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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Foundations of Faith

Chapter 8

8. Rabbinic Discrepancies

Do not the many discrepancies in Jewish law and the different schools of thought within Judaism weaken our sense of security in Torah scholars? How is it possible to rely on such an aged tradition when we find so many disagreements within the tradition itself?
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In our previous lesson, we mentioned that when one becomes personally acquainted with Jewish Torah scholars, all doubts disappear from one's heart, and one is convinced of the reliability of such people. One rests assured that individuals possessing such honesty and absolute precision were careful to hand down the tradition in the most exact manner possible. Possessing this sort of tradition is as good as having seen with our own eyes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the miraculous Exodus from Egypt.
Foundations of Faith (50)
Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
7 - 7. The Reliability of Tradition
8 - 8. Rabbinic Discrepancies
9 - 9. The Unique Status of the Jewish People
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There is, at any rate, need for additional explanation. For, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there are a great many discrepancies between Rabbis when it comes to Jewish law. One Rabbi prohibits while another permits. One deems fit for consumption while another deems unfit. Rabbis sometimes disagree concerning what they both heard from their own mentor; one says that the Rabbi permitted, while the other says that he prohibited. It would be no exaggeration to say that there is almost no issue in the Torah concerning which Rabbis do not disagree. This being the case, should not these many discrepancies in Jewish law and the different schools of thought in Judaism weaken our sense of security in Torah scholars? Does this not prove that there are many inaccuracies and mistakes? How is it possible to rely on such an ancient tradition when we find so many discrepancies within the tradition itself?

Answer: To the contrary, the many discrepancies between Torah scholars serve to strengthen our faith and trust in the reliability of the tradition. The fact that each Rabbi maintains his opinion and refuses to give in bears out the adamancy of Torah scholars to defend the truth. The Torah itself commands us to possess such adamancy when it states: "Do not fear any man!" From where do we learn that a student of Torah who is convinced that the position taken by his rabbi is a mistaken one must speak up despite the respect he holds for his mentor? Answer: "Do not fear any man!" Do not hold back your opinion from anybody.

Judaism's many discrepancies serve as proof of the Sages' adamancy concerning the maintenance of truth and thus strengthen our trust in their words. The discrepancies are over details, not over the main body; the foundations are agreed upon. For example, concerning the obligation to recite the "Shema" we find a discrepancy between the Sages regarding when the time for the evening reading begins. They also disagreed concerning the end time of the evening reading. In addition, the Rabbis disagreed over the question of just how many paragraphs must be read, and to what extent a person is obligated to direct ones thoughts in reading. Everybody, though, accepts the basic fact that there is a commandment to read the Shema portion. There is no disagreement as to whether or not there is an obligation to read the Shema. The discrepancies, then, are over details.

All of the disagreements in the Torah exist within a wide and agreed upon framework. All accept the basic foundations, all accept the Written Tradition, and in this regard, there is no discrepancy. There are no variant readings of the Torah which has been handed down generation after generation. All accept the Oral Tradition. Controversy arises only when it comes to the fine points, the details, the outer limits of the law - not the fundamental obligations.

The variety of opinions and positions, the stubborn adamancy of each approach and view to maintain its way, the devotion of each congregation and each community to its heritage - these things do not weaken our faith in tradition. Rather, they strengthen our faith in the shared, the foundation, the rules upon which all of the approaches agree. Because the fundamentals are shared by all of us, it is possible to state with regard to all of these approaches that, as our sages teach: "Both are the words of the living God" - God's praise ascends from all of them together. The Sages teach: "Every disagreement for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure. What is an [example of a] disagreement for the sake of Heaven? The disagreement between Hillel and Shamai."

In summary, we see that, to the contrary, disagreements between Torah scholars serve to strengthen our trust and faith in the reliability of the tradition that is accepted by all. It, then, is for us like eyewitness account.
Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh Yeshiva of the Bet El Yeshiva, was the head of the Yesha rabbis board and rabbi of Bet-El, founder and head of Arutz 7.
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