What's God Got to Do With it?
© 2016 S.H. Parker
In Baba Metzia 59a, we learn how a group of sages under the direction of Gamliel II disputed Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer is right and Gamliel and his boys are wrong. They knew it but ... hubris.... God intervened, "Hey guys! Why you arguing? Rav Eliezer is always right."
You would think that the voice of God would carry a certain weight with a group of Rabbis (in fact, the very first people called "Rabbi").
Instead, the Rabbis tell God to mind His own business. Rabbi Eliezer understood that Gamliel was usurping the divine and placing himself and his approved acolytes in God's stead. Eliezer was banned from the community, excommunicated ... "problem solved."
MISHNA. ON ONE OCCASION TWO WITNESSES CAME AND SAID, WE SAW IT IN THE MORNING IN THE EAST AND IN THE EVENING IN THE WEST. 1 R. JOHANAN B. NURI THEREUPON SAID, THEY ARE FALSE WITNESSES. 2 WHEN, HOWEVER, THEY CAME TO JABNEH RABBAN GAMALIEL ACCEPTED THEM. ON ANOTHER OCCASION TWO WITNESSES CAME AND SAID, WE SAW IT AT ITS PROPER TIME, 3 BUT ON THE NIGHT WHICH SHOULD HAVE BEEN NEW MOON 4 IT WAS NOT SEEN, AND RABBAN GAMALIEL [HAD ALREADY] ACCEPTED THEIR EVIDENCE. 5 RABBI DOSA B. HARKINAS SAID: THEY ARE FALSE WITNESSES. HOW CAN MEN TESTIFY THAT A WOMAN HAS BORN A CHILD WHEN ON THE NEXT DAY WE SEE HER BELLY STILL SWOLLEN? 6 SAID R. JOSHUA TO HIM: I SEE [THE FORCE OF] YOUR ARGUMENT.
Twice more Gamliel is conclusively wrong. But, the Mishna continues, telling how Gamliel, as head of the beit din, forces his opinion on the other Rabbis:
THEREUPON RABBAN GAMALIEL SENT TO HIM TO SAY, I ENJOIN UPON YOU TO APPEAR BEFORE ME WITH YOUR STAFF AND YOUR MONEY ON THE DAY WHICH ACCORDING TO YOUR RECKONING SHOULD BE THE DAY OF ATONEMENT.
For those not familiar with Yom ha'Kippurim, making Rabbi Joshua do this constitutes a major desecration of the holy day, given Rav Joshua's computation of when Yom ha'Kippurim fell.
7 R. AKIBA WENT [TO R. JOSHUA] AND FOUND HIM IN GREAT DISTRESS. 8 HE SAID TO HIM: I CAN BRING PROOF [FROM THE SCRIPTURE] THAT WHATEVER RABBAN GAMALIEL HAS DONE IS VALID,
Here it comes! Rabbi Akiba is going to justify Gamliel's error. The text continues:
BECAUSE IT SAYS, THESE ARE THE APPOINTED SEASONS OF THE LORD, HOLY CONVOCATIONS, WHICH YE SHALL PROCLAIM IN THEIR APPOINTED SEASONS, 9 [WHICH MEANS TO SAY THAT] WHETHER THEY ARE PROCLAIMED AT THEIR PROPER TIME OR NOT AT THEIR PROPER TIME, I HAVE NO APPOINTED SEASONS SAVE THESE. 10 HE [R. JOSHUA] THEN WENT TO R. DOSA B. HARKINAS, WHO SAID TO HIM: IF WE CALL IN QUESTION [THE DECISIONS OF] THE BETH DIN OF RABBAN GAMALIEL, WE MUST CALL IN QUESTION THE DECISIONS OF EVERY BETH DIN WHICH HAS EXISTED SINCE THE DAYS OF MOSES UP TO THE PRESENT TIME. FOR IT SAYS, THEN WENT UP MOSES AND AARON, NADAB AND ABIHU AND SEVENTY OF THE ELDERS OF ISRAEL. 11 WHY WERE NOT THE NAMES OF THE ELDERS MENTIONED? TO SHOW THAT EVERY GROUP OF THREE WHICH HAS ACTED AS A BETH DIN OVER ISRAEL IS ON A LEVEL WITH THE BETH DIN OF MOSES. 12 HE [R. JOSHUA] THEREUPON TOOK HIS STAFF AND HIS MONEY AND WENT TO JABNEH TO RABBAN GAMALIEL ON THE DAY ON WHICH THE DAY OF ATONEMENT FELL ACCORDING TO HIS RECKONING. RABBAN GAMALIEL ROSE AND KISSED HIM ON HIS HEAD AND SAID TO HIM: COME IN PEACE, MY TEACHER AND MY DISCIPLE — MY TEACHER IN WISDOM AND MY DISCIPLE BECAUSE YOU HAVE ACCEPTED MY DECISION.
The next two paragraphs are not especially relevant to my subject.
