Article: Desert Island Texts

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 January 2014

Tosefta Sotah 7:12: “Make yourself a heart of many rooms”.

Few texts define an approach to religious life in just one sentence.  But Tosefta Sotah 7:12 does exactly that.

The text begins with a dilemma from Rabbinic Judaism:  “The house of Shammai declares something unclean, the House of Hillel declares it clean.  This one prohibits, that one permits”, the text tells us, “How then can I learn Torah?”  In other words, if there are two contradictory opinions within our tradition, and both are authoritative, how can we ever know we are right, ever conclude anything about Torah with certainty?

The answer is extraordinary: “All the words have been given by a single Shepherd… So make yourself a heart of many rooms. Bring into it the words of those who declare unclean and the words of those who declare clean.”  Note what the text does not say: It does not conclude that one of Hillel or Shammai is correct and one is wrong; or that we even need one opinion to be right and the other wrong.  Rather, it says that there are a variety of views and voices within our tradition.  The ideal is to live with the disagreement.

This is a hugely important statement of religious principle, a defining statement about the nature of Jewish life.  Judaism has always been a polyvocal tradition, one capable of including conflicting voices, even opinions that utterly contradict one another.  And not only that.  The text also says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”.  Pure or impure is not what defines our religious lives.  The early Rabbis would have been horrified at the extent to which detail has come to express who we are.  To be a Jew, the text says, is rather to inherit a tradition which is comfortable with disagreement, which embraces it and always has.  What really matters is how we engage in the discussion.