Thursday, January 12, 2012

Talmudic Lessons for the Wanna-Be's

I was lucky enough to be in Boston recently on the day Elie Wiesel gave the second of his three annual lectures at Boston University, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend (especially since he was introduced by Deanna Klepper, chair of the BU Department of Religion and wife of Beth Emet’s former cantor, the renowned Jeff Klepper.)

Prof. Wiesel’s subject was Eliezer ben Hyrcanus—Eliezer the Great, one of the rabbis whose insights are found in the Talmud and well-documented in Pirke Avot, in which Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai essentially describes Rabbi Eliezer as smarter (or does he mean more worthy?) than his four other disciples put together. 

Yet Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated following a dispute in which he steadfastly disagreed with the other sages--a strange situation for the same avot who set such store by the values of study, discussion, dissention, debate and interpretation. 

I have little doubt that Prof. Wiesel was actually making a crucial statement about what is happening too often in our political discourse here in the United States. And it should serve as a lesson to our leaders as they return to Washington for more Congressional shenannigans—as well as to us and our wanna-be leaders as we head into election season.

Legend has it that the debate that caused Rabbi Eliezer such trouble was over whether a certain oven was ritually pure. The oven was a special type, built in a certain way. Rabbi Eliezer argued rationally that it was pure, while all the others argued it was impure. Despite Torah’s requirements to comply with the rule of the majority, Rabbi Eliezer remained firm. When his rational arguments failed to convince them, Rabbi Eliezer turned to the supernatural. If this oven is pure, may this carob tree prove it, he said. And the tree was torn out by its roots and blown away. Still, his colleagues were unconvinced. May this stream of water prove it, he tried. And the stream flowed backward. With the others still unimpressed, he called on the walls of the building to prove his point, and they began to topple. But the other sages shamed the walls for interfering in an issue of law, and they ceased falling. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called upon Heaven to verify his interpretation, and Heaven scolded the others for disagreeing with Rabbi Eliezer.

The sages, however, invoked the laws of Torah as the operative authority over “the celestial intruder” and, out of Rabbi Eliezer’s presence, declared all his earlier legal opinions regarding purification matters invalid, and then excommunicated him.

“Isn’t the Talmud based on dialogue?” Prof. Wiesel asked. “Isn’t that which makes it so glorious, transcending time and frontier and fashion? Which means, isn’t the Talmud a celebration of the right to be different? To demonstrate the beauty of discussion and dissention? Why then should the great Rabbi Eliezer be punished and ostracized… and ultimately expelled from the academy? Only because he believed in it and he had the courage to say in what he believed?...His voice is personal, solitary—so what?  Is it so bad to be a minority of one?”

His conclusion is that Rabbi Eliezer’s mistake “was to call upon heaven rather than on logic…Talmudic debates, as all debates, are, and must be, rational, logical. They must take place at the human level. Once you introduce the supernatural element, it dominates the discussion and in effect, eliminates the participants. Such an attitude is dangerous…They were angry not with his views, although they disagreed with them, but with his methods.” 

And those methods involved God’s opinion in a case that rested on points of law. “They were not arguing about mysticism, or poetry…” Prof. Wiesel said both sides should have argued legal issues. Rabbi Eliezer, he said, “should have reasoned with them, drawing on his knowledge and experience. He should have used filibuster tactics to prevail upon them…(seeking) evidence from different sources, formulating new interpretations” to convince his friends, rather than relying on supernatural and divine judgments.  

“The sages,” Prof. Wiesel noted, “sought to avoid conflicts, disputes, fragmentation. They were not against minority views, nor were they against different opinions. They were against fanatic opinions. And none is as fanatic as the one that claims to derive from heaven. Such attitudes inevitably provoke splits. And in those critical times, with the Temple ruins still in everyone’s memory, the Jewish people needed unity of purpose and an awareness of man’s duty and power in order to be able, literally to be able, to dream of the new glory and sovereignty.” 

Substitute a few words in that paragraph, like “World Trade Center” for Temple, and “American” for Jewish, and you have a contemporary lesson. Concluded Prof. Wiesel, “Had Rabbi Eliezer used his human qualities…he would have remained their friend and their teacher...”

Can someone please pass along his lesson to our Congress and the wanna-be’s?

Janet Reed


Larry Kaufman said...

I've been exposed to this story many times before, but it's never made sense to me until now. Thanks, Janet (and Elie Weisel) for the cogent explanation.

Janet Reed said...

Please be assured I thought of you while attending the lecture as well as while writing the blog!
I'd love your opinion on whether he was indeed commenting on today's political rhetoric. If you want to hear the whole lecture, you can access it at From the menu, go to programs, then World of Ideas, and scroll down to In the Talmud: The Greatness of Rabbi Eliezer... His other lectures from this year are also available on that page. Thanks for the comment.