One of the many puzzling things about Judaism is the diversity of opinions among our Sages, the great leaders of the Jewish people. "Shammai says this, Hillel says that." Why are there so many different opinions?

We should not exaggerate the extent to which they differed. All the Sages were of one mind when it came to central issues such as the Divine origin of the Torah, and there is no dispute about the basic laws of Shabbat and kashrut, and about the eternal relevance of Jewish law as it has been passed down through the generations. For the most part the arguments concern quite subtle details.

Between the lines of the law is G‑d Himself, beyond understandingNonetheless, one can still ask: why should there be any disagreements at all? Why were the disagreements recorded so carefully, and why are they still discussed by people studying Jewish law today?

The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, celebrated in the Festival of Shavuot, was a point at which finite human beings confronted the Infinity of the Divine.

By definition, a finite mind cannot comprehend the infinite. The mind can grasp G‑d's law - do this, and do not do that. Thus we can understand the instructions in the Ten Commandments1 given at Sinai: honour your parents, do not murder, do not steal, etc. Yet the first Commandment is the profound statement: "I am G‑d..." Between the lines of the law is G‑d Himself, beyond understanding.

Further, it was not just one individual at Sinai, receiving G‑d's teaching. The Jewish people numbered 600,000, each representing a slightly different approach, a slightly different path of understanding. The Sages tell us that the Giving of the Torah took into account this diversity among those who were receiving it. The Torah was given with the potential to be explained in 600,000 different ways, for each of the 600,000 different souls. When our Sages came to record the oral teachings of the Torah, a hint of this diversity was preserved.2

At the same time there was another aspect to the Giving of the Torah: Unity. The Talmud tells us that when the Jewish people, led by Moses, came to the Sinai desert where they were to receive the Torah, suddenly an unusual feeling of peace, calm and unity embraced them. The other encampments had the usual squabbles you would expect when a large number of people are travelling somewhere. Yet at Sinai they camped "like one man, with one heart."3

This ultimate, inner unity is also seen in the Sages' discussions of the Torah thousands of years later. Although the Mishnah and Talmud explore the many diverse opinions of the rabbis, there is a sense of underlying unity. As the Sages themselves put it, despite the diversity of opinion, all are "the words of the Living G‑d."

Perhaps this is a hint that through the diversity, we discover the unifying G‑dliness within. In this way, finite human minds are perhaps able to grasp something of the Infinity of the Divine...