By Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried
If the oral tradition of the Torah was transmitted accurately, as Orthodox Judaism maintains, then how could there be differing opinions and arguments in the Talmud and in Jewish law?
— Byron L.
Your question is one that touches the core of the oral transmission and is discussed by the Talmud itself as well as in many essays and books.
I urge you to study this in depth, but I will offer a few short points as food for thought. We will first mention a key point with regards to arguments in the Talmud.
The classical sources that record the oral tradition, such as the Talmud, are replete with arguments (two Jews, three opinions!). If, however, you look carefully, the arguments you will find are not over core axioms or principles, but over the minutiae, the details.
For example, the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin (which discusses the marriage laws) opens with pages of dispute between the sages Hillel and Shamai about the minimum value of the ring given to a bride for a marriage to be binding.
Those Rabbis did not disagree about the core components of the ceremony: the need for betrothal, its status as a mitzvah or how it should be presented from the groom to the bride. They argue only about a subtle detail, the precise minimum value.
This detail is a “gray area,” subject to interpretation. This leaves room for dispute as to which correlations we should draw from other transactions in the Torah and whether or not to apply those minimum transaction values to the “transaction” of marriage.
Similarly, we find a dispute in the Talmud, in the tractate Yuma, over whether certain medical conditions warrant one exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur. Again, there is no dispute about the core principles of fasting on Yom Kippur.
All are in agreement that if one has a condition that constitutes a danger to his or her life, or even the slightest doubt that the condition might deteriorate into a danger to life, one need not and should not fast. They only argue about certain conditions that may or may not fulfill these conditions, which is a “gray area.”
A third example would be the well-known dispute about tefillin between the classic Talmudic medieval commentators Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam. (Because of this dispute, some have the custom to don two pairs of tefillin to be sure to fulfill all opinions).
The dispute involves the order in which one needs to place two of the parchments within the tefillin boxes. Here, again, we find no argument about core principles. Both agree every Jewish man should wear tefillin daily. Both agree on where on the arm and the head they should be placed. They are in total agreement that tefillin need to be black boxes with black straps; the hand tefillin one box and the head tefillin should be comprised of four separate boxes made into one unit. They also agree which parshiot, or sections of the Torah need to be written specially by a scribe on parchment and inserted in the tefillin. They only disagree on the “gray area” of the order of two of the four sections.
You might ask; why would there not be clarity on the minutiae like there is on the core principles of the mitzvos? Some explain that God purposely put “gray areas” in the Torah to involve the Jewish people and its scholars in the process of halachah, or Jewish law. The Zohar, book of Kaballah, says that the Jewish people and the Torah are “one.” That oneness is partly manifest by the Jews themselves being part of the process.
This, of course, would not include anyone who decides to join the process. It would obviously require one who already has the depth and breadth of knowledge that gives him a deep understanding of all that falls under the core principles about which there is no dispute. He would also need to understand what constitutes a “gray area.”
He would need to know the material well enough as to not propose a thesis that would contradict other axioms in the Torah. This point is key: The arguments are only acceptable if the participants know and play “by the rules” of Torah argumentation.
That means having the understanding of what is considered an axiom and confining the argument within. Lastly, the proofs of a position need to be from within the Torah itself and not from without the system. When all this is fulfilled, both or all opinions actually are considered valid, unless irrevocably disproven by showing a contradiction to an axiomatic fact, such as a Mishna.
An example from science would be if two people stood next to the ocean and argued what is its color. One says blue; the other maintains it is gray. One compares it to the sky, the other claims it looks more like the gray cliffs in the background. Both opinions are considered valid, (truly a “gray area”).
If, however, one argues the ocean is H2O, and the other claims it is HO, he is clearly out of bounds as he is challenging an axiom and is not entitled to that opinion.
Jewish law is called halachah, a path to walk on. We need to always move ahead with halachah throughout life and time, applying it to new scenarios and situations as they arise. In this way the Torah is a living, breathing document that receives its lifeblood through the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yerachniel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.