July 22, 2024
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Can We Agree to Disagree?

We can all think of that communal disagreement that just won’t go away. Is that popular tune someone likes to use for lecha dodi really appropriate for the synagogue? Should kashrut-certifying agencies be using a “DE” stamp? Should a school focus on teaching content or text skills? And then of course there are the hot-button questions, often around women’s education and mitzvah participation.

Sometimes arguing about a seemingly intractable controversy becomes its own comfort zone. Could we resolve all outstanding questions if only we finally made the other side understand this one point, or found the magical person or people who could speak with authority?

A mishnah in this week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot suggests not:

“Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.” (Avot 5:17)

This mishnah raises many layers of questions:

What distinguishes a dispute “for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) from one that is not? On this, most commentators agree. A dispute for the sake of heaven is one where the parties to the argument both intend to find the truth and are not motivated by ego, personal status or spite.

What does it mean that such a dispute “will in the end endure (sofah l’hitkayem)”? Shouldn’t our goal be to see the dispute resolved rather than endure? And further, how is the disagreement of Hillel and Shammai an example of something “enduring” when the halacha “in the end” follows one over the other?

These questions have generated many suggested resolutions. For example, Rav Ovadia mi-Bartenura interprets the “endurance” as referring to the disputants themselves. Unlike ego-driven Korach, Hillel and Shammai were not stricken down by a divine punishment for their disagreement. This explanation is grammatically difficult, however. The mishnah’s phrase “sofah l’’hitkayem” means that “it,” the dispute, will endure, not that “they,” the disputants, will endure. Perhaps because of this problem, R. Bartenura also suggests another reading: when the mishnah says a dispute is “sofah lehitkayem” it doesn’t mean that the dispute will endure in the end (sof) but that its purpose (sof) is endurance. That is, the hallmark of a dispute for the sake of heaven is that both sides wish to arrive at the single, enduring answer. Both of R. Bartenura’s answers resist the plain meaning of the mishnah that the dispute itself will endure. Apparently R. Bartenura, and others who offer similar interpretations, begin with the axiom that the best machloket is a resolved machloket.

Others see it differently.

Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi, for example, sticks with the plain meaning of “sofah l’hitkayem” as “will in the end endure.” He explains that “they will always endure in machloket: today, over one thing; tomorrow, over another. The dispute will endure and continue between them all the days of their lives,” and the lives of the disputants will be lengthened to allow them to continue to disagree to a ripe old age. Rabbeinu Yonah’s comment is grounded in the intuitive observation that two sides are likely to be divided by more than one specific question. Two schools will always find something to disagree about; that’s what makes them distinct schools. But if they approach questions for the sake of heaven, then their continuing spats are what God wants, so much so that they will be rewarded with long life to continue fighting.

Rabbeinu Yonah still seems to think, like R. Bartenura and others, that specific disputes should be resolved. Bringing out multiple opinions leads to one correct answer. But others disagree even on this point.

R’ Yaakov Emden comments on our mishnah: “I explain it as it sounds. Since both these and those are the words of the living God, therefore in the end the dispute itself will endure. And the dispute is in its place forever… For even in the heavenly yeshiva they argue over it.”

According to R’ Yaakov Emden, the specific machloket itself, about whatever issue it may be, will endure during the lives of the disputants and beyond, forever rehashed in the study halls of heaven and earth. This is because in a machloket l’shem shamayim, a dispute for the sake of heaven, both sides express part of God’s ineffable truth.

The phrase, quoted by R. Yaakov Emden, “these and those are the words of the living God” (eilu ve-eilu divrei Elokim chayim) appears, famously, in Eruvin 13b: For three years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed about whose opinion should control. “A divine voice (bat kol) emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha follows Beit Hillel.” Hillel and Shammai are the prototype of a dispute for the sake of heaven, and the words of both Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are authentic expressions of Torah.

The gemara in Eruvin continues: If both Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel express God’s words, why did the divine voice set halacha according to Beit Hillel? “Because they were agreeable and forbearing, and they would say over [both] their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Not only that, but they would put Beit Shammai’s statements before their own.”

Multiplicity, machloket, is a positive force. No single human opinion captures every facet of the world and the Torah as God sees them. Even if a dispute becomes so wide ranging (such as the dispute of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel) that it requires a practical resolution in accordance with one side, the resolution must be narrow. In the story in Eruvin, the divine voice chooses the “resolution” that preserves both sides as much as possible, ensuring that both views will continue to be presented with respect.

If we strive for machlokot l’shem shamayim in our own community, we, too, should not be looking to establish one opinion by erasing another. If a view is sincerely l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, the strong presumption is that it belongs within the communal conversation. May we merit to disagree with each other for the sake of heaven for many years.

By Miriam Gedwiser


Miriam Gedwiser teaches Talmud and Tanach at the Ramaz Upper School and is on the faculty of the Drisha Kollel, an immersive summer learning experience for college students and recent graduates. She is a consulting editor for The Lehrhaus, and lives in Teaneck with her family.

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