Friday, 11 Sep 2009

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Three words from one verse in our parashah are used in an extraordinary way in one of the most famous and provocative and profound narrative passages of the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metsi’a 59a–b). Though the narrative may be familiar to many, I would like to focus on the use of these three words and their implication.

The passage is triggered by a dispute over a technical matter in the law of purity and impurity, in which we are told that R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos declared a certain kind of oven is not susceptible to ritual defilement, and the Sages declared that it could indeed become impure. That could have been the end: minority dissents are recorded frequently in the rabbinic literature, and it is almost always just left at that. But in this one case, the narrative continues that Eliezer was not prepared to let the matter rest: “On that day, R. Eliezer brought every imaginable argument, but the other Sages were not convinced.”

He then moved on to a different mode of persuasion.

  • “If the halakha is as I say, let this carob tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob tree was uprooted and moved 100 cubits from its original place. The Sages replied, “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”
  • “If the halakha is as I say, let this river prove it.” Thereupon the river  began to flow in the opposite direction, uphill. The Sages replied, “No proof can be brought from a river.”
  • “If the halakha is as I say, let the walls of the academy prove it.” Thereupon the walls inclined at an angle as if to fall. But R. Joshua ben Hananiah rebuked them, saying, “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what business do you have to interfere?” Therefore they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they return to an upright position, in honour of R. Eliezer, and they are still standing askew.

Finally, R. Eliezer said, “If  the halakha is as I say, let it be  proved from Heaven.” Thereupon, a Heavenly Voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeingthat in all matters the halakha agrees with him?” At this point, R. Joshua arose and— in    an  admirable example of  conciseness— cited  just  three words from our parashah: לא בשמים היא, “It is not in the Heaven” (Deut. 30:12).

Presumably his meaning was clear to the Source of the Heavenly Voice, and probably also to the Sages who heard him. But the Talmudic text proceeds to unpack the significance in these three Hebrew words through an explanation attributed to a later rabbi. The “it” in the verse refers to the entire Torah. Since the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai, we no longer pay attention to a Heavenly Voice. At present, the law is to be determined by a majority of the Sages. Even with God on his side, one rabbi does not constitute a majority that should be followed.

This principle of majority rule is justified by another three-word phrase, taken from the Book of Exodus: אחרי רבים להטות (Exod. 23:2). This phrase is taken out of its original context where it is governed by a negative particle and means that you should not follow the majority for an improper purpose; dropping the negative, here it is cited to mean you should incline after the majority. It’s a little like taking לא תחמד בית רעך, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house” (Exod. 20:14), and quoting it as תחמד בית רעך, “Covet your neighbour’s house.”

The re-reading of our phrase from Nitsavim is not as dramatic, but it also gives the words a new meaning. In the original context in Deuteronomy, It is not in the heaven means that there are no acceptable excuses for failing to live by the Torah. “It’s too difficult to be a good Jew, it’s too hard to learn or to observe what’s expected of me” will just not fly. But Rabbi Joshua uses the phrase in a very different way. He was asserting that while the Torah originated in the divine will, once God chose to revealed it to human beings, we human beings are entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting it in accordance with their best understanding in light of the circumstances in which they live.

And there is something more. Torah, halakhah, is in this conception not an exact science, with one correct answer to every question, an answer that remains immutable whether we are aware of it or not. A question of Jewish law is not like the question whether the earth revolves around the sun or the opposite, whether the earth is a sphere or a flat surface—questions about which everyone can be mistaken. In the Talmudic conception expressed in our passage, God’s law is what a majority of sincere, educated, committed Jews understand and determine it to be, even if that may not have been God’s original intention. Even someone who claims to be a prophet with access to direct communication from God, indeed even a Heavenly Voice from the Ultimate Authority, cannot trump this consensus.

At the end of the narrative, an epilogue is added: a later rabbi once met Elijah—not the fanatical prophet of Mt. Carmel but his reincarnation as figure in Jewish folklore who was understood to commute frequently between the heavenly and the earthly realms. This rabbi, somehow recognizing Elijah, asked how did God react when Joshua ben Hananiah refused to accept the Heavenly Voice as decisive? Elijah replied—according to the rabbinic narrative, of course—“God laughed and said, נצחוני בניי, “My children have defeated Me”—using My own words to refute My claim.

We can read this story as a powerful assertion of human independence from the rigid restrictions of divine decree. The very exercise of human ingenuity and initiative in interpreting the divine text, even if it diverges from the apparently obvious meaning, is said to have been ratified by God, attributing to God the pride we all feel the first time our child, whom we taught to play chess, achieves a valid check-mate against us, or paints something that surpasses anything we could ever do. This reading is a validation of a progressive approach to Judaism, legitimizing change as a majority of serious, studious, committed Jews see fit. It is a validation of a democratic, humanistic process.

But what about poor R. Eliezer, for whom exhaustive argumentation, the carob tree, the river, the walls of the academy, and even the heavenly voice, fail to convince the majority that they are wrong. The Talmudic narrative continues stating that Eliezer was not convinced by Joshua’s ingenious and daring use of “It is not in the heaven” from our parashah. This one man with God on his side refused to back down from his position. And his colleagues refused to tolerate his dissent: “On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”

What are we to make of this severe punishment for Eliezer’s unwillingness to concede defeat. What about the rights of the lonely individual conscience to defy the majority—Elijah on Mount Carmel, or Eliezer in debate with his colleagues?

What about the claim that today—in the absence of rivers changing their course to flow uphill and heavenly voices intervening from above—multitudes of ordinary believers or of religious leaders may indeed pervert the meaning of God’s revelation by claiming it for purposes that were never intended, and that the only safeguard against this is the individual who refuses to compromise, who will not be swayed by the majority, who insists on saying publicly that the popular view is wrong?

The epilogue about the report of God’s laughter provides an easy way out of this quandary. The truth is that there is no simple way of reconciling the democratic right of the majority to make decisions that bind everyone, and the democratic right of the individual conscience to remain free to maintain a wildly unpopular view. It is one of the glories of the Jewish tradition that such tensions often remain unresolved.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
September 2009