Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

How is it that every rabbi I ask any question on anything Jewish gives me a different answer? And I’m talking just about the Orthodox ones! Isn’t this supposed to be one religion?

How can we rely on these rabbis if they can’t even agree with one another?

—Mac Lokus

Hi Mac!

First off, I disagree.

Arguments are good. Fortunate is the society that is full of healthy debate, and happy are the people that are smart enough to join the tussle. Not just because the only way to get to the truth is through a good argument, but also because a good argument—where no one lets up until every angle of attack has been exhausted and every load of ammo has been fired—is, on its own, an important form of truth.

There’s a passage in the Talmud that says as much. What other religion has a sacred book of arguments?(You may have heard of the Talmud. It’s a very voluminous Jewish holy book. And it’s a collection of thousands upon thousands of arguments between rabbis, and then even more arguments by later rabbis about what the earlier rabbis were arguing about. Yes, that’s what you study to be a rabbi—arguments. Tell me, what other religion has a sacred book of arguments?)

Rabbi Eviatar was engaged in an argument with Rabbi Yonatan. The argument wasn’t going anywhere. But Rabbi Eviatar was fortunate enough to bump into Elijah the prophet on one of his regular earthly tours for the transmission of Torah secrets to those who toil over it.

Rabbi Eviatar said, “Elijah, fancy meeting you here! Tell me, what’s the Holy One (may He be blessed) into right now?”

And whaddayaknow, Elijah told Rabbi Eviatar that G‑d was currently engrossed in exactly the same topic that was embroiling Rabbi Eviatar and Rabbi Yonatan.

“That’s really exciting,” exclaimed the rabbi. “So what does the Holy One have to say on the topic?”

To which Elijah responded, “He says, ‘My child Eviatar says like this, and my child Yonatan says like that.’”1

Does that mean G‑d couldn’t figure out the answer? G‑d forbid. It just means that both opinions are true, and furthermore, the argument itself is also truth.

Carl Schleicher, “Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud”
Carl Schleicher, “Eine Streitfrage aus dem Talmud”

The Truth About Truth

Now, Arguments are also truth.before you tell me why you disagree, first ask: What could be true about an argument? Once you ask, I’ll answer you the way rabbis are supposed to answer—with another question: What is truth?

Thanks so much for giving me your opinion there. Now let me tell you the truth about truth: Truth is that which is found everywhere.

That truth about truth is embedded in the very letters of the Hebrew word for truth: אמת (emet). אמת starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ends with the last letter of the alphabet, and joins the two with the middle letter of the alphabet.2 Which tells us that truth is not just where everything begins, not just where everything leads, but also how you get there.

א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כ ך ל מ ם נ ן ס ע פ ף צ ץ ק ר ש ת

Here’s another one: Count the words of the Torah—the Five Books of Moses—to discover what lies at the center. Okay, you don’t have time. So I’ll tell you: Moses and Aaron arguing. (Aaron wins.) Elsewhere, Moses argues with G‑d. (Moses wins.) And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abraham, the prototypical Jew, argued with G‑d over Sodom and Gomorrah. (Abraham wins—hey, is there a pattern here?) And I’ll bet your bubby didn’t let Him off the hook so easy, either.

The point is, those arguments are Torah. And central to Torah. Which means that even before they are resolved, they are truths.

The Truth About Arguments

So what’s so true about arguments?

Because, if Torah is true, you can’t get away with “All right, that’s the official, authoritative stance on what the Torah says. I don’t get it, but, hey, who am I?”

No, because then you’re saying there’s some place where Torah cannot be found—namely, your brain. And if that’s the case, it’s not true. Which would mean it’s not Torah.

So you have to say, “I don’t get it.” You have to say, “I don’t get it.” That’s the first truth.That’s the first truth.

