Balance is Fluid Nazir 49 Psychology of the Daf Yomi
Our Gemara on Amud Beis records a discussion where Rabbi Yehuda (the Tanna) became angry that they allowed the students of Rabbi Meir into the Shiur. His objection was based on the fact that they were “kanteranim”, which we can translate as excessively argumentative. There is a similar Gemara in Kiddushin (52b) regarding a different halakhic discussion, but likewise Rabbi Yehuda became vexed because they allowed the students of Rabbi Meir to enter.
Orchos Tzaddikim (27) explains that Rabbi Yehuda’s concern was that Rabbi Meir’s method of study was too obscure, and the questions raised by his students would become a distraction and disruption in the course of study. This might be similar to the situation where they banned Rabbi Yirmiyah from the study hall because he asked excessive and seemingly irrelevant questions (see Bava Basra 23b. It’s notable that he was vindicated, and eventually granted readmission due to his ability to answer a series of halakhic questions which seemed to have stumped others, which were indeed relevant, see Ibid 165b.)
It is fascinating to see how basic patterns repeat throughout history. The tension between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir’s students is about sticking with the basic curriculum versus allowing for pilpulistic debates. Is it similar to the idea of Bekiyus versus beiyun, or the discussion in Berachos 64a about who is better, “A Mount Sinai”, or one who “uproots mountains”. That is, one who has mastery and knowledge over the basic texts, or one who has the analytical ability to break apart and question the texts in depth.
Let us not oversimplify these issues, as if to cast Rabbi Yehuda as overbearing and not willing to allow his students’ curiosity, or seeing Rabbi Yirmiyah as pedantic and obsessive, or Rabbi Meir as the brilliant iconoclast who is so smart, no one can understand him. We cannot reconstruct with detail the exact distinctions or details about these historical and philosophical differences in methods of study. But we should meditate on the idea that in Jewish ethical thinking it is often less about one answer than a correct and proportionate relationship between poles. There is a need for adherence to basic curriculum as well as allowing students to be curious, pose questions, and engage in debate and analysis. Even anger, which is considered a middah that one must stay far away from (see Deos 2:3), was still employed by Rabbi Yehuda, presumably for the constructive purposes of maintaining discipline (ibid, and law of Torah Study 4:5.) Nevertheless, Ben Yehoyada (Nazir 50b) asserts that Rabbi Yehuda forgot his learning during that debate due to his anger. We all must strive to achieve balance, but like balancing, it is not a stagnant fixed process, but rather active and continuous. No bicycle rider keeps the wheel rigidly straight, rather it is fluid and ongoing fluctuation. This is what balance looks like in an active living system.