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hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
  2. An extensive commentary, often accompanying a text or publication.
  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
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-Ludwig Wittgenstein
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"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Tuesday, December 18, 2007 ~

Not in Miracles
The story of the oven of Akhnai is one of Judaism's all-time greatest hits, so I figured it'd be a good one to present to my students in Monday School. While I was preparing the lesson, though, I found something that I'd never noticed before.

The story, found in Bava Metzia 59, tells of a dispute among a group of sages over whether a certain type of oven can transmit impurity. The question comes up because the oven is an innovation for its time. Most ovens are just simple one-piece deals, and it's clear from the law that because they fall into the Container category, they can transmit impurity. If a normal oven becomes impure, it has to be carefully cleaned before it can be used again. This is annoying for people who are trying to cook. But there's a loophole: if a container shatters, the resulting pieces are said to neither acquire nor transmit impurity, because they are not containers. So some fellow named Akhnai apparently thought up an oven that can't transmit impurity because it's not, technically, a container. He took a bunch of ceramic pieces, assembled them into an oven shape, filled the spaces with sand, and coated the whole thing with glaze. Each individual container-piece can't transmit impurity, and the oven was made of all the individual pieces, so the oven itself can't transmit impurity either. Voila! An everpure oven. Clever, huh?

But according to the rabbis, not clever enough. They ruled that the oven, although made of pieces that were by themselves always clean, was a thing different from its component parts. When put together, the pieces become a whole container, and this new container becomes susceptible to the dirtiness of whatever should happen to creep in and die.

But there was one sage who disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer said the oven is indeed everpure, just as Akhnai had intended. He tries to prove to three other rabbis that he's right, but instead of explaining his reasoning and citing proof-texts to support his claim, as he should have, he calls on the powers of heaven to convince his opponents. Apparently Rabbi Eliezer has a way with the laws of nature.

First he points to a carob tree. "If I'm right," he tells the guys, "let that carob tree show it." This is the equivalent of "If I'm wrong, may God strike me down right here," only more impressive, because the carob tree instantly uproots and launches itself one hundred cubits into the air. The other rabbis aren't impressed, though.

"The law is not in a carob tree," they tell him drily.

"Well then, if I'm right, let that river show it," says Rabbi Eliezer, and suddenly the river starts flowing backward, but the other rabbis just shake their heads.

"A river flowing backward is not a valid argument," they point out.

"Well if I'm right," says Rabbi Eliezer, who is apparently too frenzied at this point to notice that his method isn't working, "let the walls of the Beit Midrash show it!" One of the walls of the house of study immediately starts falling over.

"You stay out of this," Rabbi Joshua snaps, and the wall stops falling, but out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, it doesn't go back upright either. ""Anyway," Rabbi Joshua says to Rabbi Eliezer, "the answer is not in a wall."

At his wits' end, Rabbi Eliezer cries out, "If I'm right, let heaven show it!"

And a voice calls down from heaven, "Why are you still arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? Don't you know he's always right?"

And Rabbi Joshua says to the heavenly voice, "Go to hell." Just kidding. He says, "Lo bashamayim hee," which means, "It is not in heaven." This is where everyone who knows their Tanakh starts laughing or groaning, because Rabbi Joshua is quoting a piece of Deuteronomy out of context. (I imagine it must have been, for them, like it would be for you or me to hear the punchline to that joke about the king sending his pages to sneak through the yellow fingers: it'd be the same experience of hearing a familiar, oft-repeated phrase reinterpreted in a new context, leading to a surprising answer that was not the original intention of the phrase. Remember, these guys had quotes from the Tanakh filling their collective consciousness; some of them had the whole thing committed to memory. For our part, we have corporate slogans filling our collective consciousness. How far we've come.)

The thing he's referring to in Deuteronomy is a bit where Moses is reminding the people that obeying the law is not so hard that they can't do it. "It is not in heaven," he tells them, "but rather, it's right here in front of you, well within your reach." The implication is that God wouldn't be asking us to do the impossible, so we should stop complaining about how hard it is to obey his law, and just start doing it. It's not so far from "Hard work never killed anyone," so I can imagine lots of school boys having a less-than-fond association with that quote.

