The Oven of Akhnai...

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StevenD
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The Oven of Akhnai...

Post by StevenD » Wed May 19, 2010 3:00 am

Greetings Emmet,

Thanks for reading and presumably taking the time to think through a response. The following is mainly what I had posted the other night; however, I did make a couple alterations for clarity sake.

Having noticed mention of "The Oven of Akhnai" within the last segment of your post, I'm not certain that I see clear correspondence between the Lordship of Jesus and the sort of power structure imposed by the rabbinic community. It's possible that while reading your last post I lost some perspective; regardless, the manner by which the rabbinic council bounced Eliezer from his seat fails to sustain the integrity required by a consistent reading of both the Scriptures as a whole and the Torah in specific.

The ultra-literal use of the proof-text lifted from Deuteronomy 30:12 ("It is not in heaven") fails to handle objections to the structure that the rabbis might have intended to bolster. The interpretation which the rabbis prescribed may even be challenged by their own early precept of 'gezarah shavah' ('equal cutting' - corresponding words/phrases shed light on other such words/phrases located within the text). After all, Psalm 119:89 mentions "Forever, O LORD, thy word is established in heaven."

Beyond the counter-intuitive nature of the rabbinic interpretation applied to Deut. 30:12, another statement is asserted which you might have overlooked while placing emphasis upon Gamaliel's desire to preserve "Jewish unity" and honor to "the Lord of the Universe". Between 'events' recorded within b. Baba Metsia 59a-59b - after the mention of "It is not in heaven" and just before the description suggesting that [the Holy One] "was laughing and saying my children have prevailed over me, my children have prevailed over me" a verse from Exodus 23 (verse 2 to be precise) is grossly misrepresented within the Talmudic story. Although the Biblical text instructs that one should not speak up in a cause to turn after a multitude to twist judgment, the Talmudic citation fails to acknowledge the negative element within the passage. In other words, as recorded in the Talmud, the text is reframed in such a manner as to suggest the opposite meaning as that found within the Scriptures. The Talmud suggests - "follow/incline after the majority" (אחרי רבים להטת).

This sort of exegetical technique fails to maintain what I understand to be an acceptable level of integrity in handling Divine instructions, not to mention the method's failure to establish grounds for an authoritative interpretive community. Consequently, ‘Rabbi’ Gamaliel’s special plea for pragmatic justification in the interests of maintaining Jewish unity and honor for “the Lord of the universe” appears rather disqualified by merit of a lack of competency and/or reverence demonstrated by him via the early rabbinic exposition of Scripture.

The concept advanced by the rabbis appears to affirm a position categorically opposed to the candid expression found within the Scripture verse referenced (by means of neglecting elemental aspects of the verse). It is worth noting that Exodus 23:2 suggests that contrary to giving consent to the majority, one should “not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law].” [Hebrew: לֹא-תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי-רַבִּים לְרָעֹת וְלֹא-תַעֲנֶה עַל-רִב לִנְטֹת אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּת]. Exodus 23:2 – English and Hebrew: The Stone Edition Tanach (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1999). “The prooftexts cited by Yehoshua and R. Yirmiah, ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deut. 30:12) and ‘Incline after the majority’ (Exod. 23:2), have different – and quite opposite – meanings in their original contexts. They are interpreted by the sages to give themselves authority to overrule the divine will. The sages’ claim to interpretive authority, then, ultimately depends on the very interpretive authority that it claims!” Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 41.

Meanwhile, the book of Deuteronomy does instruct its reader to anticipate the coming of a prophet greater than Moses who is to be listened to (Deut. 18:15-19). Evidently, whoever composed Deut. 34:9-12 was certain that such an individual had not yet risen up among the people. Christians understand Moses to have spoken prophetically of Jesus (Acts 3:22-26) while the majority of the religious Jewish population had rejected this interpretation. In light of the destruction of the Second Temple, it is not surprising to me that the text might be exploited in such a manner by a religious society with vested hopes of maintaining religious solidarity and order. Understandably, such hopes must have faced a difficult challenge in attempts to recover from a dismantling blow of this magnitude. The fact that the timing of the judgment which Jesus prophesied to come upon the society (Mt. 23-24) corresponds with the subsequent levelling of the temple structure may have even provoked the re-framers of Judaism to expedite their efforts in redirecting the interests of their fractured community. "The Oven of Akhnai" appears to bear literary record to the nature and character of the leadership of that community.

