Sunday 7 June 2009

Source Reconcilliation

Perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of Talmudic learning is the ubiquitous efforts made to harmonize statements that seem. to obviously in conflict. It is perhaps a source for some of the anti-Talmudic diatribe found amongst scoffers, anti-Semites, etc. So pray tell why does this persistent effort to make conflicting voices agree still prevail after several Milennia? While studying a daily dose of Shulchan Aruch I ran across this statement in ChoshenMishpat 30:2

"Anywhere that we can reconcile the words of the witnesses, that they do not contradict each other, we do such reconciliation"

Thus, if the Oral Law is a tradition passed down as a form of testimony from one generation to the next, then each teacher is in a sense a testifier. And if the multitude of testifiers are in apparent conflict, and if we assume that they are based upon a commonly observed phenomenon, then we are really compelled to treat the conflicting testimony as different viewpoints describing the same thing.

Illustration: if an old-timer says that Babe Ruth was great and another states that he was a glutton - wouldn't it be obvious that he was a GREAT Glutton? :-). All kidding aside we would not take the two statements as conflicting, only as supplemental in that describe different aspects of the same man, and within their respective contexts are each quite accurate!

Another illustration. The Misha in Pesachim discusses conflicting customs re: candles in the home on Yom Kippur: In some places it is required and in others it is forbidden. Yet the commentaries agree that the motivating concern is the same: the Prohibition of marital relations on YK. Only the method of manifesting this principle differs, the application can vary according to context.

Now indeed there are times when this principle of reconciliation is out-of-bounds. And any worthwhile idea may be overused at times. Nevertheless, the essential approach is sound: that we presume that

  1. The testifiers are likely to be honest
  2. That differences may be attributed to how something is described but the facts described are presumed to be identical.


1 comment:

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in The Essential Talmud compares this to a scientist measuring or observing one phenomenon and arriving at conflicting results. His task will be to, as best he can, find one way of making all the data agree and point towards one unifying theory.