Dealing With Contradictions

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #17a: Dealing With Contradictions

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: "Remember this man positively, and Chanania ben Chizkiya is his name. For if not for his efforts the book of Yechezkel would have been hidden away as its words contradict the words of Torah. What did he do? He took up three hundred bottles of oil to his attic and he sat there until he expounded [in a way that resolved the contradictions]." (Shabbat 13b)

Rav Yehuda the son of Rav Shemuel bar Shilat said in the name of Rav: "The sages wanted to hide away the book of Kohelet because its words contradict each other. Why did they not do so? Because it begins with words of Torah and ends with words of Torah"...

And they also wanted to hide away the book of Mishlei because its words contradict each other. Why did they not do so? They said: "Did we not look into the book of Kohelet and find a way to explain it. Here too let us delve into it." (Shabbat 30b)

Apparently, three different canonical works were potential candidates for geniza due to problem of contradictions. In all three cases, the problems were successfully resolved. Yet a number of commentaries note that the resolution differs in the various cases. Chanania solved the contradictions between Yechezkel and Chumash by reconciling these two sources and showing that they truly compliment each other. In contrast, the internal contradictions in Kohelet are initially dealt with by pointing out that the book opens and closes on important religious notes. Although the same gemara does proceed to resolve the Kohelet contradictions as well, it implies that it was the religious messages found at the book's twin poles that enabled it to get past the censor. If so, how did two good sections overcome the problem of contradictions?

Maharsha (on 30b) explains that the sages knew that Yechezkel was an established prophet and that his written words were prophetic. Therefore they immediately had sufficient motivation to try to resolve any problems in that work. Kohelet, on the other hand, was the product of Shlomo's human wisdom. The sages might not have extended great effort to make this work part of Tanakh were it not for the fact that it begins and ends with significant themes. These two parts of Kohelet inspired the sages to work out its contradictions and include in the canon.

R. Yaakov Reisher raises similar questions in his Iyyun Yakkov (found in Ein Yaakov, on 30a). He also asks how two good parts compensated for the internal inconsistencies. He answers that contradictions are not sufficient reason to hide away a work. Only heretical themes provide such a justification. According to R. Reisher, it was not the contradictions themselves that worried the sages but the possible heretical interpretations that would follow from those contradictions. Once the sages saw the pure religious impulses of the book's opening and closing themes, they felt assured that the middle sections also did not border on the heretical.

In support of this idea, note that another version of this aggada found in Vayikra Rabba (28:1) explicitly says that the problem of Kohelet was that its words seem to incline towards the heretical. I would also add that R. Reisher might be making a more far-reaching point. Conflicting themes are no reason to reject a work because the conflicts may simply reflect the fact that our reality is complex, and that sometimes only the tension of opposition conveys the truth of the matter. As Kohelet notes, some forms of joy deserve approval and others do not. However, when the complexity gives way to heresy, then the time has come to protest.

Let us now turn to the example of Mishlei. The sages did not point to specific outstanding pesukim in this work but rather mentioned the prior successful example of Kohelet. Apparently, their success at resolving the problems of Kohelet filled them with confidence about the ability to do so for Mishlei. I suggest that this serves as a broader model for both our personal thinking about religion and for our educational endeavors. We need not feel the need to resolve each and every challenging religious question. Such a need would lead us to offer poor answers when a humble confession of ignorance would be a far better response. What we do need to accomplish is to explain enough of Torah in a profound and reasonable fashion that a certain presumption of reasonableness spreads to the entirety of Torah. When the bulk of Torah shines forth in all of its splendor, we can learn to live with the sections whose light we find ourselves currently incapable of seeing.