February 13, 2022

Chagigah 3

According to Rambam’s 8th ‘Principle of Faith’, it is essential to consider every word of the Written Torah to be equally holy. Yet while, as an Orthodox Jew, I sincerely believe that God gave an Oral Torah to accompany and to explain the Written Torah, which means that I regard the Oral Torah as being divinely given, this is not to say that every word of the Talmud must be given equal weight – notwithstanding the fact that every word of the Talmud is nevertheless Torah.
On this basis, while I do not believe it proper to claim that any particular word or phrase in the Written Torah is more important or holier than another, it is not improper to make such a claim vis-à-vis the words of the Talmud, and the reason I wish to draw this distinction is because I would – deliberately and emphatically – like to stress the importance, and the holiness, of one phrase above others in a teaching found in our daf (Chagigah 3b).
Basing himself on Kohelet 12:11 which states how דִּבְרֵי חֲכָמִים כַּדָּרְבֹנוֹת וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת נְטוּעִים בַּעֲלֵי אֲסֻפּוֹת נִתְּנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד – ‘the words of the wise are like goads; like pointed nails are the sayings of those who gather together. One shepherd gave them all’, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah explains that this verse refers to ‘the wise people who sit in various groups and who occupy themselves with the Torah.’
However, he then points out that when Torah scholars gather to discuss matters of Jewish law, we often find that, ‘some groups declare particular items to be ritually impure, while some other group declare those same particular items to be ritually pure’, and similarly, ‘those groups forbid [certain items or actions], while other groups permit [those same items or actions]’.
But then, reflecting on the apparent absurdity that different scholars often reach such radically different conclusions when seemingly studying the same Torah, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah raises an essential question – one which continues to be asked by so many today – namely: ‘perhaps, upon observing the fact that Torah scholars struggle to agree on so many points of halacha], people will ask themselves: “[If these scholars cannot agree on what to do], is there any point in me learning [and trying to live according to] Torah?”’
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah answers his own question by explaining that, though it is often hard to understand why there is so much disagreement between various Torah scholars, people won’t despair or reach the conclusion that there is no point to them learning Torah or observing Torah as long as they are reminded of the final words of the above-mentioned verse, namely that נִתְּנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד – ‘one shepherd gave them all’, meaning א-ל אחד נתנן – ‘One God gave them’.
To my mind, these final words – more than any other – need to be repeatedly stressed because they elucidate the possibility for achieving holiness, and the formula for holding onto our faith, when it comes to rabbinic disagreement and debate. Specifically, what Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is saying is that when Torah scholars gather together in good faith in order to determine the halacha and with the express intention to understand the words that God gave us, then even though they may likely reach different conclusions, this need not – and should not – rock our faith.
The problem, however, is that rather than emphasizing this message of נִתְּנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד, oftentimes one or both groups who disagree seek to delegitimize each other while questioning the ‘good faith’ of the other party. Yet when this happens, a sadly overlooked consequence is what Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah speaks of – namely the fact that the general public come to the conclusion that: “[If these scholars cannot agree on what to do], is there any point in me learning [and trying to live according to] Torah?”’
Ultimately, while disagreement often occurs, it is the responsibility of faith leaders to ensure that it does not rock the faith of their followers. And this will only occur if they have the faith, and the humility, to acknowledge נִתְּנוּ מֵרֹעֶה אֶחָד – ‘One shepherd gave them all’.
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