In yeshivot, there is an important piece of wisdom that keeps discussions going when we find ourselves stumped. The adage, attributed to R. Chaim Voloziner, is that “Fun a kashe shtarbt man nisht” (One doesn’t die from a question).”
This adage is not only helpful practically, but also sound intellectually. Whether in the sciences or in the humanities, a theory is not expected to immediately explain all relevant data. Given the messiness of reality and the limitations of the human intellect, a theory that explains a large percentage of the data in a cogent and coherent fashion has a strong claim to truth. The associated working assumption is that we will eventually be able to explain the data that doesn’t fit; or that we will consider refining our theory slightly. Plugging this back into Torah knowledge, it means that we too can continue asserting an otherwise good theory when it doesn’t explain everything.
However a famous story in the Gemara (Pesachim 22b, et. al.) might make us think otherwise. There Shimon HaAmsoni is credited with finding extra information each time the Torah used the word, “et.” Apparently, he did this starting from the beginning of the Torah and only encountered a difficulty when he reached the sixth chapter of Devarim, in which we are commanded to fear/have awe of et God. Being stumped about this, his students asked, “What are you going to do about all of your previous teachings based on your theory?” His heroic answer was, “Just like I received reward for teaching (drisha), so too will I receive reward for restraint (prisha).”
Though R. Yoshiyahu Pinto suggests that he only restrained himself about this particular teaching, Rashi seems more correct in his understanding that HaAmsoni withdrew his theory wholesale, and no longer claimed validity to any of its applications. But why? What happened to not dying from a question?!?
Ostensibly one could explain this by noting something I left out. Yes, it is true that contradictory evidence usually does not invalidate a theory. But only when confronted by data tangential to the theory, not data central to it. And even tangential data presents a more serious – if not necessarily fatal – problem if we can ascertain with finality that it doesn’t fit in. So perhaps Shimon HaAmsoni gave up his theory because he felt that this particular example of the theory was central and/or it was clear that it would never fit in. Such an approach is complicated, however, by the fact that R. Akiva did find a way to apply the theory to this case, saying that the commandment of awe also applies to Torah scholars.
More likely is that Shimon HaAmsoni actually did believe that one dies from a question, or at least a theory does; and it is only with R. Akiva that the Sages discovered otherwise. Accordingly, R. Akiva was not so much aiming at an answer, but rather wanted to show that one does not die from the question. From that perspective, R. Akiva’s answer was just a tentative suggestion, showing that HaAmsoni’s question was not necessarily unanswerable. (That a different answer is reported in the Yerushalmi would seem to support this.)
Looking at the larger context, this explanation fits rather well: HaAmsoni was presumably of the same generation as one of R. Akiva’s two primary teachers, Rabbi Eliezer. The latter believed in complete fealty to the tradition, leaving little room for innovation. However R. Akiva eventually took the side of his other teacher, R Yehoshua, who famously declared that the Torah is not in Heaven. Not only did R. Akiva adopt that approach, he ran with it, expanding the Torah and giving it its full contours. A major tool for this was the freedom to suggest a theory without having to retract it each time some random data did not fit.
It is likely that the intellectual revolution orchestrated by R. Yehoshua and R. Akiva did not happen overnight. So while Shimon HaAmsoni was clearly also an innovator, he was hesitant to take the approach to its limits. Perhaps that is why he could not come up with R. Akiva’s answer, that grouped Torah scholars together with God. He understandably felt that man’s limitations prevent him from imitating God’s creativity and becoming a full partner in Torah.
Indeed it was not only with HaAmsoni that R. Akiva had to contend. The Talmud’s report that his students died because they did not properly honor each other may also have come from not realizing the potential inherent in the Torah scholar. But perhaps that should be no surprise – not appreciating our own full worth can easily lead to not appreciating the worth of others as well. After all, R. Akiva teaches us that the central commandment of the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself.