By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor
From a young age, I have heard the following joke: If there are two Jewish people stranded alone together on an island, there will be at least three synagogues because they disagree too often. Growing up in a community with few Jewish people but many synagogues, this joke always amused me. However, it was not until adulthood that I fully understood the truth of the statement.
The Beit Midrash (Jewish study hall) has been a place of argument and debate for as long as Torah study has existed. This is evident throughout the entirety of the Talmud, highlighted through characters such as Hillel and Shammai, the famous pair of rabbis who seldom agreed on an issue, and Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, the near-inseparable study partners who made each other better scholars through disagreement. One recent page in the daf yomi (learning one page of Talmud daily) cycle, Eruvin 38b, made a strange statement about disagreements. Sefaria translates it as such:
“The Gemara now asks: Let us also count Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi among these Elders, as he too holds that the two days are distinct sanctities. The Gemara answers: Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi taught this opinion, and he himself did not hold it to be correct.”
When I first learned this page, almost three years ago, I was perplexed. If Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi did not agree with the opinion the others taught, why would he teach it?
One possible reason I have considered is because he may have understood that there is power in the idea of the subjective truth. While he himself may not have agreed with the opinion of the Elders, the honest and respectful way to teach his students is to raise both perspectives and allow them to form their own subjective truth.
It is easy to teach students only the teacher’s perspective, ignoring the other views. However, this is not the most educational method of teaching, because the students do not get the chance to develop their own individual truths and ways of connecting and understanding the material. In order for a person to understand and be firm in establishing their truth, they must understand multiple perspectives.
This understanding of truth is similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson states: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” That is to say, truth is not an instant phenomenon — a person must personally connect to and accept it before it can be their truth. Like Emerson, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wishes for his students to develop their own truth, their own understanding of Jewish law, and is willing to teach other opinions in order to help them achieve that.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, in his decision to teach an opinion he does not agree with, captures the nature of Jewish academia. The world of Jewish academia is not one of universal truths. Rather, it is one of Hillel and Shammai, of Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, of the rational Maimonides and the mystical Nachmanides. As such, learning and understanding multiple truths is how a person comes to have a basis in developing one’s own individual truth.