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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Maybe the Rabbis got it wrong?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 23


Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages were once in hot debate over the status of an oven which may have been defiled.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, the ‘Oven of Achnai’ was pure; according to the Sages, it was impure.
 “If the law is like me,” declared Rabbi Eliezer, “the carob tree will prove it.”  Sure enough, the carob tree was uprooted from its place flying a hundred meters into the air!
But the Sages responded, “Sorry, we do not bring proof from a carob tree.”
He came back and said, “If the law is like me, the water channel will prove it.”  Sure enough, the water channel began to flow in the opposite direction.
But the Sages responded, “We do not bring proof from a water channel.” 
He came back and said, “If the law is as I say, the walls of the study hall will prove it.”  Sure enough, the walls of the study hall began to incline.  
Rabbi Yehoshua quickly snapped at the walls, “If scholars debate one another in the law, how does it benefit you?”  And so due to the honor of Rabbi Yehoshua they didn’t fall, but on account of Rabbi Eliezer’s honor, they didn’t return to their original position either.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer announced, “If the law is like me, from the Heavens they will prove it!”  And a heavenly voice came forth and declared, “Do you compare to Rabbi Eliezer?  The law is like him in every instance!”
At that, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and pronounced, “The Torah is not in heaven!”

Mishnah: If a young dove was found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner.  Beyond fifty cubits, it belongs to the finder.
Rabbi Yirmiya asked: What is the law if it had one leg within the fifty cubits and one leg beyond?
For that question, they kicked Rabbi Yirmiya out of the study hall.
Rabbeinu Tam explains: They kicked him out because his inquiry implied a questioning of the authority of rabbinic measurements, which we hold to be absolute.

As opposed to most other world religions that were propagated by a single individual, Judaism has a unique claim to fame.  Every one of our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai and heard Hashem speak.  Some three million experienced personal Divine revelation.  Each person then passed that message on to their children, who passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, until we heard the incredible message from our parents.  As strange a story as it is, we all seem to be telling the same one at the Pesach seder each year, about the miracles we experienced in Egypt and at the Red Sea, which led us to Sinai.

But a religion is not static.  As a guide for life, the Torah must respond to the needs of every era.  And so Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe with instructions: specific halachic queries will be determined by the rabbinic leadership in each generation.  Will they always all agree?  Not necessarily.  When dispute occurs, go with the majority opinion.  But once decided, that ruling then becomes an essential part of Torah, no less weighty than “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

To question the axiom of rabbinic halachic authority is to question the entire foundation of our tradition.  If we were to suggest that the rabbis offered an imperfect ruling, then who is to say whether any part of the tradition might not be flawed?  And so, by definition, the consensus rabbinic position becomes authoritative and immutable.  While we know that no mortal man is perfect, that’s the system Hashem put in place, and faith in the rabbis’ rulings and interpretation is integral to our belief in the system as a whole.

It’s actually incredible when you think about the persecution and dispersion our nation has experienced.  Despite all the travails and separation between the various parts of our national community, somehow we have all pretty much maintained the same religious practices.  Sure there are minor variations of custom, but for the most part, the core religion has remained consistent.  And so an Ashkenazi can daven in a Sefardic synagogue.  And a Yemenite can daven in an Italian synagogue.  The tunes might be a little different – no doubt, adding to the flavor of the experience – but the core features of the shul and the service are the same.

That’s why major halachic changes require a consensus of rabbinic opinion.  If every rabbi were to follow his heart and mind, the system would become a mess in no time.  Faithfulness to the national communal consensus might be challenging to individuals who are convinced of their position, but we put aside our own personal yearnings and considerations for the sake of the integrity of the klal (whole).  And once those national determinations are made, they are deemed to be Divinely ordained and precise.


We are so blessed to be part of a Divine system that has withstood the test of time and our national travails.  As committed Jews, we are committed to “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe” – the Torah is the Word of Hashem, but has been transmitted to us through the medium of Moshe, the prophets, and the rabbis.  May you always be a defender of the integrity of the entire Written and Oral tradition!