A note that I plucked from R. Burton Visotzky (Reading the Book, p. 42) points out that “once religious authority ceased to be vested in the temple and as a result ceased to be vested in the Bible that promoted that temple, authority moved from the Word to the readers of the Word.”

That's all for now - peace in Christ,

Steve D.
p.s. I plan to be out of town for a couple weeks (Georgia/South Carolina), so I may take a bit of time before posting another response. The evening that I wrote this I had just returned from large lamb dinner with David Bacon and company (I tend to be a veggie), so I was concerned that I might have went on somewhat of a carnivorous rant – thanks again for your response...

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kaufmannphillips
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Re: The Oven of Akhnai...

Post by kaufmannphillips » Wed May 19, 2010 1:50 pm

Thanks, Steve, for re-posting your response in this forum.

I'll tack in some of the background here:
BrianK wrote:
That's a very good illustration of taking things to extremes.

On the one hand, you have those who want to make Christianity so comfortable that topics such as sin, repentance and obedience are either not brought up or glossed over.

On the other hand, you have those who want to counteract this by almost reacting same way the law givers did after the Babylonian exile, when they "cracked down" and added extra laws. Thus a more appropriate adjective might be oppressed.
kaufmannphillips wrote:
...

:arrow: The diction of “repressed” was ported over from the original Python sketch. But when it comes to the Jewish “law givers,” I suppose that many Christian commentators lack a full appreciation of the issue.

Not all of the commandments in the Torah are explicated in great detail. This can afford a practitioner a great deal of latitude when deciding how to fulfill a commandment. This flexibility can be an asset on an individual level, as the construct can be fine-tuned in a variety of ways to address different personal needs.

But the situation is different at the communal level. When individual practitioners come together, they may find that their ways of fulfilling a commandment conflict with each other. In various circumstances, it may be necessary to establish a common way of practice.

(a) The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.”

Moses' father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!

You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”

So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves.
{Exodus 18:13-26, ESV}

As we see here, disputes arise in the community, and though it is burdensome, a format is established so that these disputes can be settled. Of course, the disputes could be left unsettled, but this could result in a fractious community, relatively weak and unable to cooperate effectively.

(b) Later on, in Deuteronomy, we find:

If any [matter] arises requiring decision between one [blood] and another, one [judgment] and another, or one [diagnosis] and another, [matters] within your [gates] that [are] too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.

Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.

The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.
{vv. 8-13, ESV, alt.}

Here the situation is intensified: the establishment of social order and/or authority is such a priority that refusing to respect the resolution to a dispute becomes a capital offense.

(c) Such is the background for Matthew 23:

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.’ {vv. 1-3, ESV}

To the extent that the scribes and Pharisees served in the role of judges for their communities, their verdicts were to be respected – even if their examples were not to be followed.

(d) Let us journey a bit further with the thread, to the classic rabbinic case of “The Oven of Aknai”:

“We learned elsewhere: If he cut [an oven] into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile, Rabbi Eliezer declared it clean, and the [prevailing rabbis] declared it unclean – and this was the “oven of Aknai.” …

It has been taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but [the prevailing rabbis] did not accept them. Said he to them: 'If the [way to practice the law] agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place (others affirm, four hundred cubits). 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they retorted.

Again he said to them: 'If the [way to practice the law] agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. …

Again he said to them: 'If the [way to practice the law] agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven!' Whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: 'Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the [way to practice the law] agrees with him!' But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.'
{Baba Mesi’a 59}

In rabbinic accounts, the verdict that carries the day always comes last, so Rabbi Joshua’s exclamation settles the matter. But what did Joshua mean?

The reference is to Deuteronomy 30: The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
{vv. 9-14, ESV}

According to Deuteronomy, the voice of the Lord had already spoken. It had said to keep the laws of the book – a book that had been given to men on earth. And as we have seen above, the book said that it was up to men on earth to decide how to resolve difficult issues. The way to practice the law was therefore “not in heaven,” but in the hands of the priestly and/or judicial authority.

Understandably, this stunner of a vignette did not go without further commentary. There is one postscript in the talmudic text that many Jews may be familiar with: “Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be he, do in that hour? He laughed, he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me.' {Baba Mesi’a 59b}

This is a provocative postscript – but though it is worthy of attention, there is a further addendum that brings us back to our earlier theme:

It was said: On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then [the prevailing rabbis] took a vote and excommunicated him. They said, 'Who shall go and inform him?' 'I will go,' answered Rabbi Akiba, 'lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.'

