MACHLOKET (Argument)

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of NISHMA, an international Torah research, resource and educational endeavour devoted to the fostering of individual inquiry and the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further information about NISHMA, please click here. In addition to his scholarly and administrative duties within Nishma, Rabbi Hecht also serves as a blogger for Huffington Post Canada , Jewish Values Online and United with Israel. He also serves on the Rabbinical Advisory Board of Koshertube and as Rabbinic Advisor to Yad HaChazakah – the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center. He also holds degrees in law, psychology and business.


(The following was originally posted in Nishma.)

The question is a classic one. On each day of Creation, in reference to the ‘work’ of the day, the Torah text informs us that God saw that it was good. An exception, though, is found in regard to the Second Day.1 In the context of this day, 2 there is no statement that God saw the ‘work’ to be good. The question is, obviously: Why? 3

One of the answers presented in Bereishit Rabbah, Bereishit 4:6 is that on this day machloket [disagreement] was created. This is because, on this day, the waters were separated – but what is the connection of this separation with machloket? Clearly, disagreement can lead to division but, in this case, why would the separating of the waters be necessarily associated with machloket? The fact that machloket can lead to separation would not seem to indicate the reverse, that division is inherently tied to disagreement? Perhaps the reference and teaching is more allegorical. God simply wanted to inform us — through this absence of a declaration of good in response to an act of separation, even one, such as in this case of the waters, inherently benign4 — of the negative consequences of disagreement in that it could lead to strife It is strange, though, that the midrash does refer to this separation of the waters as a machloket.5

The fact is that this midrash’s theory would seem to be inherently problematic for it implies that all disagreements are inherently not good – and this is clearly not the case. Avot 5:20 informs us of two types of machloket, one l’shem Shomayim [for the sake of Heaven] and one she’eino l’shem Shomayim [not for the sake of Heaven]. Disagreements within this latter category are clearly negative and problematic, yet disagreements within the former category would seem to be clearly seen as positive. The Mishna states, in regard to such disagreements, sofo l’hitkayeim, that, in the end, they will be lasting. Machloket would seem to have eternal value. We also see this in our very study of Torah given how much of its content, and its very energy, is from the analysis of Torah disagreements. How then could a machloket actually created by God, such as this splitting of the waters, not be worthy to be seen as good?

Abarbanel, Avot 5:20 further indicates that for there to be a machloket l’shem Shomayim, there must first be a point of agreement.6 To illustrate, he points out that before we can see the value in the divergent opinions of Hillel and Shammai, we have to recognize that they were both in agreement in their commitment to the principle of the necessity of strict Torah observance. A machloket then expands on these ideas emanating from this shared starting point or principle showing the fullness of the concept.7 This can, perhaps, be somewhat comparable to a prism’s effect on white light. Out of the shared concept, a machloket reveals the underlying complexity of the variant concepts that form together this ‘white light’ of an idea.

This recognition, though, would actually seem to only strengthen our problem. In that the water was originally collected together, we would seem to have a similar circumstance as in the case of a machloket l’shem Shomayim. The term machloket would then seem appropriate to the splitting of the waters for, thereby, God was spreading out the variant values embodied in this collection of water. Like a prism’s effect on white light, God was splitting the waters to bring about the greater complexity of the Creation. But, then, would this not truly be comparable to a machloket l’shem Shomayim? But why would the verse not then declare ‘that God saw that it was good’?

The answer may be found in that there actually is a declaration that it was good which includes the creation of the rakia. On the Third Day, Bereishit 1:10 informs us, with the full completion of God’s work regarding the waters, that it was good. Rashi, Bereishit 1:7, building upon another answer presented in Bereishit Rabbah for why the statement that it was good was not made on the second day, explains that God only declared a work to be good when it was completed. As the work with the water was still not finished on the second day, God could not then declare it to have been good. While the argument that it was the machloket that prevented God from declaring the work of the second day to be good obviously excludes this approach (at. least, as the primary reason), there could be something in Rashi’s thoughts which could assist us with our question regarding a machloket l’shem Shomayim. It could be that the machloket of the rakia could not be declared as good only on the second day when its full value was not recognized. On the third day, though, it was declared to be good because we then saw its place within the unity of the Creation. Machloket in a vacuum is a problem. To be a true machloket l’shem Shomayim, it must be seen within the context of the whole.

We can, perhaps, see this idea as an expansion on the thought of the Abarbanel. He explicitly states that a machloket l’shem Shomayim must begin with a shared starting point. What the lesson of the rakia may be adding is that it must also have a similar shared ending point, that is a shared purpose. The value of a machloket, that is the investigation and identification of distinct details within the whole, must always consider the overriding value and unity of the whole. With the recognition of the purpose of the rakia within this context of the whole on the third day, God could then declare that it was good.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 Technically, on the Sixth Day, there was also an exception in that, in the context of this day, Bereishit 1:31 informs us that God saw that everything was very good. A question is thus also raised as to this deviation from the norm. We, though, will not be dealing with this issue herein.

2 Bereishit 1:6-8.

3 This question could actually be understood in two different ways. One possibility is that God could have described what happened as good but chose not to – thus the question would be: why did God choose not to inform us that it was good? Alternatively, it could be that what happened on the second day did not meet God’s standard of the good — with the question then being: why was this ‘work’ not good? Pursuant to this latter possibility, we might also then wonder why God deviated from his pattern of daily creating a work for which He could declare that it was good.

4 In support of such a possibility or something of a similar nature, see, further, in this midrash.

5 It may also be interesting to note that this separation of the waters was actually not the first act of separation in Creation. On the first day, we are told that God separated between the light and the darkness – yet, God still describes the work of the day as good. To be honest, though, Bereishit 1:4 actually states that “God saw that the light was good” and the statement of the separation between light and darkness was only stated afterwards. The issue on the second day was that the essential creation of this day was the rakia [firmament] whose very function was to separate. We may still also want to note a distinction between a separation between light and darkness (two different entities) and a splitting of the waters (essentially, one entity).

6 See, also, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:28 who speaks of a similar singular commitment to finding the truth of Torah. On the general topic of machloket, see, also, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, The Slifkin Affair Revisited, Part 3: The Nature of Machloket

7 See, also, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Avot 5:20. © Nishma 2016

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