The Talmud goes on to record Elijah the Prophet’s report of God’s reaction: “The Almighty laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have eternalized Me,” (the Hebrew nitzhuni can mean both things).
Rabbi Shlomo Riskina: Halacha Is Not Decided In Heaven
Daniel Boyarin in his essay Old Wine in New Bottles: Intertextuality and Midrash, sees in this story (and Midrash in general) an example of “recreating a new moment of “Oral Torah,” which is, at the same time, always a new and present text as well as a reading of the Written Torah. In literary terms, there is a tension between the meaning of the quoted text in its “original” context and in its present context. What is so striking (and strange) about midrash is its claim that the new context is implied by the old one, that the new meanings (Oral Torah) revealed by recontexting of pieces of the authoritative text, are a legitimate interpretation of the Written Torah itself and indeed given with the very revelation thereof…”
So much for traditional midrash. According to Boyarin, this story goes one step further
“The point which has been missed is that R. Yehoshua’s “It is not in heaven” is an out of context citation. (ed. see above and the full text of Deuteronomy 30: 12 and what follows) R. Yehoshua is arguing with God from God’s own Text. You have given up Your right as Author and even as Divine Voice to interpret Your Torah when You said, “It is not in heaven.” But R. Yehoshua’s act is not only constative, describing or making a claim about interpretation, it is also performative, instituting and creating by its doing, the Oral Torah. For “it is not in heaven” is itself not in heaven. R. Yehoshua breaks it out of context and re-cites it in his own…
Without fanfare, R. Yehoshua uncovers radical new meaning in this verse, simply by reinscribing it in a new context. “It is not in heaven” does not mean only that the Torah is not beyond human reach but that it is beyond Divine reach, as it were. And God laughing with pleasure admits that R. Yehoshua, the faithful disciple, has indeed discovered a meaning which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, even though He Himself was not aware of it until now. “My children have defeated Me”; they have striven with Me and won. God laughed and, in that laugh, midrash was born.”
Boyarin points out that the unnecessary commentary on “it is not in heaven” based on the second text of “following the majority” is a late addition. R. Yermiah, its author, lived centuries later than the tannaitic protagonists of the story itself.
“Yermiah’s approach is tamer than the “original” meaning of R. Yehoshua’s statement, precisely because it does not involve the wresting of the Torah from Heaven in its very utterance, as his does. R. Yermiah talks about the absolute right of the interpreter to interpret; R. Yehoshua demonstrates how radical that right is. …. God’s assent to this radical act, His laugh of pleasure, establishes its legitimacy and thereby figures the regenerating and preserving function of the intertext.
Midrash is interpretation because it shows how meaning is created in the (nearly) infinite dialogical relations of text to text within the Torah and of the readers’ discourse to that of the Other.”
We would like to tell you a story.
A story from one page of the Talmud.
About Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Hyrcanus, was a great teacher of Torah.
In his House of Study, he used to sit upon a stone and teach.
That stone, people used to say was like Mount Sinai --
and Rabbi Eliezer,
when he sat upon it,
was like the Holy Ark of the Covenant.
But when Rabbi Eliezer's anger burned inside him
(as you will soon hear in the story of the oven),
his eyes consumed everything that fell within his gaze.
Twenty or thirty years after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, the Holy City of Jerusalem still lay smoldering. The Rabbis of Blessed Memory did everything in their power to maintain harmony among the people and preserve the ancient ways of life.
But, in those days, one minor dispute could set off a huge conflagration.
And so it happened when Rabbi Eliezer
stood alone against the opinion of the majority.
Rabbi Eliezer was one.
The Rabbis of Blessed Memory were many.
Rabbi Eliezer was dangerous.
He brought divisiveness to the people of Israel.
That was the end of the story .
In the middle of the story,
a terrible blessing/curse (say at the same time)
was decreed upon Rabbi Eliezer.
A horrible decree by the congregation of Rabbi Gamliel,
"No one shall come within four cubits of your body."
As great as Rabbi Eliezer was,
as exalted as was his soul,
to that same measure the Rabbis wished to punish him
so he would not serve as an example
and bring divisiveness to the people of Israel.
These times were difficult
after the destruction of the Temple.
There was chaos among the people,
and the Sanhedrin, led by Rabbi Gamliel,
tried to set standards of conduct.
"For the miracles Rabbi Eliezer has performed,
for his supernatural deeds --
uprooting carob trees!
causing the river flow upstream!
summoning a Heavenly Voice --
In the name of the Rabbis
and in the name of Rabbi Gamliel, the Leader of the Sanhedrin,
let every object which Rabbi Eliezer has declared clean and pure
be burnt to ash!
So that no one will follow in your footsteps
and undermine the opinion of the majority."
they collected every object declared clean and pure by Rabbi Eliezer
and set it all on fire.
Fom: A PAGE OF TALMUD by Danny Horowitz
Synopsis: In a town in Spain, the Grand inquisitor is Burning Jews in the public square.. Christ arrives, apparently reborn on Earth. As he walks through the streets, the people gather about him, staring. He begins to heal the sick, but his ministrations are interrupted by the arrival of a powerful cardinal who orders his guards to arrest Christ with the intention of burnbing Him the next day along with the Jews. Late that night, this cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, visits Christ’s cell and explains why he has taken him prisoner and why he cannot allow Christ to perform his works.
