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Don’t Debate a Rabbi Unless You’re Serious

Michael Bird and I have similar tastes in stories from the Talmud, as this has long been one of my favorites as well:

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument for his teaching about the cleanness of ovens made with sand, but the other rabbis did not accept his teaching. So R. Eliezer said: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!’ And immediately the carob tree was uprooted and thrown a hundred yards out of its place – some said it was thrown four hundred yards! But the other rabbis retorted: ‘No proof can be brought from a carob tree.’

So R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!’ And immediately the stream of water began to flow backwards. But the other rabbis retorted, ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water.’

Again R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the school house prove it.’ And immediately the walls of the house began to bow and bend inwards. But R. Joshua rebuked the walls saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere!’ And so out of respect for R. Joshua the walls did not fall, but they did not resume to being completely upright either out of respect for R. Eliezer.

Again R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ And immediately a heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you argue with R. Eliezer since the halakhah agrees with him in all matters!’ But R. Joshua stood up and quoted Scripture: ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deut 30.12). What did R. Joshua mean by saying this? According to R. Jeremiah: Since the Torah had been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because G-d has long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘One must follow the majority’ (Exod 23.2).

Later R. Nathan met Elijah and he asked Elijah: ‘What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour when R. Joshua challenged the heavenly voice?’ According to Elijah, G-d laughed with joy and he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’ On that day all the objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. The rabbis then took a vote and excommunicated him. (b.Baba Mezia 59b, slightly paraphrased).

Hillel and Shammai Animation

Here’s a brief summary not so much of the substance of the disagreements between these two great religious scholars, but how those disagreements were depicted in the Mishnah. The point of the video is to find some wisdom about how people can disagree today without becoming disagreeable.

Don’t Get Caught Between Two Mountainous Rabbis

I found this story quite fascinating, as is almost always the case when ancient rabbinic disputes are about to get real:

Clearly, what concerns the rabbis when it comes to factionalism is the possibility of Jews disagreeing about the Law in public. No wonder even the greatest sages hesitated to get involved in disputes between the two schools. “They asked Rabbi Yehoshua: What is the law with regard to the rival wife of a daughter? He said to them: It is a matter of dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.” But this evasive answer wasn’t enough to satisfy the questioners, who pressed him: “And in accordance with whose statement is the law? He said to them: Why are you inserting my head between two great mountains?” Getting caught between Hillel and Shammai was like being caught in a war between mountains—or, as we might say, between rock and a hard place. No wonder it took a divine voice to settle the argument between them.