For my write-up today of David Weiss Halivni’s Peshat and Derash, I will talk about a text that Halivni discusses, which is a popular text among many who have written or read about Judaism. It is Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59a-b. To understand this text, I will draw on the notes in my Judaic Classics Library, as well as some of Halivni’s comments.
In this text, there is a debate about an oven. The question is whether an entire oven is susceptible to impurity, if the oven contains tiles that have sand between them. Rabbi Eliezer’s answer is “no” because the oven is not a single utensil but rather a bunch of tiles with sand in between them, whereas the Sages treat the oven as one utensil because the outer coat of mortar or cement unites the tiles into a single unit. In short, there is a difference of opinion as to whether the oven should be regarded as a collection of pieces, or as one utensil. If it is one utensil, then (say) an unclean animal defiling a few tiles here and there ends up defiling the entire oven, not just those particular tiles. But Rabbi Eliezer’s view is that the animal would only defile those particular tiles, not the entire oven. But his view is not the opinion of the Sages.
Rabbi Eliezer then asks for confirmations of his viewpoint—the uprooting of a carob tree, the reversal of a stream’s course, the fall of a schoolhouse—and those things then happen, except for the falling of the schoolhouse, which only partially happens. Rabbi Joshua says that Rabbi Eliezer is wrong to so interfere in a halakic dispute, and so the schoolhouse does not fall all of the way. (There is a fall, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, but it is incomplete, out of respect for Rabbi Joshua.) Rabbi Eliezer then asks for a voice from heaven to support his viewpoint, and it does so, but Rabbi Joshua responds that the Torah is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12). Rabbi Jeremiah is then cited to explain the significance of Rabbi Joshua’s point: the Torah is no longer in heaven, but it is on earth, and God has given to Jewish leaders the authority to interpret it. And, because Exodus 23:2 upholds majority rule, and the Sages’ view is contrary to that of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer loses out, regardless of what God says. At this point, God laughingly exclaims that his children have beaten him!
Most of the treatments of the story that I have encountered stop here. Different people have used the story for their own ends—either to defend halakah, or a liberal version of Judaism that recognizes the changing values of the community as opposed to a timeless will of God. But I first learned from Neil Gillman, a theologian at Jewish Theological Seminary, that there is more to the story. Gillman said that there was disaster after Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion was rejected. And, in Peshat and Derash, David Halivni discusses the rest of the story.
As the story continues, the objects that Rabbi Eliezer declared clean were burned in fire as impure, and Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated. Rabbi Akiva offers to be the one who will tell Rabbi Eliezer the news, for Akiva does not want a tactless person to break the news to Rabbi Eliezer, for that could destroy the world. Rabbi Akiva puts on black garments and tells Rabbi Eliezer of his excommunication, and Rabbi Eliezer mourns. At that point, there is a natural cataclysm, as the world and its crops are smitten. Rabbi Eliezer gains the power to burn up stuff just by looking at it. Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi who helped to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer, realizes when he’s in his ship and a fierce wave is about to drown him that this calamity is due to what happened to Rabbi Eliezer. Rabban Gamaliel then tells God that he did not help to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer for his own benefit or the benefit of his house, but rather to keep the peace in Israel. At that point, the sea calms down.
Ima Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer and the sister of Rabban Gamaliel, restricts her husband’s prayer because she fears that God will punish her brother if Rabbi Eliezer cries out against him. But, for some reason (which is debated), she relaxes her watch on her husband, who then has the opportunity to fall on his face and to cry out to God against Rabban Gamaliel. As a result, Rabban Gamaliel dies. She then says that all gates are locked, except for wounded feelings, and I do not know what this means—if the wounded feelings are those of Rabbi Eliezer on account of his excommunication, or of his wife, whose error or neglect Rabbi Eliezer exploited when he prayed against Rabban Gamaliel. In any case, that statement forms a bridge to the next discussion, which concerns not wounding people’s feelings.
On page 108 of Peshat and Derash, Halivni asks why God punishes the condemnation of Rabbi Eliezer, after God had affirmed that Rabbi Eliezer’s view was illegitimate on account of its rejection by the majority. Halivni wonders if the problem was that the majority silenced Rabbi Eliezer from teaching, even though there is a strong tradition in rabbinic Judaism of respecting minority opinions. That upset God, who unleashed his wrath to vindicate Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Eliezer is a controversial figure. One view is that Rabbi Eliezer was stubborn, whereas another view is that he was meek, for this is the only time that he defends his position against the majority. (The notes on my Judaic Classics Library attribute the former view to Weiss, and the latter to Halevy.) And, according to Halivni (on page 207), the Palestinian Talmud is even more on the side of Rabbi Eliezer than is the Babylonian Talmud.
At this point, I will turn to the Palestinian Talmud’s version of the story, which is in Chapter 3 of Moed Qatan, amidst a discussion about excommunication. This story starts with Rabbi Akiva going to Rabbi Eliezer to inform him that he has been excommunicated. Rabbi Eliezer then calls on the carob tree to uproot itself and return to its place if the law is according to his view, and the carob tree does so. The question is then asked of whether or not Rabbi Eliezer was aware that he should follow the majority, even when it was in error. The answer is that Rabbi Eliezer only started to have a problem when people burned the items that he had declared clean. Cataclysm erupts, as the assembly house’s columns shake, and Rabbi Eliezer has the power to incinerate things just by looking at them. Rabbi Joshua challenges Rabbi Eliezer’s right to interfere in a halakic discussion, and a voice from heaven then affirms Rabbi Eliezer’s position. Rabbi Joshua responds that the Torah is not in heaven. The text then mentions some doubt that certain teachings have been correctly attributed to Rabbi Eliezer, then there is a story about Rabbi Eliezer going through the market, and a woman cleaning her house throws dirt on his head. Rabbi Eliezer then draws comfort from Psalm 113:7 (“From the dung heap he will raise up the poor”) that he would be accepted once more by his colleagues, who had excommunicated him.
Halivni speculates that, again, the problem here is that the burning of the items that Rabbi Eliezer declared clean “deprived him of the right to advocate his dissenting view, thus exceeding the Law, which commands to incline after the majority only in matters practical” (page 207). I do not entirely understand what Halivni means here, for the purity of an oven does strike me as a practical concern, and those who burned the items may have thought that they were merely enforcing the law and cleansing Israel of impurity. But perhaps Halivni has something specific in mind when he uses the phrase “matters practical”. In any case, what I see in both versions of this story is that the majority has a right to determine halakah, but that it did not go about it the right way in the case of Rabbi Eliezer, for it treated Rabbi Eliezer in a manner that God did not approve.