And then, you have to engage every faculty of your brain to get to the second truth—the truth that comes after thoroughly researching, considering all opinions, creating your own opinions, trashing those and trying others and, yes, arguing it over with anyone you can find ready to argue (rabbis are usually quite eager, as you noted), getting thoroughly confused (yes! that’s the marker for the threshold of truth!) and then—bang! “I got it! And it’s not how my rabbi sees it!”

It can’t be how your rabbi sees it. Because you’re not your rabbi. When the Torah was given at Sinai, you and your rabbi stood in two different spots and heard the Torah from different angles. Each angle was true, because the same voice came from all directions from the same one G‑d. But each of us resonates in our own way with that voice. In each of us, the Torah finds a unique truth.

So how many truths are there to Torah? How many truths are there to Torah? As many as there are Jews.As many as there are Jews. (And then some—since Jews disagree with themselves and change their minds, too. As any thinking person would.)3

The caveat is that you have to do your homework—struggle with that teaching, hear out everyone else (hey, they also have truth), get utterly lost and befuddled by it—because that befuddlement, that’s the darkness of your wormhole back to your personal spot at Sinai.4

Carl Schleicher, “Jüdische Szene 2”
Carl Schleicher, “Jüdische Szene 2”

Torah: Built From the Ground Up for Arguments

This diversity of opinion is not just built into the Jews who are supposed to be learning Torah, it’s built into Torah itself. Here’s another Talmudic passage:

When Moses learned the Torah from G‑d, for each case G‑d provided 49 reasons to rule one way, and 49 reasons to rule the other way.

Finally, Moses exclaimed, “Ribbono Shel Olam! (technically meaning “Master of the World!” but idiomatically more like “What on earth!?”) What are we supposed to do with 98 opinions on every subject?”

To which G‑d responded, “I told you already (Exodus 23:2): Majority rule.”5

Majority of what? Of expert opinions of the communally appointed judges.

Get this: There could be 71 judges on a case, but if 70 of them say, “I agree with the other guy,” we count that as only one opinion.6

Did you hear that? You’re only a somebody if you disagree with everybody else.You don’t count unless you have your own opinion. That’s how Torah works: You’re only a somebody if you disagree with everybody else. (Actually, there’s an argument about that as well.7)

Because that’s the truth. You are different from everyone else. You have a unique perspective, and if you don’t offer it, then what did you come into this world for?

Getting Down to Earth

But that is not yet the last letter of Torah. Sinai was the first letter, the aleph. The arguments are the middle letter. The last letter is “Now what do we actually do?”

Doing is key. For the same reason that thinking and considering and arguing are so important. But much more so.

Because if Torah is really true, it can’t be like any other wisdom. Any other wisdom can’t tell you what to do. It can only tell you, “If you do this, this is what will happen. If you do that, well, you could blow yourself to smithereens. But, look, if you really want to . . .”

But Torah can’t do that. Truth belongs down here on earth as much as it does in the heavens.Because just like truth can’t be limited to some minds and escape others, so truth can’t be limited to the mind alone. Truth belongs down here on earth as much as it does in the heavens, in action as much as in thought. That’s why the ultimate truth of Torah is how it plays out down here.

Listen to the language the rabbis use: “Any judge who decides a true judgment to its truth is considered a partner in the work of creation.”8 Get that? There’s truth, and there’s true truth—a higher truth, one that transcends, supersedes and encompasses all other truths. And which one is that? The one that we all do.

Actually, if you want the ultimate truth, it’s not in your brain, it’s in your feet. What’s in your brain is a limited truth. It works for you, but not for the other guy. It works in theory, but not in practice. Yes, in theory, there should be no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is. Because in practice, everyone has to do the same thing.

So, to get things down to actual practice, we need to find an all-encompassing truth that transcends all opposites, one that can break through the abstract realm of mind games into the down-and-dirty let’s-get-things-done reality.

Carl Schleicher, “Jüdische Szene 1”
Carl Schleicher, “Jüdische Szene 1”

The Third Opinion

That’s a principle in Torah—the 13th of the 13 principles by which the Torah is studied:

Two Torah teachings may contradict one another. But then, a third teaching comes along that resolves them both.9

Meaning, the two really do contradict one another. You’re not going to be able to investigate further and find you just weren’t listening properly. No. There’s no way to resolve them—until you get the third teaching.