"Rebbe, how am I ever going to learn all this? It's impossible!"

"Joshy, stop complaining. Lo bashamayim hee."

"Yeah, but maybe I'm still not tall enough to reach it."

So imagine how satisfying it must have been for those school boys to grow up and transform the quote from something that might have been used to say, "Get back to work," to something that means, "Now we're in charge."

And that's exactly how it's interpreted. In this story, the quote is used to prove that it's through the discussion and reasoning process, not through miraculous revelation, that we arrive at The Truth. We're in charge now. That doesn't mean we can go around changing (or casting away) the laws, willy-nilly, but it does mean the final decision rests in our hands. Liberal Jews are just crazy in love with this story, as you can imagine, because it lends official weight to the outlook they were going to adopt regardless. If the Talmud says we're justified, we really must be right!

I'm not sure the story is meant as a sincere suggestion that we ought to crown ourselves the New Lawmakers, though. After this exchange, Rabbi Jeremiah explains and defends Rabbi Joshua's position by quoting another passage, and I discovered today while I was preparing the lesson that this second quote isn't just taken out of context, as the first quote is; it's used to support a view that is the exact opposite of the view expressed in the original text. The result is not only a twisting of the passage's meaning but also a shocking departure from what I would have thought was a basic Jewish value.

Here's how it goes. After the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice, comes and speaks in defense of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Joshua responds with "lo bashamayim hee," the narrator of the story asks, "What did he mean by this?" and then quotes Rabbi Jeremiah for the answer: "We pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because [God Himself had] long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'acharei rabim l'hatot [after the majority must one incline].'" This is a quote from Exodus 23:2, which, when I read it on Monday, I discovered to be saying exactly the opposite--after the majority opinion you must NOT incline, even when you really think you should. The beginning of Exodus 23 is talking about the obligations of a witness who's testifying in court about a dispute, and it's listing reasons why the witness might be tempted to present a biased report of what happened. He might adjust it to agree with the majority opinion, for example, or perhaps to favor the poor and downtrodden. The text is reminding the witness not to do either one. Why? Because even more important than favoring the poor or agreeing with the majority is preserving the integrity of the court investigation process. Obviously! The piece that Rabbi Jeremiah quotes from Exodus, "acharei rabim l'hatot," isn't about bowing to the majority at all; it's about refusing to do so, for the sake of uncovering the truth. Doesn't the second view sound more like Judaism? And yet, Rabbi Joshua brazenly asserts that God has always told us to follow the majority. Ridiculous.

The thing is, I think he knew just how ridiculous he was being. I suspect the whole story is intended as a big joke. A joke with a lesson, but still a joke. And it's got the character of a joke, hasn't it? "There were four rabbis sitting and arguing" might as well be "Three guys walk into a bar." One is against the other three, and the proofs he brings are exaggerated and irrelevant, just the way they should be, if we're trying to tell a silly story. I suspect the schoolhouse wall's falling was added later to explain how the real-life-wall in question got that way, because not only is it the odd one out (all the other examples are outdoor, natural things; this one is indoor and man-made) but also because it interrupts the story; it flows better without it. Anyway, without the schoolhouse wall incident, we have three events, which is also what you'd expect in a joke. And at the end of the story, we get two punchlines. First is the subversive reinterpretation of lo bashamayim hee, and second is the just-plain-ridiculous reinterpretation of acharei rabim l'hatot. The second quote seems, to me, like a big wink, a way of indicating just how facetiously they meant the first quote. I might have taken lo bashamayim hee seriously if it hadn't been for acharei rabim l'hatot.

But what becomes of this we're-in-charge outlook that we liberal Jews have treasured for so long? Do we admit it has no basis in the ancient texts? Do we acknowledge that what we're doing today isn't anything like what the rabbis were doing long ago? Do we still get to call ourselves Jews?

