Probably the most popular story in the Talmud is the story of the modular oven, its parts connected by sand so that it functioned as a unit, but its parts remained somewhat independent of each other. The question before the Sages was whether this should be considered a finished vessel, and therefore subject to the rules of purity and impurity, or whether it was technically under construction and therefore not subject to these rules. The principle being that an unfinished vessel does not have the potential to become impure until it has reached its finished state.
The Sages declare that it is indeed finished enough while Rabbi Eliezer disagrees and says that it is not. At this point the fireworks begin. Rabbi Eliezer has a number of parlor tricks that he invokes in order to prove that his is the correct opinion. Streams are twisted around, carob trees jump several football fields, the walls of the Beit Midrash begin to collapse, and finally a heavenly voice descends and announces: The law always goes according to Rabbi Eliezer!
None of these “proofs” impress his colleagues, not even the heavenly voice. Quoting from the Torah, they say, “It (the Torah) is not heaven”, and “After the majority one must incline”. Later on, one of the sages sees Elijah the Prophet in the marketplace and asks how the Holy One reacted to the seeming impudence of those sages, and Elijah said, God smiled and said, “My children have defeated me! They have defeated me!”
When retold, most people stop the story at this stage, but the story goes on. The sages invalidate all of Rabbi Eliezer’s decisions that applied to the purity laws and if that weren’t enough, they decide to formally censure him, and exclude him from their circle. Rabbi Eliezer having been shunned is terribly upset and the power of his pain has the potential to create spiritual upheaval in the world. His immediate household is on constant vigil not to let him say the prayers that are used as an outlet for personal grief. One day, his wife, who is the Nasi’s (the head of the court’s) wife miscalculates the new moon when these prayers are not said, only to find Rabbi Eliezer saying the prayers that have the potential to bring on calamity. She rushes in and says, “Stop! You’re killing my brother!” When asked how does she know this? She answers, “All the gates of prayer are closed except for the gates of wounded feelings!”
Rabban Gamliel, the head of the court had indeed died. The Mishnah for which this Talmudic passage is a commentary, is concerned with hurtful speech and its reprecussions. This Gemara is brought by the editors to illustrate the seriousness of causing anguish to another individual whether it be by speech or by action. There is an implicit critique of the exclusion of Rabbi Eliezer, even if the decision of the majority was validated by God’s approval. The overreaching of authority has disastrous consequences that lead to the demise of the leader of the Beit Din. The same leader who has been challenged for overreaching before and especially for humiliating his colleague and adversary, Rabbi Yehoshua.
There was a textual overreach as well that was corroborated by God Himself. When the sages quote, “after the majority one must incline” the context of the verse is saying that one should not justify wicked actions by rationalizing that he was going along with the majority. By subverting the context of the verse, the sages are co-opting the verse to refute Rabbi Eliezer. This, the story tells us, is a legitimate use of rabbinic authority, but when it comes to shunning a colleague, the overreaching of authority suffers profound consequences.
Why do most people choose not to learn this lesson from the story, and instead, choose to end it earlier? It may be that the drama of refuting a heavenly voice and winning is what interests most people, and therefore the story is brought to validate rabbinic authority.
I think, however, it says something very unattractive about those who would leave Rabbi Eliezer’s wounded feelings out of the mix. They hide behind the triumph of the argument which in fact is ultimately a pyrrhic victory. A short term legislative win that has terminal consequences for Rabban Gamliel whose court was seemingly over concerned about preserving authority. To subjugate God’s word to fanciful interpretations is the licence given when the Torah declares “It is not heaven”. That same licence, however, does not imply when one is trying to subjugate another human being–especially not a colleague.
This is what the court did not understand, and this is what so many re-counters of this story fail to grasp when they end this story on such a triumphant note.
The Torah may not be in heaven, but we better be careful how we use it. For a look at the narrative, click here