But that third teaching doesn’t say, “This one is right, and that one is way off.” It presents a new dimension—just like popping out of one dimension into three to discover that two opposite poles make a single line. So too, within this new dimension, the inner soul of each of those two opinions is raised to a whole new level and each is fulfilled.

That’s where I disagree with what you wrote: When it comes to practical, what-do-we-do—what we call halachah—there’s 99% consensus. Okay, there are details, as well as many contemporary issues, that have yet to be resolved (these arguments can last about 200 years—but when you’ve got 4,000 years of history, what’s 200 years?). But pigs remain unkosher and we rest on Saturday, not Wednesday. Et cetera.

There has to (eventually) be a consensus, because that’s what holds us together as a people. Action is the great unifier. And it’s at that consensus of the sincere and expert rabbis that the ultimate truth is found. How do we know? Because that’s the mechanism for determining practical and ultimate truth provided by Torah itself.

Are you following? For the same reason we need to argue about everything, we need to come to a consensus. Because truth is everywhere.For the same reason that we need to argue about everything, for that very same reason we need to come to a consensus on how to implement this: Because truth is everywhere—not just in our minds, but in our feet; not just in the world of reason and argument, but in the world of action. Especially in the world of action.

Carl Schleicher, “Beim Rabbi”
Carl Schleicher, “Beim Rabbi”

Surrender Without Surrender

Now’s your chance for a real good question: What is the guy who disagrees supposed to do? Is this the point where he just shrugs his shoulders in surrender and follows the crowd? I mean, we’ve got a real quandary here. Truth has to be found in the uniqueness of every individual, and truth has to embrace the world of action—but in the world of action, we all have to do the same thing.

So, yes. And no. There’s surrender. But not of intellect. Surrender of ego. Which leads to an infinitely deeper intellect.

Because once a sincere and humble student of Torah sees that there’s a consensus, and he knows that this consensus represents a greater truth, the ultimate truth of truths—so he says, “I have to revisit this whole thing.”

Which he does, traveling yet deeper and deeper into his own mind, deeper than how he heard things at Sinai. And there he finds the voice that transcends and encompasses all minds, all voices. He sees how, from his perspective, with his own mind, this truth is a higher truth. At that point, his mind and truth become one.

All this explains a very puzzling account in the Talmud. Much of the Talmud is filled with debates between the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai. Other than a few special instances, the final ruling is in accordance with the students of Hillel.

The Talmud provides a reason it worked out that way: The students of Shammai were sharper. But the students of Hillel had more humility. They always cited the words of the students of Shammai before their own, and were ready to surrender their own ego for the sake of finding truth.

Now, if you’re a thinking person, your first reaction will probably be to disagree with the reasoning of the Talmud. You’ll ask, “Is this fair? You win an argument over those who are sharper than you just because you’re more humble?”

Well, I can argue a better question: Are you telling me that the students of Shammai lacked humility? You can’t learn Torah without humility. Learning Torah is all about quieting the loud voice of your own reasoning so you can hear the Torah’s (usually by listening to what others have to argue). So if these students of Shammai were great scholars of Torah, they must have also been very humble!

But there’s humility and there’s humility. “What does the Creator want with His universe?”There’s humility to put aside your “I think this” and open your mind to a higher wisdom. You can’t even begin to learn Torah without that. But to decide a final ruling, you need to go further. You need to escape the cerebral bubble of a created, finite being—to reach beyond the mind altogether—and get a sense of “What does the Creator want with His universe?”

Now you’re thinking on a whole new level. A divine level.

Samuel Hirszenberg, “Szkola_talmudystów”
Samuel Hirszenberg, “Szkola_talmudystów”

Case Study 1

Rabbi Yehoshua was a master of astronomy and halachah in his generation. In his times, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The Jewish supreme court, under Rabban Gamliel, had moved to Yavneh.