Let's go back for a minute to the story itself. The argument over the purity of the oven is not really about whether authority lies with us or with God; it's about whether the oven was or wasn't capable of transmitting impurity. It's true that it was made of broken pieces, but to argue that if each piece can't transmit impurity, then the resulting whole can't transmit impurity either is like arguing that if a single piece of trash can never be a heap by itself, then many pieces of trash will never comprise a heap either. When you put the broken pieces together and assemble them in an oven shape, you have a container, and so of course it can transmit impurity as well as any other container. (Rabbi Eliezer was wrong to argue that it can't, and he was even more wrong to think that he could prove it with miracles. The first is forgivable; the second is grounds for dismissal, and indeed, Rabbi Eliezer gets excommunicated for it.) The real struggle isn't between God and humans over who establishes the law; it's between miracles and reason over what establishes the truth. When reason wins, God isn't being dethroned at all. He's being strengthened. The Jewish idea of God is more reason than miracle, anyway.

So Rabbi Eliezer, for all the credibility his perfect record had given him, seems to have slipped up for once. And because he tried to prove his point with miracles instead of trying to explain it one step at a time, he never noticed his mistake. How, then, was he able to wreak miracles, to call upon the Bat Kol, for the sake of proving a spurious argument? Shouldn't his miracles only have worked if he was correct in his position? Apparently, being able to do miracles is not the same as being right. And we saw this elsewhere, too--Pharaoh's sorcerers achieve miracles right alongside Aaron and Moses, and we know how that turns out. We get warned elsewhere against being swayed by miracle-workers, too--it's understood that other people could have actual power to work miracles whether they were using those powers to convince people of the truth or to deceive them. We're taught to keep a good hold on the teachings we've been given, no matter how marvelous the idol-worshipers' miracles are. The point is, miracles don't prove anything. Judaism has its share of miracles, but it's really not a miracle-based religion. Miracles don't prove God's nature and they don't prove the nature of the law; that kind of thing is either self-evident or it isn't, but whether Akhnai's oven transmits impurity is a question whose answer can only be revealed through careful thought and discussion. A tree flying into the air, a river running backward, and a wall tilting are all impressive, but they have nothing to do with the nature of the oven, and even a Bat Kol doesn't trump logic. What's the lesson? Don't trust miracle-workers and heavenly voices. That's cheating. Figure it out for yourself. The answer is not so hard to find that it requires a prophet to find it. It is not in heaven. It is very near to you, in your own head, on your own bookshelf, and in your discussions with your peers, and you can figure it out.

So what about that earlier question, "Are we still Jews?" Well, I think it's clear from this that to say, "from now on I'm going to decide what the law is according to my own wishes" does not fall under a traditional definition of Judaism, but as long as we keep genuinely trying to seek the truth through reasonable methods, then yes, we're still doing what the sages before us did. As it happens, we're also doing what God wants, as the epilogue to the story shows. Sometime later, Rabbi Nathan asks Elijah the prophet what God was doing while Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages were arguing, and Elijah says, "He was laughing with joy and saying, "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!" Apparently, God doesn't want us to be swayed in our opinions by flying trees or heavenly voices or anything else but sparkling clear reasoning, and he was just pleased as could be to see that we'd finally reached the point where he no longer needed to reveal his teachings through miracles, the point where we were so wise and so learned that we could finally work together to figure out for ourselves what the law is, what we ought to do.* Either that or God could tell it was all a big joke, and it was just killing him.

*If that isn't what it means to become like elohim, knowing good from evil, I don't know what is.

~ prattled by Miriam at 2:17 p.m. [+]

* * *
Fascinating, and easier to understand through reading rather than through a verbal presentation. Rational thought and reasoned approaches: what
a way to go! Miracles are for the younger set, who should be able to put aside their need to believe in the unexplainable just as they put aside their training wheels and enter into the adult world, both physically and intellectually.
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