Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Favorite Aggadot

Jameel pointed me towards this interesting story:

YNET and Bnei Akiva teamed up to host the "Aggadic Appreciation Competition" and asked 6 "people of the arts" to state their favorite "Aggada" -- and people can vote for their favorite one.

...What's your favorite aggadah?

I gave it some thought, then came up with these two stories, both featuring, not surprisingly, some independent streaks of thought.

Has someone come back? Makkot 23b:

In discussing a matter of Jewish theology, several rabbis got into an argument. Rabbi Yochanan said, “The colleagues of Rabbi Chanania disagree with his opinion.” Rabbi Ada b. Ahaba said in the name of Rabh, “The Halakah nevertheless agrees with Rabbi Chanania. Rabbi Joseph, rebuking him, said, “How do you know? Has someone gone to Heaven and come back?”

The point of this short excerpt (indeed, the story continues, with another rabbi attempting to explain to Joseph, somewhat lamely, how we can indeed know that the Halakah agrees with Rabbi Chanania) is to point out a very nice tendency in Judaism which I really like. Namely, that Jews tend to try to avoid claiming direct links to God.

Judaism has long prided itself on not believing in the necessity of any intermediaries between humans and God. Quite the contrary, Judaism maintains that all people have access to God. The interesting thing there, however, is the democratic impulse it implies. We are all in the same boat, Judaism claims. A rabbi is only distinguished from someone else by his learning. He is not spiritually distinct from other people. However, believing that people can connect with God is not the same thing as making the claim that
you know what God thinks. That seems to be the argument Rabbi Joseph is making. He is cautioning his fellows against saying, “Well, I know I’m right, God (or Halakah) said so.” Judaism is famous (or notorious) for its love of multiple, multiple, opinions. There are procedures in which opinions are codified and made authoritative, but they are always opinions, and, as anyone knows, opinions are something which everyone has.

The tale serves as a model for the participatory and democratic instinct in Judaism. Unaffiliated Jews who feel turned off by Judaism because they ask too many questions or because they don't think religion is interested in complex questions would do well to read this story. it reinforces that minority opinions do not equal being beyond the pale. This story demonstrates that Judaism is not always about getting answers, per se, but asking questions, and the desire to not just swallow other people’s answers, but to find, and question, on one's own.

I believe this is the spirit of Rabbi Joseph’s question; no one has all the answers. None of us know God’s mind, and it is nothing short of spiritual arrogance to claim otherwise. Judaism, for its part, is not afraid to admit this. Everyone has opinions, and there is room within the Jewish tent for them to, if not correspond, then at least coexist. Having a dissenting opinion does not mean that non-Orthodox Jews have to remain outside the tent.

Oven of Akhnai- Baba Metzia 59b:

There was a dispute between the rabbis regarding a certain oven, which had been constructed out of broken vessels and then cemented together in the shape of a serpent (“akhnai”). The question was whether the structure could be considered a simple oven, that is, a single, unified entity, and which therefore could transmit impurity, or if it should be seen as merely a composite of broken vessels, which cannot transmit impurity.

All the rabbis declared that the oven was a singular oven, and thus, “unclean”, except for one man, Rabbi Eliezer. Eliezer brought forth “every possible argument”, but his peers would not accept them. Frustrated, he tried a different tactic.

“If the Halakah is with me, let this tree prove it!” He pointed to a tree, and it flew through the air

His fellows were unimpressed. “No proof can be brought from a tree.”

Eliezer tried again. “If the Halakah agrees with me, let this stream prove it.” He glanced at a stream of water, and it began to flow backward.

“No proof can be brought from a stream.”

Frustrated, Rabbi Eliezer looked around and said, “If the Halakah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it,” at which point the walls began to fall. But another rabbi, Rabbi Joshua, angrily rebuked them and said, “When scholars are engaged in debate, what right have you to interfere?” And out of respect for both rabbis, the walls remained bent.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer stood before the others and declared, “If the Halakah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” And a Divine Voice, a Bat Kol, cried out from above: “Why do you disagree with Rabbi Eliezer? The Halakah always agrees with him!”

Rabbi Joshua stood up and protested, quoting the book of Deuteronomy: “You told us, ‘the Torah is not in Heaven’! We pay no attention to Divine Voices because long ago, at Sinai, You wrote in Your Torah, ‘After the majority must one incline!’”.

Many years later, a man named Rabbi Nathan, who had heard of the famous story, encountered the prophet Elijah, and asked him what “What was the Holy One’s reaction?” Elijah replied, “He laughed with joy, and said, ‘My children have defeated Me.’”

There is a lot going on in here. We have a group of rabbis debating an issue of purity after the destruction of the Temple, physically affirming their commitment to perpetuating Judaism, Temple or not. In addition, they are showing the full depths of their creativity now that they do not have to focus Judaism through the prism of the Temple. They are showing that Judaism can still exist without the Temple and Priestly system; that its central message and ethos can transcend the material requirements it presently lacks. We also see a somewhat surprising representation of God- rather than a stern authority or an amorphous God-Israel love, we see a God with a sense of humor, whose reaction to being verbally shoved out of an argument is to chuckle. This has always brought a smile to my face.

As readers, we do not seem to know quite who to sympathize with: the underdog and miracle-worker, Eliezer, or his mostly nameless and faceless crowd of peers? I find this story personally fascinating because it demonstrates some of the most important values of Judaism to me. Christian friends of mine who have heard the story often take away a different interpretation. Eliezer is right, they say, and everything around him proves it- both natural phenomenon as well as the Divine Voice, a proxy of God. Therefore, Eliezer is right, case closed.

