the Jewish People. It is said that Jews are as beautiful and as precious as diamonds – but equally as tough; in order to bring out the splendor of (i.e. cut and polish) each one, another diamond (i.e. Jew) equally as tough must be brought to carve it.  Through the “ordeal” of the refinement process, the potential brilliance of the stone is revealed. No one would accuse a diamond cutter of causing unnecessary friction in the world!

We should remain ever conscious of the methods and flavors of the exegesis of the Talmud, taking alternative opinions other than our own into consideration, as well as remaining sharp and well-defined in our own world view
Today, we generally hold by a singular unified code of Jewish law, known as the “Shulchan Aruch” (literally “Set Table”, in Hebrew). Compiled by Rabbi Yoseph Caro in the sixteenth century, the major sages’ opinions (both from the Talmud and after) were considered, and educated decisions made to arrive at a cohesive system, applicable to this day. While clarifying and refining our actions to comply with the Torah is by no means an easy pursuit, those of our generation have many resources at our disposal (i.e. English translations, commentaries, etc.) to make following the Torah’s commandments more “conflict-free” than ever before. While relieving us of the burden of compiling and resolving all the various opinions in the entire Talmud ourselves, we should nevertheless remain ever conscious of the methods and flavors of the exegesis of the Talmud, taking alternative opinions other than our own into consideration, as well as remaining sharp and well-defined in our own world view.

It is important to note that not all study of Torah is based on this dynamic of “argument for the sake of clarification”. Most noteworthy is the absence of this back and forth dialectic and environment of dispute in the study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. This is because these areas of Oral Torah originate in the most supernal of the spiritual worlds, which are above and beyond the constricted consciousness of apparent (!) conflict and dualism. In fact, regarding the Full Redemption, the time when divine consciousness will permeate Creation, the prophet declares, “They shall neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mount, for the land shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea bed.” (Isaiah 11:9); in short, the highest spiritual state is one beyond conflict – but until we arrive at that destination we are given the opportunity to refine (or “polish,” as in the above metaphor) Creation, anticipating an age of peace, free of all conflict and need for clarification.


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RELATED CATEGORIES

Torah » Mishnah and Talmud

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Kabbalah
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
Isaiah
1. One of the greatest prophets, lived in the 7th century BCE. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, containing the prophecies of Isaiah. The book is filled with prophecies concerning the Messianic redemption.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.