In those times, the new moon was established every month by the supreme court. Witnesses would come and report to the court that they had seen the new moon, and after much questioning, if the court was satisfied that the witnesses were correct, they would declare that day to be the first day of the new month. Now here’s the story:10

Two witnesses came to Rabban Gamliel and his court. They said that they had seen the moon at the time when it was supposed to appear. The problem was, the next day it was not there. Rabban Gamliel and his court accepted the witnesses and declared the new moon.

But other rabbis balked. Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said, “These witnesses are liars. It’s like testifying that a lady gave birth, and the next day her belly is up to her teeth.” [Yes, these rabbis had a very creative sense of metaphor.]

Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Rabbi Dosa, I’m with you.”

So now you had a situation where the Jews in Rabbi Yehoshua’s town—and perhaps many others as well—would be celebrating the festivals on one day, while those in Yavneh (and many other places) would celebrate on a different day.

But next thing you know, Rabbi Yehoshua received a message from Rabban Gamliel: “I hereby order you to appear before me with your staff and with your purse of money on the day that is Yom Kippur according to your reckoning.”

Rabbi Akiva went to visit Rabbi Yehoshua. He found him quite distressed. Rabbi Akiva told Rabbi Yehoshua, “Look, astronomically speaking, you could be right. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is done. And that’s the way it works. Take a look: The Torah says, ‘These are the seasons of G‑d that you should declare in their seasons.’11 Not that G‑d declares, but what those appointed by us in this world declare. Whether at the right time or not at the right time, G‑d says, ‘I’m going by what you people declare.’”

Then Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus came to see him. He said, “Look, if we’re going to revisit the ruling of the court of Rabban Gamliel, we’re going to have to revisit the ruling of every court since Moses.”

So Rabbi Yehoshua picked up his staff and his purse of money, and traveled to Rabban Gamliel on the day that was Yom Kippur by his reckoning.

When he arrived, Rabban Gamliel stood up for him and kissed him on his forehead. He said, “Come in peace, my teacher and my student! You are my teacher in wisdom, and my student because you have accepted my words.”

Rabbi Yehoshua didn’t go begrudgingly. Neither did he abandon his opinion. He went, his staff went and his money went, because Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Dosa had provided him a deeper truth—one that did not contradict his own, but supported Rabban Gamliel nonetheless: Whatever the official representative sages of the Jewish observant community decide, G‑d Himself endorses.

And so there was peace and unity in Israel, as everyone fasted and celebrated on the same days.

Rabbi Yosef Rosin, “The Rogatchover Gaon”
Rabbi Yosef Rosin, “The Rogatchover Gaon

Case Study 2

For a more contemporary case, let’s take the case of Rabbi Yosef Rosin, a.k.a. “The Rogatchover Gaon.” (Gaon means genius; Rogatchov is the town in Belarus where Rabbi Rosin was born.) He lived in the 20th century, but they say that had he lived in the times of the Talmud, even then he would have been considered among the greatest of Torah scholars.

The Rogatchover Gaon answered many thousands of questions written to him, citing his sources from memory, every page number and every quote with perfect accuracy—as though the entire Talmud and all the major codes and commentaries were before his eyes in a single microfiche. Then he would provide his final, authoritative opinion.

In one such response,12 the Rogatchover Gaon attacked a 16th-century ruling of the Rema, Rabbi Moses Isserles—whose glosses on the Shulchan Aruch are considered authoritative by Ashkenazic Jewry—from every angle, with sharp, incisive and brilliant arguments.

And then, the Rogatchover concluded, “After all is said, heaven forbid to budge one iota from the ruling of Rabbi Moses Isserles.”

You see, Rabbi Moses Isserles’s ruling had already been accepted as final by the Jewish halachic community.

In that humility lies the wormhole to true genius.

Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, pp. 110ff, and sources listed there.