Skip to main content

The Government Shutdown and an Oven

Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, in response to the question of why he and other like-minded conservatives have forced a government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act said, “Because we’re right. Simply because we’re right.” (The New York Times, October 1, 2013)

A story from the Talmud. Millennia ago, in the land of Israel, the rabbis faced a similar political stand off. At that time they were arguing not about health care but about the oven of Aknai. The question was asked: Is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. All the other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled.

Rabbi Eliezer became enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the academy prove it.” The Sages looked up in alarm as the walls began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, however, rebuked the walls saying: “When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute you have no right to interfere and take sides!” Thereupon the walls stopped falling.

This only further incensed Eliezer and he turned toward heaven and cried: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from heaven.” A voice from heaven responded: “Why do the Sages dispute with Rabbi Eliezer seeing that the law should agree with him?” Rabbi Joshua then jumped out of his seat and with passion and fury screamed: “Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What did Rabbi Joshua mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a voice from heaven…”

The law follows the majority even when God sides with the minority. God gave us minds with which to reason and faculties with which to discern the truth nestled between the lines of Torah. The law must therefore follow the will of the majority.

Given the stubbornness of Eliezer’s position, the rabbis felt they had no choice and voted to ostracize him. The great Rabbi Akiva was given the painful task of informing his beloved teacher of the council’s vote. Rabbi Akiva donned a black garment and sat at a distance from his teacher and said, “My rabbi, I think your comrades have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. It is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b) 

The Talmud’s wisdom is clear. Community is built on consensus. Even God cannot rule against the sages. The law is founded on majority rule. The Talmud counsels: beware of the individual, who, no matter how wise and well reasoned, is willing to subvert the will of the majority and in his zealousness bring the walls down upon his own community. He thereby writes himself out of the community.

Our country may indeed be founded on ideology. It is certainly furthered by passionate debate. Once the vote is tallied, however, the law follows the majority. At that moment, the meaning of democracy is found not in ideological debate and righteous indignation but in following the law. Then we stand together and as one.

Rabbi Eliezer lived out his remaining years secure in the knowledge that God agreed with his reasoning, but nonetheless alone, bereft of colleagues and students and most important without his community. The community was forced to move forward without one of its most cherished teachers.

Being right is not the foundation of community. A community, and a country, can only be sustained by compromise.