Sunday, November 7, 2010

Global Day of Jewish Learning

Today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the first of the Hebrew month.  Kislev of course is the month in which Hanukkah occurs.  Hanukkah comes from the words to dedicate and educate.  Today also marks the monumental achievement of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who completed his 45 year project of translating the Talmud's Aramaic idioms, stories and legal debates into modern Hebrew and English.  For many his edition was our first introduction to the wonders of Talmud and rabbinic literature.  25 years ago it was the Steinsaltz Talmud that sat between my hevruta partner and me as we debated the laws of Sukkot and Brachot.  In honor of his achievement, I share here a favorite story from the Talmud, from Baba Metzia 59b.  My commentary and explanations are interspersed in italics.

R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of Aknai.
The rabbis disagreed.  What is wonderful about the Talmud is that it is less concerned with the final decisions than with the discussion and debate.  Each page is an embodiment of machloket l'shem shamayim--arguments for the sake of heaven.

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept any of his arguments. Said he to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!" Thereupon the carob-tree was torn 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 the stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "No proof can be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it." Whereupon the walls inclined to fall.
After losing the debate by means of rational arguments, Rabbi Eliezer resorts to performing miracles in order to convince his colleagues of the veracity of his opinion.

But R. Joshua rebuked the walls saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume their upright position, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Rabbi Joshua uses a rational argument against the miracle.  And the walls apparently respond to reason!

Again R. Eliezer said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him?" But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven."  What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: "That the Torah had already been given 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.'"
Apparently Rabbi Eliezer wins halachic disputes more often than not.  Despite this, proof cannot be offered from heaven or by miracles.  Halachic rulings follow the majority.  If most rabbis rule that it is unclean it does not matter that Rabbi Eliezer is wiser or even that miracles and a heavenly voice side with him.  Once the Torah was given it rests in the hands of human beings.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me."
God is pleased that His creatures used their intellect and the Torah given to them to make their own decisions and rulings.  God rejoices even when it means that human beings rule against Him.  On most occasions the remainder of this text is not shared.  Here is a text that supports making our own decisions.  Here is a text that supports disagreeing with God's apparent voice.  Yet the conclusion is even more powerful.

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in fire. Then the Sages took a vote and excommunicated him. Said they, "Who shall go and inform him?" "I will go," answered R. Akiba, "Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world."
Now perhaps the Rabbis go too far, but they do not wish to have someone sit in their midst who resorts to using miraculous powers rather than reason and intellect.  Why does one mistaken decision render all his other decisions unfit?  Are the Sages so angry that they dismiss all his other achievements because of this one incident?

What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from Eliezer. "Akiba," said R. Eliezer to him, "What has happened today?" Master," he replied, "It appears to me that your companions believe themselves greater than you." Thereupon Eliezer rent his garments too, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.
Only a friend and a beloved student like Akiva can deliver the news to Eliezer.  The miracle worker has lost his community.  He is alone.  Miracles cannot provide companionship and friendship.  A Jew is lost without the community.

The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop were destroyed. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.
Arguments and debates can upset the natural order of the world.  Disputes must be resolved by majority rulings.  Yet when communities are torn apart the world falls out of balance.  Beware of casting others aside, even when their arguments and their means of debate are unsettling.

When we complete the studying of a tractate of Talmud we hold a siyyum, a festive celebration.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz remarked on its meaning and significance.

This is why whoever finishes studying a tractate promises to repeat it again and again, regardless of whether he knows it forward and backward or whether he does not really remember it all that well.

However, in the siyyum text we do not only say hadran alakh (“we shall return to you”), but also hadrakh alan, “you [the tractate or book] shall return to us.” This means that if one does not do the real work, if one does not learn it again and yet again, then all the material he has learned will come back to him; namely, he will inevitably find himself engaged in a multitude of problems and questions relating to the very book that he had closed and put away.

Thus, every finishing point of whatever part of the Torah is only a “recess.” After a certain point, one must once again start studying everything from the very beginning.

I return again and again to the same texts...

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