What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. 'Akiba,' said Rabbi Eliezer to him, 'what has particularly happened to-day?' 'Master,' he replied, 'it appears to me that your companions hold aloof from you.' Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.

A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. Rabbi Gamaliel too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. 'It appears to me,' he reflected, 'that this is on account of none other but Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.' Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, 'Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house, but for yours, so that strife may not multiply in Israel!' At that the raging sea subsided.
{Baba Mesi’a 59b}

In this addendum, we find a defense for Gamaliel (not the one from the NT), who (according to annotation) was the chief Jewish leader and largely responsible for Eliezer’s excommunication. Gamaliel’s defense is that his concern was for Jewish unity, and ultimately for the honor of the Lord of the Universe.

This is the sort of element that many observers might overlook, when they are focusing on the “repression” of a figure like Rabbi Eliezer. Even though the individual may be important, there are broader concerns that come to bear. In the normal oversight of a community, a welter of controversies may emerge that have to be settled – even if doing so amounts to an imposition upon one or more parties.
I plan to reply to your post - by the first part of next week, perhaps.
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"The more something is repeated, the more it becomes an unexamined truth...." (Nicholas Thompson)
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kaufmannphillips
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Re: The Oven of Akhnai...

Post by kaufmannphillips » Sun Jun 27, 2010 10:45 pm

Steve – here are some rather tardy responses to particular points.

Please be patient with me if I state the obvious on a number of occasions. Not all readers here will have the background knowledge that you do.
SteveD wrote:
The ultra-literal use of the proof-text lifted from Deuteronomy 30:12 ("It is not in heaven") fails to handle objections to the structure that the rabbis might have intended to bolster. The interpretation which the rabbis prescribed may even be challenged by their own early precept of 'gezarah shavah' ('equal cutting' - corresponding words/phrases shed light on other such words/phrases located within the text). After all, Psalm 119:89 mentions "Forever, O LORD, thy word is established in heaven."
:arrow: RE: The interpretation which the rabbis prescribed may even be challenged by their own early precept of 'gezarah shavah'

There are perennially other approaches that one might take to a text. And talmudic literature gives a great deal of space to alternate opinions that do not prevail in determining the standard practice for the community.

Many persons are acquainted with the talmudic comment on a conflict between the interpretive “House”s of Hillel and Shammai:

Rabbi Abba said that Rabbi Samuel said: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated. These said, ‘The law is in accord with our position,’ and those said, ‘The law is in accord with our position.’

An echo came forth and said, ‘These and those are the words of the living G-d, but the decided law is in accord with the House of Hillel.’
{Bavli ‘Eruvin 13b}

(The tractate includes further discussion:

Well, then, if it is the fact that these and those both represent the words of the living G-d, how come the House of Hillel enjoyed the unearned grace of having the law decided in accord with their position?

Because they are easygoing and reticent; they repeated their opinion and also the opinion of the House of Shammai; and not only so, but they gave priority to the teachings of the House of Shammai over their own teaching.
)


Here we find the perspective that there can be more than one legitimate explication of Torah. And yet a settlement is made, by which a single standard is set for the community.

We may compare this with a nodule that I had pruned from our “oven” vignette:

So [Rabbi Eliezer] went and said to them, “If the law accords with my position, let the walls of the school house prove it.” The walls of the school house tilted toward falling. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying to them, “If disciples of sages are contending with one another in matters of law, what business do you have?” They did not fall on account of the honor owing to Rabbi Joshua, but they also did not straighten up on account of the honor owing to Rabbi Eliezer, and to this day they are still tilted.

This almost certainly is an etiological legend, of course; and it probably has been interpolated within our vignette’s more original form. But here we find a paradox of honor, afforded to opposing parties in the controversy.


:arrow: RE: ... fails to handle objections to the structure that the rabbis might have intended to bolster

Our vignette about the “oven of Aknai” may not address every argument that could be levied against the hermeneutic of “It is not in heaven.” But we may note that our vignette’s placement in Bavli Baba Mesi’a is due to other elements in the broader narrative, and not the hermeneutic itself. As it is, this incidental bit is afforded some tangential discussion; but perhaps we may be forbearing about the lack of a more extensive debate, given its setting.


