“One should act either in accordance with both the leniencies and the stringencies of the one Master, or in accordance with both the leniencies and the stringencies of the other Master.”
Today’s text continues much of the discussion on alleyways from the previous days but adds guidance on the importance of intellectual consistency. We are told that one should not pick and choose among Rabbinic points of view but should act in accordance with both the “leniency and stringency” of one. The guidance reminded me of how as a child I would test the reactions from both my Mother and Father when I wanted permission to do something. I would select the response that I liked best. The strategy would backfire if both parents did not agree on a course of action and I would inevitably get in trouble with one or both of them. In essence we are told today to apply guidance consistently from one parent or the other. We learned yesterday that Hillel tended to be more lenient in his guidance, which may be why we were also told his opinion is the one that should always prevail.
We are brought back down to earth after a divine voice announced in yesterday’s reading that when there is dissent, Hillel’s perspective should be the overriding one. Rabbi Yehoshua has the audacity to quiet the divine voice and opens up the disagreement between Shammai and Hillel from the previous day. This follows the challenge I have encountered with the Talmud to date: there is never a final opinion on anything. There is always another Rabbi and another perspective to be considered. The voice of the Gemara reiterates the importance of following either Shammai or Hillel completely in their perspective, rather than picking and choosing among the Sages depending on how the wind blows or what opinion one likes best.
Rav Sheizvi adds an additional nuance to the guidance: we may in fact act in accordance with the stringency of two authorities if they do not contradict each other. This allows one to look at a problem from all perspectives rather than rejecting an opinion out of hand. In the ongoing dispute about the alleyway, the opinions of Rav and Shmuel which appear to contradict each other on the surface in actuality, do not. There is always a way to understand a dissenting opinion by turning the cube around and considering the argument from another perspective.
We are told that even the great Rav can seem inconsistent in his opinions, but that is because the various aspects of his guidance have not always been fully considered. His statements on alleyways that terminate in a closed-off area such as a backyard can seem to be contradictory on the surface. In one instance, if an alleyway ends in someone’s backyard there is no need to erect any type of barrier because it is considered closed and one can carry out on Shabbat. In another instance, it would not be permitted to carry out on Shabbat even though the alleyway in question also terminates in a closed area. But upon examining the details, the residents banded together and constructed an eruv in the first example, and in the second one they did not. There is no contradiction after all, but just a failure to initially consider all aspects of the sage’s guidance.
Intellectual consistency is important. But it is also important to dig into the details of an opinion and understand that what may seem like a contradiction on the surface, may in fact not be one at all. It is about turning the cube and understanding all perspectives deeply and with an openness of mind and spirit. There are many ways to view something as insular and narrow as an alleyway or as limitless as the world we live in today.