On the Origins and Desirability of Dispute: Remarks from the 2016 Semikhah (Ordination) Ceremony for the Students of R. Daniel Landes

The following remarks were shared at the Tekes Hasmakhah (Rabbinic Ordination Celebration) for 21 students of R. Daniel Landes on June 7, 2016, at Kehilat Yedidya in Jerusalem, Israel.

It is a tremendous zekhut (privilege) to be here, in Eretz Yisrael, sharing this ceremony with incredible colleagues, eminent guests – including talmidei hakhamim gedolim ushleimim (great Torah scholars) and leaders of the Jewish community — and family and friends. As Rav Avital already noted, we are, to put it mildly, a diverse group. In light of that reality, I want to relate to two questions: what are the virtues of diversity, and what, if anything, binds us together? To do that, I want to begin with an apparent mahloket over mahloket -– an ancient dispute over the origin and desirability of dispute.

The Tosefta (a compilation of rabbinic teachings through the end of the 2nd century CE) addresses this question in two seemingly different ways. In one model, attributed to R. Yosi (T. Hagigah 2:9/T. Sanhedrin 7:1), no dispute initially existed. Rulings were disseminated hierarchically from a central judicial and legislative body to all lower courts. This supposedly idyllic state was ruined by the insufficiently diligent students of the great masters Hillel and Shammai: משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשו כל צורכן, הרבו מחלוקות בישראל. As a result of their inattentiveness, dispute spread in Israel. On this account, mahloket is a mistake, one that reflects poorly on those who should have, quite literally, learned better. To dispute is to have erred.

A very different view, however, appears in Tosefta Sotah (7:12).1 There, the text addresses itself to a theoretical student stymied by the proliferation of voices expressing divergent halakhic opinions. This student asks: why bother learning Torah when you can find an opinion supporting whatever position you want to take on an issue? This text seems to realize R. Yosi’s worst fears. The profileration of mahloket has lead to confusion and ultimately nihilism. When all is disputed, this text worries, the Torah falls into disrepute and is ultimately abandoned, no longer able to offer guidance to the perplexed.

Rather than join in this despair, the Tosefta offers a radical response:כל הדברים נִתנו מרועה אחד; אל אחד בראן. Everything was given by a single shepherd, created by a singular God. The human response, therefore, should be to emulate God’s infinite capacity for multiplicity: אף אתה עשה לבך חדרי חדרים – you, too, should make your heart into many chambers. Dispute here is not the lamentable result of human error, nor has a singular Divine truth been obscured. In this text, multiple human voices are firmly rooted in God’s Torah. The proliferation of different positions within Torah may even have been the Divine plan from the start.

We’ve now identified two fundamental models of mahloket: error versus Divine Will. One might be tempted to take sides, and perhaps some of our contemporary Jewish disputes can even traced to a choice between those models. Instead of choosing, I want to offer a potential harmonization that respects the insights of each side.

First, we must recognize that neither position fits with the totality of the rabbinic tradition. The “Divine multivocality” position stands in tension with the fact that eventually halakhah (the law in practice) was declared to follow Beit Hillel. The “human error” model is ironically prefaced in Tosefta Hagigah by a text recording a centuries-long dispute over semikhah – not what we’re celebrating tonight, but over laying hands on animals to be sacrificed. (Maybe there is a connection after all!) And we know that Hillel and Shammai themselves debated halakhic issues! So why blame their poor students?! And lest you say the problem is not dispute, but the proliferation of disputes, the mishnah in Avot famously calls the debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai mahloket lesheim shamayim, enduring debates for the sake of Heaven. It would be very strange to see such a positive spin put on such a negative condition. So why does the Tosefta condemn Hillel and Shammai’s students?

The reason, I propose, must lie not in the fact of their disputes, but in their lack of care in attending their teachers. What was at fault? A third version of this text, in Tosefta Sotah (14:9), condemns a different group for increasing dispute: zehohei halev, arrogant people. According to one version, they are even blamed for creating “two Torahs.” The disputes that deserve condemnation, then, are those that result from arrogance. Arrogance is fundamentally about univocality, a conviction of personal correctness that, in the words of Rashi (Bavli Hullin 7a, s.v. mazhihin), prevents the ear from listening to the teacher.

We can now return to R. Yosi. When he pined for the good old days free of dispute, I want to suggest that what he was really lamenting was the phenomenon of arrogant dispute, which prevented any meeting of the minds over Torah. He was not closed to argumentation that resulted from open and honest confrontation. In fact, several versions of the text read: “At first, there was no dispute except in the court of 71.” Dispute was fine, even welcome, as long as one was open and willing to work towards a consensus.

Similarly, even those who most strongly valued multivocality recognized the practical need for some kind of consensus. They desired, however, to incorporate multiple voices rather than to overwhelm them. As the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b) puts it, Beit Hillel won the day מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו, because they were gentle and humble, willing to learn Beit Shammai’s positions, give them precedence, and, at times, even concede to them.

So what about us? We musmakhim and musmakhot of Rav Landes are united in our commitment to be attentive. Rav Landes’ teaching refracts the halakhic tradition into its component parts, considering each shitah (legal position) fully as a precious part of the mesorah (all-encompassing tradition). We model our diversity on the multivocality of halakhah. And what of the notion of halakhah keveit Hillel, the practical need for respectful consensus? That comes through the give and take of shiur (seminar), when, together, we form new shitot (legal positions) that incorporate the wisdom of the old. My hope is that we been sufficiently attentive –- to each other, to our teacher, and to the Torah –- and that we have learned how to dispute with gentleness and humility rather than arrogance. And my prayer is that our ongoing and inevitable mahlokot merit to be lesheim shamayim and will be worthy of being considered a Divine emanation.

1My reading of this text follows Lieberman and that of many other scholars. For a view that reads this text very differently, see: שלמה נאה, “עשה לבך חדרי חדרים: עיון נוסף בדברי חז”ל על המחלוקות,” בתוך מחויבות יהודית מתחדשת, ב’ כרכים, א. שגיא וצ. זהר, עורכים (ירושלים: מכון שלום הרטמן, תשס”ב), 2:851-875.

About the Author
William Friedman is a doctoral student in Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the founding director and former Rosh Yeshivah of Nishma: A Summer of Torah Study in the JTS Beit Midrash. He has studied at The Conservative Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, JTS, and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, and has semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Daniel Landes.