'Hast Thou the right to reveal to us one of the mysteries of that world from which Thou hast come?'. 'No, Thou hast not; that Thou mayest not add to what has been said of old, and mayest not take from men the freedom which Thou didst exalt when Thou wast on earth. Whatsoever Thou revealest anew will encroach on men's freedom of faith; for it will be manifest as a miracle, and the freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then, "I will make you free"? But now Thou hast seen these "free" men,' 'Yes, we've paid dearly for it,' he 'but at last we have completed that work in Thy name. For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. Dost Thou not believe that it's over for good? Thou lookest meekly at me and deignest not even to be wroth with me. But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this Thy freedom?'"
to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned,' Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us., Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?'"
From THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV By Fyodor Mikailovich Dostoevsky Translated by Constance Garnett Chapter 5 The Grand Inquisitor
“The Oven of Aknai” as a tragedy cast in narrative form, a mimetic representation of a serious action that extends the magnitude of that seriousness to the audience, and that impresses on the audience the
power of the Divine. It is even possible to attribute to either or both R. Gamliel and R. Eliezer the character of the tragic hero; both are exemplars of Rabbinic “royalty” and both can be perceived as the possessors of a fatal flaw. The tragic flaw of R. Eliezer is his insistence on the rightness of his interpretation of Halacha, regardless of the price that his individualism exacts from his Rabbinic colleagues and its affect on the Jewish community; that of R. Gamliel is his failure to exert the
authority of his position and intervene in order to prevent the ona’at devarim of R. Eliezer’s excommunication.
The episode begins, almost laconically, with a typically succinct Talmudic statement of differing opinions: “Rabbi Eliezer declares it ritually pure and the Sages declare it ritually impure.” Yet an investigation of the complex symbolism of the oven symbolizes the opposing perspectives
of R. Eliezer and the Sages and the enormity of what is at stake. For this is no mere academic argument, or even a theological discourse. Rather, the contest between R. Eliezer and his rabbinic colleagues over
whether the oven should be considered as a series of segments or as a complete entity signifies a contest of values that pits autonomy against communality.
In choosing compromise, neither falling nor standing erect, the walls of the Beit Midrash enact the choice of compromise, exemplifying the middle way: respect both for R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. The walls “remain leaning to this day,” a reminder both of the historic dispute and of the possibility of compromise.
the title of “The Oven of Aknai” encapsulates two potent images. An oven is a matrix; it is intimately connected with fire, the agent of purification and destruction, and, in doubled irony, the oven
is the object of contested purity that foreshadows the Sages’ burning of every object that R. Eliezer has declared ritually pure. Since ovens, fires and furnaces symbolize spiritual trial, the dispute over the oven
becomes the appropriate medium for the spiritual contest between R.cEliezer and the Sages. Ovens are also troped as mother-symbols, andc he centrality of the oven also prepares the reader for the crucial role
of the symbolically-named Imma Shalom, who protects her brother through watching over her husband and whose own spiritual trial is expressed in her final words, since she knows, better even than her
husband, the power of tears.
the snake in the ancient world, including the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, was widespread, and its significance was of a dual nature, associated with both destructive and protective powers. In Torah,
too, the snake is a potent symbol, and it figures prominently at two seminal junctures the story of Gan Eden in Beresheit and in Moses’ setting the brass serpent on a pole in B’midbar at G-d’s behest, both
as an antidote to venomous snakebites and to attract the people’s eyes from earthly chaos to focus, instead, on the heavens. In similar vein, the snake-shaped-and-named coiled oven, the catalyst that exposes the poisonous dispute between R. Eliezer and the Sages, embodies the potential for destruction or protection of both R. Eliezer and R. Gamliel and of life itself. This moral tale for the Jewish people makes clear, as its plot unfolds, that the escalation of differing viewpoints into onna’at
devarim can, indeed, end in the shedding of blood.
In ignoring the dicta that all Israel is responsible for one another, that one should not wrong his neighbor, and that one who causes ona’at devarim in public forfeit his share in the world-to-come, the
Sages clearly indicate that they are not motivated merely by the desire to settle matters of Halacha. In intentionally and publicly inflicting ona’at devarim upon R. Eliezer, the Sages forfeit their claim to wisdom as surely as they display their own spiritual impurity; appropriately, the revelation of their spiritual nadir comes at the height of narrative tension.
Indeed, when the wave a watery symbol of destruction that has swollen in volume from the streams of R. Eliezer’s tears rises against him, ready to drown him, R. Gamliel does not pretend to be ignorant of the reason. He acknowledges that “this can only be happening to me because of the anguish caused to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.” The only word missing in his acknowledgment is “I”, but, as he rises in the self-defense that has been denied R. Eliezer and gives his explanation “no individual, great as he may be, should reject a decision reached by the majority, so that controversies will not multiply in Israel” the sea “rest[s]” from its wrath. But rest is not cessation. R. Gamliel makes no overture of reconciliation to R. Eliezer; his excommunication is not nullified, his anguish is not assuaged. R. Gamliel does not exert his leadership to repair the consequences of the onna’at devarim that has devastated his brother-in-law, and his failure to act presages the end of the narrative.
The Talmud Revisited: Tragedy and “The Oven of Aknai” By Janet Madden