GEMARA. It has been taught: Rabban Gamaliel said to the Sages: This formula has been handed down to me from the house of my father's father: Sometimes it [the moon] traverses [the heavens] 13 by a long course and sometimes by a short course. 14 R. Johanan said: What is the reason of the house of Rabbi? 15 Because it is written, Who appointest the moon for seasons, the sun knoweth his going down. 16 It is the sun which knows its going down, but the moon does not know its going down. 17 R. Hiyya once saw the [old] moon in the heavens on the morning of the twenty-ninth day. 18 He took a clod of earth and threw it at it, saying, Tonight we want to sanctify you, 19 and are you still here! Go and hide yourself. 20 Rabbi thereupon said to R. Hiyya, Go to En Tob 21 and sanctify the month, 22 and send me the watchword, ‘David king of Israel is alive and vigorous’.
23 Our Rabbis taught: Once the heavens were covered with clouds and the likeness of the moon was seen on the twenty-ninth of the month. The public were minded to declare New Moon, and the Beth din wanted to sanctify it, but Rabban Gamaliel said to them: I have it on the authority of the house of my father's father that the renewal of the moon takes place after not less than twenty-nine days and a half and two-thirds of an hour and seventy-three halakin. 24 On that day the mother of Ben Zaza died, and Rabban Gamaliel made a great funeral oration over her, not because she had merited it, but so that the public should know that the Beth din had not sanctified the month.
Here it is:
25 R. AKIBA WENT AND FOUND HIM 26 IN GREAT DISTRESS. The question was asked, Who was in distress? Was R. Akiba in distress or was R. Joshua in distress? — Come and hear, since it has been taught: ‘R. Akiba went and found R. Joshua while he was in great distress. He said to him, Master, why are you in distress? He replied: Akiba, it were better for a man 27 to be on a sick-bed for twelve months than that such an injunction should be laid on him. 28 He said to him, [Master,] will you allow me to tell you something which you yourself have taught me? He said to him, Speak. He then said to him: The text says, ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘you’, three times, 29 to indicate that ‘you’ [may fix the festivals] even if you err inadvertently, ‘you’, even if you err deliberately, ‘you’, even if you are misled. 30 He replied to him in these words: ‘Akiba, you have comforted me, you have comforted me’.
The key phrase is: "even if you err inadvertently, ‘you’, even if you err deliberately, ‘you’, even if you are misled" [the witnesses were false]. Read that again, please.
31 HE THEN WENT TO R. DOSA B. HARKINAS etc. Our Rabbis taught: Why were not the names of these elders mentioned? So that a man should not say, Is So-and-so like Moses and Aaron? ...
The Kollel Iyun Hadaf of Jerusalem provides a point-by-point analysis of the Gemara. The essential point is:
R. Akiva, with his permission, pointed out that the Pasuk says "You" three times to teach that Beis Din's decisions on the calendar stand even if they are mistaken, deliberately inaccurate, or based on false testimony. [Emphasis added]
Likewise, the Pasuk tells us not to say that earlier generations were superior.
In Baba Metzia 59a, I argued that the only way to explain the beit din's decision and actions was on the assumption that "correct" was not an important issue. In fact it was not important at all.
Here, we have no one less than the great Akiva flatly asserting that being wrong, even intentionally, is irrelevant. What the beit din decides (Baba Metzia 59a) or what the Rosh beit din (the current inyan) decides is "it." And, here, it is added that the leaders of one's generation must be accepted as if they were Moses and the elders. (Sounds a little self-serving, doesn't it? And since, today, there are many taken to be "leaders," this goes a long way toward explaining much of the internecine warfare between various sub-sects. Gamliel's "greatest achievement was the termination of the opposition between the schools of Hillel and Shammai" or, as Gamliel himself says (Baba Metzia 59b) "[I acted, in respect of Rabbi Eliezer] so that strife may not multiply in Israel" - look how that worked out.)
Theologically, it is impossible for God to be wrong. Therefore, it follows that God too is irrelevant. Indeed, in Baba Metzia 59a, Rabbi Joshua explicitly tells God that His/Her/Its intercession is not desired and will not be taken into account.
The Rabbinic claim, ever since there were Rabbis (1st century, after the destruction of the Temple) is that since God gave the Torah to man, God no longer has the right to comment.
Some of the comments you will find if you google around are:
"Once the Torah was given on Sinai, we do not heed voices from Heaven." (Except when we do, Eruvin 13b)
The Aleph Society writes: "decisions are no longer made based on heavenly decisions, but on the decisions of the Rabbis who interpret it."
Over and over again, you will see the same assertion. "The Rabbis," whoever they are and whoever appoint them (no one, they stepped into the vacuum left by the destruction of the Temple), and "the Rabbis" alone have the right to understand - and to dictate - what Torah means and how it is to be applied. In short, as I maintained from the beginning of this discussion, "What's God got to do with it?" Nothing. And, that's from the mouths of the Rabbis themselves.