What's God Got to Do With it?
© 2016 S.H. Parker
Talking about a "religion," you would think that the defining idea would be the conception and role of God. Specifically, you would think that a person's or a group's interactions ("relation") with God would be definitive and determinative.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, both observably and theologically. Rabbis, Priests and Imams long ago hijacked their respective "religions." These "religious leaders," by and large, have no use for God and do not in fact allow God any role (beyond ratifying whatever a particular cleric claims; they graciously permit the deity this). There was an observation, made among many well educated religious persons in the 70's and 80's that if Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were to come back to earth, they would have no idea what was going on in Synagogues, Churches and Mosques. And, further, they would be shocked, even aghast, at what is being said in their names.
What's worse is that virtually none of them or their congregationers are conscious of this. Perhaps, "knowing" that they have a direct path to the divine, being singularly inspired, they don't actually understand, much less care, that they've displaced God. Certainly they don't bother themselves with discerning the divine will. They don't need to because they already know it (ask them, they'll tell you) The more "orthodox," the more accurate I think this description. Yet, in the (supplemental) holy writ of all three "Abrahimic" religions, there exist texts either explicitly declaring independence from God (excluding God from the world) or requiring it as a logical precondition for the text (e.g., "later revelation" or "what you hold true on earth, I will hold true in heaven").
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, known as Eliezer ha-Gadol (Eliezer the Great), or simply Rabbi Eliezer, was a favorite student of Jochanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Eliezer is one of the most widely quoted Rabbis in the Mishna. ben Zakkai described him as "a cemented cistern [pit], who does not lose a drop." Rabbi Eliezer is the key player in this tale from masekhet Baba Metzia (59a-b):
|We learn: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile, Rav Eliezer declared it clean but the Sages declared it unclean; this was the oven of 'Aknai [an oven consisting of tiles separated by sand, but externally plastered with cement to make a single object]. Why "'Aknai?" [This is a pun; "aknai" is a type of snake] Said Rav Judah in Samuel's name: [this means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rav Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. [Finally] He said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" Whereupon the carob tree was uprooted a hundred cubits out of its place; others say, four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let that stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "Proof cannot be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rav Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When sages are engaged in a halachic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence they did not fall in honor of Rav Joshua, neither did they resume the upright [position], in honor of Rav Eliezer; and they are still standing so inclined. Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the Heavens themselves prove it!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice [bat kol, lit. daughter of a voice; i.e., God directly] called out: 'Why do you dispute Rav Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!'" But Rav Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven." [Devarim 30:12] What did he mean by this? Said Rav Jeremiah: [He meant] That the Torah had already been given [to man] at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "After the majority must one incline."|
And how does God react to this outright reject of His word, this rebuke from mere humans? The gemarrah continues (though the Steinsaltz edition claims this was generations later):
|Rav Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time? He laughed, saying, "My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me."|
And what became of ben Hyrcanus? The story continues:
|It was said: On that day all objects which Rav Eliezer had declared clean [i.e., that had been in this oven] were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him [to make an example of him -- he was a literalist, he was called a "Shammuti," of the school of Shammai, in matters of religious practice -- for defying the (hillelite) majority; even his own student, Akiva, fails to defend him or even speak up for him -- politics!]. They said, "Who will go and inform him?" "I will go," answered Rav Akiva, "least an unsuitable person go and inform him, and so destroy the whole world." What did Rav Akiva do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. "Akiva," said Rav Eliezer to him, "what has happened today?" "Master," he replied, "it appears to me that your companions hold aloof from thee." Then he too tore his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth [a sign of mourning], while tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up. [There was, indeed, crop failure the next year.]|
Rabbi Eliezer is right. Period.
Everyone knows it. God Him-/Her-/It-self announced it for all to hear. The author of our gemarrah knows it. You know. I know it.
The "sages" of Rabban Gamliel (this event took place in Gamliel's Yavne yeshiva) are wrong. How can they not know?
Ergo, Right doesn't matter.
Right or wrong, "After the majority must one incline." Where Torah says this, I don't know. (I don't know because it doesn't. Perhaps this passage is in an alternate witness that has not survived?) I do know Torah says "You will not run after a multitude to do evil." (Commentary inserted in the Steinsaltz edition asserts that "after the majority" is just another way of saying "do not run after a multitude for evil." How this inference is made utterly escapes me. It escapes me because there is no way these two sayings are, or can be, related. And, contrast this with the standard explanations of Pinchas, Num. 25:10 ff., "a majority of one.")
Not only does the correct understanding of Divine law not matter, Rabbi Joshua, on behalf of Rabban Gamliel, tells God to kup a valk, to butt out.
God doesn't matter. What He/She/It has to say is simply irrelevant.
Yet, elsewhere, a bat kol is heeded:
For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, "The law is in agreement with our views" and the latter contending, "The law is in agreement with our views." Then a bat kol [a voice from heaven - exactly the same term used in the Gemara] announced, "Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim" (these and those are the words of the living God), but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel. (Eruvin, 13b)
So, consistency doesn't seem to be important either.
God simply has nothing to do with the decision. Or any decision, for that matter, from this point forward.
And to make sure the message is not lost, they publicly humiliate Rabbi Eliezer by gathering and burning all the things that everyone in town knows he declared "clean." Then, they excommunicate him and force him to go to live among outsiders. (Gamliel, eventually, was disciplined - more a slap on the wrist than real punishment - for his harsh and high-handed treatment of other Rabbis. But Rabbi Eliezer's expulsion from the community was never lifted.)
In other words, the Rabbis are using this pasuk ("it is not in heaven") to reserve (usurp?) the right of interpretation to themselves exclusively, even when they go beyond the Torah (which they frequently do and they bring this principle, "after the majority," to bear). Even when God says otherwise. Rav Eliezer understood this that this small collection of Rabbis (later reconstituting themselves as a beit din) were actively excluding God, at every level.
The real lesson of this gemarrah, in my opinion, is that the Rabbis redefined the can and, then, let the worms out of it. They depict God as not only approving but happy with rejection of Divine intervention. It is important to note that it is not the rejection of His word per se that is key (and it is certainly not the cleanliness of this oven; the actual oven is just not relevant), what ben Hyrcanus' opponents are doing is claiming exclusive responsibility and right for the meaning and application of Torah. (If you're a parent, think of the first time your child stood up on her/his own, despite what you may have said and made a decision for her-/himself). Indeed, in rabbinic invocation of their right to extend Torah, they often use this notion, of protecting Israel from itself, as if all of Israel, except them, are too ignorant or too untrustworthy to be permitted to read and understand, to learn Torah.)
These Rabbis, and many who followed them, foreclosed God's intervention -- literally told God to "kup a valk (take a hike)" -- and taken the place of the prophets (thus, closing prophecy also). In this way, God becomes, likewise, subservient to the vote of the majority. Hyrcanus saw the inherent usurpation of the divine in this action. And that is why he had to be exiled - Gamliel didn't take being contradicted well, all the more so from someone who understood his agenda. And opposed it.
Neither is "the majority rules" actually consistently practiced by this very same beit din. There are other gemarrahs in which this same Rosh Yeshiva is again dead wrong. But the word of one person, Gamliel, overrules them (maseket Rosh Hashanah 25a) and the sole opinion of the av beit din is determinative. In Rosh Hashanah 25a, Rabbis who showed that Gamliel was wrong, are they publicly humiliated. We have two very different views, both involving the same principal player, Gamliel II; who, I must repeat, is wrong in both cases).
Next, I'll show that the Rabbis themselves explicitly state what I've claimed here, blissfully unaware or ignoring the theological consequences (read it).