Authority, Heavenly Voices and the Interpretation of Torah

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #20: Authority, Heavenly Voices and the Interpretation of Torah

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

It was taught there: "If you cut it [an earthenware oven] into sections and place sand between the sections, Rabbi Eliezer says it is pure, and the sages say it is impure. And this is the oven of Akhinai." What is 'Akhinai'? R. Yehuda said in the name of Shemuel: "They surrounded him with words like an akhna (a snake) and made it impure." It was taught: "On that day, R. Eliezer responded to them with all the arguments in the world and they did not accept them from him."

He said to them: "If I am right, this carob tree will prove it." The carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved one hundred cubits; some say, four hundred cubits.

They said to him: "We do not bring proofs from carob trees."

He said to them: "If I am right, this stream of water will prove it." The stream started to flow backwards.

They said to him: "We do not bring proof from streams."

He said to them: "If I am right, the walls of the study hall will prove it." The walls of the study hall inclined to fall.

R. Yehoshua rebuked them [the walls]. He said to them: "If talmudic scholars contest one another in matters of Halakha, why does this concern you?" They did not fall, out of respect for R. Yehoshua, but they did not straighten, out of respect for R. Eliezer, and they are still inclined there.

He said to them: "If the halakha is as I say, let it be proved from the heavens." A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed: "Why are you contesting R. Eliezer, when Halakha follows him in every area?"

R. Yehoshua arose and said: "'It is not in heaven' (Devarim 30: 12). What does this mean? R. Yirmiyah said: The Torah has already been give at Sinai. We pay no heed to heavenly voices, since it has already been written in the Torah at Sinai, 'follow the majority' (Shemot 23: 2)."

R. Natan came upon Eliyahu. He said to him: "What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing at this time?"

Eliyahu said to him: "He is laughing and saying, 'My children have defeated me; My children have defeated me'." (Bava Metzia 59a-59b)

Although this famous story continues and subsequently moves in some important directions, we will stop at this point and provide some interim analysis. Many cite this gemara as an example of the individual's freedom to interpret without conceding to authority. As Walter Kaufman notes, however, this conclusion misreads the tale entirely. The gemara here does suggest that humans are to interpret the Torah without explicit Divine assistance in this process, but this incident involved a majority forcing its decision upon a minority, dissenting view. Thus, whatever the story says about the relationship between the human and the Divine, it most certainly does not call for the contemporarily popular standpoint of personal freedom from religious authority structures.

How can the sages ignore a heavenly voice and knowingly continue to teach an incorrect religious ruling? Tosafot suggest that in truth, they did no such thing. According to Tosafot, the heavenly voice came forth only to defend the honor of R. Eliezer, but did not truly reflect a Divine judgment regarding the case at hand. Perhaps, Tosafot could not imagine a conscious decision to ignore what one knows to be correct. Furthermore, a different gemara, in Masekhet Yevamot (14a), relates that the sages chose to follow the rulings of Beit Hillel based on the guidance offered by a heavenly voice. This source certainly suggests that a heavenly voice can influence the process of determining Halakha.

Despite this implication of the gemara in Yevamot, Rabbenu Nissim (Derashot Ha-Ran 3) disagrees with Tosafot's interpretation. He explains that the heavenly voice in fact reflected the absolute truth of the matter; R. Eliezer was indeed correct, while the majority erred. However, the nature of the halakhic system is such that the sages are supposed to exert themselves to arrive at their conclusions based solely on human effort and intelligence. Information received from heavenly supplements has no place in their mode of operation. Therefore, in order to maintain the integrity of the system, R. Yehoshua and his colleagues were forced to adhere to their ruling, even though they now knew it to be in error.

It is this latter approach, of Rabbenu Nissim, that has become more famous, partly because R. Aryeh Lieb Heller cites it in the introduction to his celebrated work, Ketzot Ha-choshen. To fully understand this position, we must first examine why the system makes halakhic rulings depend on human reasoning, rather than on ongoing prophetic revelations. Rabbenu Nissim attributes this dependence on logic deduction to the inherent limitations of prophecy. Prophets are not empowered to receive prophecy on demand; furthermore, prophecy itself will not remain a constant of Jewish history. Therefore, a more enduring approach to halakhic rulings was necessary. There won't always be a prophet, but there will always be a sage; Halakhic decision-making is thus placed in the hands of the latter.

However, this explanation only clarifies the need for sages; it does not provide justification for ignoring prophetically conveyed information. Abravanel (commentary on Devarim, p. 162) therefore adds another reason for why Halakha depends on the sage rather than the prophet. If we allowed subsequent prophetic messages to carry halakhic weight, even in an interpretive mode, this would ultimately erode our sense of the Mosaic prophecy at Sinai as a unique revelation that could never be supplanted. Once people turn to later prophets for elucidation of the covenant, they will also turn to those prophets for new direction, and, potentially, even for abdication of the old covenant. The eternality of Torah demands ignoring any prophetic message that seeks to impact the halakhic system.

This idea works beautifully with a clever remark found in Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes' commentary (printed in the back of standard, Vilna edition of the Talmud) on this story of R. Eliezer's dispute with the rabbis. Our quotation of the gemara ended with the words "Nitzchuni banai," – "My children have defeated me." R. Chajes argues that the word "nitzchuni" perhaps evolves from the term netzach, eternity, rather than nitzachon, victory. Hashem here expresses His joy, as it were, over the sages' decision to reject heavenly voices, thereby ensuring the Torah's eternality. According to this reading, God laughs, so-to-speak, and proclaims: "My children have made My Torah eternal."

Another issue that one must address in considering this passage is the specific items R. Eliezer enlists to miraculously prove his stance. Do they have any particular symbolic significance? Maharsha answers in the affirmative. He sees each miraculous manifestation as a particular challenge R. Eliezer poses to the majority. He enlists the carob tree, which takes a very long time to bear fruit, as a symbol through which he questions the productivity of the other sages. He concedes that generally speaking, the majority wins – but only when that majority shows itself capable of thinking productively; a majority of intellectually barren scholars must be discounted.

Chazal often compare Torah to water because water runs downhill, just as Torah scholarship is reserved for the humble individual who lowers himself of herself. Maharsha suggests that the stream indicates R. Eliezer's questioning of the other sages' sincerity. Perhaps, he contends, it is their arrogance that prevents them from conceding that he is correct. Finally, R. Eliezer asks them if their desire to triumph, as if they engaged in some schoolboy competition, prevents them from admitting their error. The collapsing walls of the study hall represent the inevitable destruction of Torah institutions when such competitive childishness prevails.

Apparently, R. Eliezer's accusations were off mark, and the other sages were sincerely motivated by their desire to maintain the integrity of the legal system. At the same time, however, Maharsha's symbolic reading of R. Eliezer's claims can provide an instructive model for our own approach to Torah scholarship. Judaism indeed affords primary significance to human reasoning in the process of halakhic decision-making. However, this does not mean that Yahadut becomes a kind of silly putty, adjustable in the way each individual sees fit to mold it. Those who interpret Torah must meet three criteria. First, they must be wise and knowledgeable, or, in R. Eliezer's words, more productive than the carob tree. Additionally, they should not be essentially motivated by arrogance, or by the competitive desire to win talmudic contests. Only those who meet the above criteria can utilize their human intellects and decision-making faculties to interpret the Torah.

(Next week, we will examine the continuation of this story.)