But these are not the values the story assigns within itself, and that is what is so intriguing. Even as Eliezer is making trees fly and water reverse itself, he is being told that these are invalid arguments. Not only do they not convince the other rabbis, at various points it is explicitly stated by Rabbi Joshua that these “outside interferences” are entirely inappropriate! Essentially, he tells nature, and the walls of the study hall, and even the Divine Voice of God, to “butt out!” How can we explain this?

To me, this exemplifies one of the really interesting things about Jewish tradition: there is a long history of being wary of people who claim to speak with the direct authority of God (see the first story discussed above). The Jewish sages long ago realized that no one has a “direct” line to God, that all of us are, at a basic level, just trying to figure things out. It was this same reasoning that led to genius rabbinical declarations that Jews should not waste their time contemplating the afterlife (which no one can really know much about anyway), or calculating/planning the arrival of the Messiah. The logic went, “You can’t know definitively, and there doesn’t seem to be much, if anything, to be gained, so why do it? Spend your time doing important things, like living.”

In that same vein, part of the reason for the vehemence of the argument, it seems, is that Rabbi Eliezer is trying to get around the issue of his inability to argue his case by relying on other proofs: trees, water, the voice of God, and so on. But, as Rabbi Joshua points out, you can’t prove anything that way. And, as if to make the point as explicit as possible, the story tosses in a direct confrontation between Joshua and the Bat Kol. This was the part my Christian friends really couldn’t get their heads around. “God’s voice just told this pipsqueak that Eliezer is right. Who does he think he is?”

In the simplest of terms, Joshua is a Jew par excellence, challenging God, part of a long chain stretching back to Abraham and Jacob. Someone can offer all the “proofs” in the world, someone can even claim to have a direct pipeline to God- Judaism doesn’t care. It’s irrelevant. Notice that Joshua doesn’t try to challenge the Bat Kol; he doesn’t try to say that it’s wrong. He just says, “We don’t listen to Bat Kols around here. You gave us the Torah. Now it’s ours. We have to struggle with it; we have to decide what it means. The Torah is not in Heaven.” In the course of the story, we see a sudden reversal of roles: suddenly Eliezer is the show-off, by claiming to know God’s true mind, by saying, “I am right, the Halakah is with me, everything agrees with me.” Joshua is now the underdog, not only arguing with Eliezer, but God, too.

It's also interesting that the story of Oven of Akhnai story is not about the oven as much as it is the debate, arguments and process of discussion. Similarly, Rabbi Joshua points out that God did not give the Jews uniform answers carved in stone; but a Torah to be discussed, analyzed, and debated. Again, we have an emphasis on process rather than end-result. Not only the written Torah was given to the Jews at Sinai, but also the Oral Torah, the process of Biblical interpretation and exegesis, which, perhaps more than anything, is the central point of Judaism: the idea that there is always something deeper. This story seems to exemplify that.

The addendum of God’s reaction is very interesting if only for the fact that it seems to reaffirm the spirit of the challenger Jew in Jewish folklore. In this story we actually have two challenger Jews: Eliezer who challenges his fellow Jews, and Joshua, who challenges God. I believe that it is the obligation of every Jew to embody both these impulses, and that it is only in this way that Judaism can remain dynamic, just as it had to in the days of Eliezer and Joshua. If this story is any indication, God does not mind being challenged; in fact the suggestion seems to be that, just as a parent rejoices in seeing their child succeed, the Jewish God desires something similar. God does not want automatons; God does not want little Jewish robots who already know what is right and what is wrong. God wants us to struggle with it. God wants us to be devoted to the process of Judaism and Jewish-ness, to the process of discovering, or deciding, what those terms mean. Again, we see the focus not on the end of the race, but on the process of action.

There is one more gloss here, and it is one that I think is just as important as everything else that has been said. If the story is about anything, it is about respect, or perhaps the lack of it. Neither side of the disputation is willing to give an inch; neither side shows the slightest sign of being willing to even consider the other’s point of view. Eliezer essentially throws a tantrum when he cannot win the argument rationally, and throws his surroundings into disarray, both literally as well as metaphorically. It is not dissimilar from cursing someone out when you cannot out-argue them. For their own parts, Joshua and his supporters are not much better. If there is one example in this story that all Jews could benefit from emulating, it is the walls of the House of Study: who, out of respect for both rabbis, neither fall down, nor stand up, but bend. Only the walls, who ironically are made of brittle material that by definition is not made to bend, be physically capable of bending, are willing to do so. More than anything else that happens in this story, is that not the most fantastical thing of all?

Maybe some of my readers see themselves in this story. I know I do, in all of the different characters. I have been Eliezer, the individualist, perhaps a little too proud and a little too obstinate in my desire to be both right as well as free from others’ control. I have been Joshua, refusing to see anyone else’s point of view. And, on a very few occasions, I have tried to be the walls, if not agreeing with, then at least respecting, the positions of others.

We must learn to be aware of the process; we must remind ourselves that the law is not in Heaven, but with us. And perhaps, most of all, we should learn to bend.


Sholom said...

For writing so well, you don't elicit very many comments.

I've never considered the concept of a "favorite" agada, but I've always had a soft spot for that one.

Banai Nitzchuni! My children have triumphed over me!

I mean, the whole concept of Yisra'el is embodied in this.

For you have wrestled with gods and with men, and you have prevailed.

Your Christian friends will never understand this, as theirs is a tradition which looks to grilled cheese sandwiches and oil spills for a connection to the divine.

“God’s voice just told this pipsqueak that Eliezer is right. Who does he think he is?”

He's Eliezer! Duh!

This is an attitude embedded throughout the entire Jewish corpus. From Abraham's haggling over the possibility of righteous people in a wicked city, to the soliloquies of Tevye the milkman. (The original stories, not that sappy musical.)

Funny V-word: pareces (plural of parex)

Sholom said...

Correction: He's Rabbi Joshua! Duh!

Funny V-word: crayinca