Avi Garelick

The Unresolved


ISSUE 49 | ARGUMENT | FEB 2015

Some arguments are not meant to be resolved. They neither represent misunderstandings, nor the inchoate superior position of one party moving to overcome the other. They are essential differences. It is not clear from where they come, whether they arise from diversity of experience, from different intellectual or moral priorities, or as a matter of aesthetics. But regardless of their origins, they are clearly irreducible.

Mishna Arakhin 1:1
All can evaluate, all can be evaluated.

This you know, from context, and from knowledge of Leviticus, to be a process of donating a person's value, in cash, to the temple. These donations are made in fixed rates, based on gender and age.

All can vow, all can be vowed.

You know this word -- it is a kind of promise, or donation. But in context, lots of questions arise. How is this promise effected? How is it performed? How does it differ from the former category?

I choose this example because its subject matter is arcane. I hope it will more clearly prove my assertion, that the mishna is deliberately coy with its facts and definitions. Even a fairly learned person, who has Leviticus 28 pretty well memorized, will be grasping around for an explanation.

The mishna reveals its subject through argument.

Mishna Arakhin 1:2
The gentile - Rabbi Meir says, he can be evaluated but cannot evaluate.
R. Yehuda says, he can evaluate but cannot be evaluated.
Both agree, he can vow and be vowed.

Their argument reveals, simultaneously, different aspects of the nature of the gentile and of temple donations. R. Meir thinks the gentile lacks the power of a subject in the cultic context, but can be the object of sacred evaluation as well as anyone. R. Yehuda thinks the sacredness is established in relation with its object -- the monetary donation stands in for a person upon whom the sacredness could theoretically rest. If, however, a gentile wishes to make a donation -- good!

So we learn, through difference, some key aspects of the process of sacred evaluation. We also learn a tantalizing agreement about the second method of donation. All agree, the gentile has full standing with regards to vows. Why? Is it because these vows do not employ an exclusive logic of sacredness? What is different about them?

Mishna Arakhin 1:3
One who is at the edge of death,
or has been sentenced to execution,
can be neither evaluated or promised,
R. Hanina ben Akavia says, he can be evaluated, because his value is fixed.

So, the reason he cannot be vowed is that there is no fixed value to a vow. Like dividing by zero, you cannot make a vow based on someone whose life is worthless. Not so with the evaluation, whose value is a fixed amount spelled out explicitly in Leviticus. So we learn, through R. Hanina's dissent, a crucial defining distinction between the vow and the evaluation.

Again, this material is remote, so as not to prove distracting. Your background knowledge will obscure the point. People who learn mishna will very often do so under the guidance of their own background knowledge, a zealous teacher, or explanatory commentary. Thus they are not exposed to this fact of the mishna's structure -- it is through the recorded disputes that the shape of the law is revealed.

The essential role of permanent disagreement might teach us something about what it means for us to 'agree to disagree.'