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Beware of Bringing the House Down

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat evening services, delivered the evening before Vice President Biden crossed the 270 electoral votes threshold.  

On this evening, as we look out on the precipice of discovering who will serve as the president for the next four years, I wish to offer a reflection about our current divisions and urge us, once again, to work towards greater unity. I turn, as I always do, to the rabbis for guidance. Sometimes 2000-year-old stories are the best stories for today’s struggles. I wish to explore one of their most famous stories about community. It is the story of the oven of Aknai, contained in the Babylonian Talmud and told over and over again, most especially if you study at the Hartman Institute. Here is the story.

It all starts with a seemingly innocuous question of whether or not an oven is kosher. The Talmud begins. A question was asked: is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. 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. They refused to accept Eliezer’s view.

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. Some say it moved 600 feet. (The Talmud often preserves debates within debates.) 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 (a bat kol) 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 even some fury, quoted the Torah and 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. Miracles only distract us from this holy task. We do not hear God’s voice through our ears or see God’s miracles with our eyes but instead discern God’s truth through eyes open to studying the law and ears attuned to our friend’s wisdom.

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 sorry 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 colleagues have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. And it is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon and even caused the seas to storm. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)

I share this story, on this occasion, because it illustrates something we desperately need to remind ourselves of over and over again. There are right ways to argue and there are wrong ways. Of course, I don’t expect that this story is trying to tell us that some people can summon miracles to support their positions. I read the Talmud’s story and its portrayal of Eliezer more about a rejection of how he argued. He was an extraordinarily talented and learned rabbi. But his opinion about this oven remained his own solitary opinion. He was unable to convince others of what he believed. The majority voted about the issue of the day. All the ranting and raving and screaming, “How can you not see it the way I do? How can you think what you think?” will not change the mechanism of how a community, or in our case, a country, must function. The majority votes and the majority of voters, albeit in our case in each of our fifty states, determines who will serve as our president.

The moral of our tale is not that we can best even God with our reasoning and erudition or in this week’s Torah portion, argue with God like Abraham does. It is instead that Eliezer’s screaming, Eliezer’s willingness to bring the walls of the study house down forced the community to cast him aside. It is not to say that the community, and country, cannot, and should not, sustain arguments and disagreements. We need these. We desperately need them so that we can best figure out how to overcome the challenges of our day. But we must never argue like we want to tear the community apart. Eliezer was willing to destroy everything, including all of his colleagues, in order to prove he was right. That is not loving a community. That is not arguing so that you can better understand how your friend thinks. That is seeing being right as the end rather than the betterment of the community or the country.

In our sacred, but fragile, democracy everyone’s opinion is valued and counted. Soon, half of us will be happy, and half of us will be saddened. Unless all of us can see this not as “I won and you lost,” but as “We won because every voice was counted and every vote was tabulated,” we will suffer the same fate as Rabbi Eliezer. The system only works if we believe in it. Democracy can only be upheld by our faith not just in my vote but in your vote and everyone’s vote. Otherwise we will end up shunned like Eliezer and mourning like Akiva. And then, I fear, the world will see similar disasters: everything will likewise wilt, and the seas will once again become tempests. Yes, it does very much begin with how we argue. It does start with a seemingly mundane disagreement over something as small as an oven.

The way forward is through unity. I offer this prayer once again. May the person who recites the oath of president of these United States in January, come to recognize that the way forward is indeed through unity, and the way out of despair is to argue as if your life, and the wellbeing of the nation, depends on both the justness of your convictions and the love of your (disagreeing) friend.

And may Rabbi Eliezer’s fate not become our own. May we remain forever on guard never to allow a Rabbi Eliezer to tear our house down.