:arrow: RE: The ultra-literal use of the proof-text lifted from Deuteronomy 30:12 ("It is not in heaven")

Talmudic literature can be extremely terse and allusive. Textual references can be given in highly abbreviated fashion, sometimes consisting of only a few words. But the broader context of those words may be taken into view, even if it is not being quoted verbatim.

If we look at Deuteronomy 30, we will find that there are a number of elements that are relevant to the “oven” controversy. I have quoted the immediate context previously: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” {vv. 11-14, ESV}

We can easily identify the immediate parallelism here: on the one hand, “not too hard for you”/”neither is it far off”; and on the other hand, “not in heaven”/”neither is it beyond the sea.” But we also may note the corresponding elements of the larger structure, which we may diagram as follows:

(A) this commandment ... is not too hard for you
(B) neither is it far off
(A’) it is not in heaven...
(B’) neither is it beyond the sea...
(B) the word is very near you
(A) it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it

Let’s engage this.

:idea: Given the structure as diagrammed above, our understanding of “not in heaven” should take into consideration “not too hard for you.”

To begin with, we may note the diction. Where the passage reads “not too hard for you” in the ESV, we may mine the Hebrew word rendered “hard” in two respects: on one hand, there is a potential connotation of wondrousness or marvelousness, employed on a number of occasions to refer to extraordinary acts of G-d; on another hand, there is a potential connotation of being separate.

Accordingly, the commandment is not so wondrous or so beyond humans that they cannot handle it. And this dovetails with the parallel that it is “not in heaven” – it is not a wonder that lies in the province of G-d, beyond the sphere of humanity.

And yet, there is more: within Deuteronomy, the root for the Hebrew word rendered “hard” appears on two other occasions. One of these is in the passage that I have quoted previously: “If any [matter] arises requiring decision between one [blood] and another, one [judgment] and another, or one [diagnosis] and another, [matters] within your [gates] that [are] too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.

Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.

The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.
” {17: 8-13, ESV, alt.; emphasis added}

Here, the ESV translates as “too difficult for you,” but the Hebrew root is the same. So, given the sort of mental maneuver that underlies gezerah shavah, this passage might be brought into the discussion.

And another thing, regarding the “connotation of wondrousness” and correlation with “extraordinary acts of G-d”: when Deuteronomy distinguishes the commandment from such marvels, this affords a rather adroit swipe at the sorts of “signs and wonders” that Rabbi Eliezer calls for in our vignette. If we may articulate a subtext: the commandment is not a matter of wondrousness and such – so what place do wonders and such have in defining it?

:idea: Given the structure as diagrammed above, our understanding of “not in heaven” should take into consideration “it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”

This redounds further to the sense that humans are capable to handle the commandment: “you can do it.”

But beyond this: the commandment lives in the hearts and mouths of Israel. Accordingly, if one is searching for the commandment, one turns to the congregation of Israel.

(Such a conclusion might be received skeptically by a Christian audience. But the rabbis were not Christians. And if the rabbis had an optimistic confidence in their own ability to articulate the word of God, well, I challenge the reader to identify a church that doesn’t feel likewise.)

So the parallelism affords a contrast: one does not go looking to heaven to find the commandment; one goes looking to the congregation of Israel. And if this seems out of order – one might argue, using Deuteronomy, that heaven has designated Israel (in the persons of its priests or judges) as the arbiter of the commandment. As such, heaven’s designated order is to subcontract articulation of the commandment to Israel.

:!: In summary, then: the commandment is not so wondrous or marvellous that it is beyond the sphere of humanity, relegated to the extraordinary province of G-d; and if interpreting the commandment might happen to become a matter for disagreement between some humans – as may well transpire – then the proper recourse is to bring it to the priestly or judicial authority, who can and will handle the matter (without need for recourse to signs and wonders).

Not all of these lines of reasoning are explicated in Bavli Baba Mesi’a, but something like them may lie behind the terse summation “It is not in heaven.”
SteveD wrote:
Beyond the counter-intuitive nature of the rabbinic interpretation applied to Deut. 30:12, another statement is asserted which you might have overlooked while placing emphasis upon Gamaliel's desire to preserve "Jewish unity" and honor to "the Lord of the Universe". Between 'events' recorded within b. Baba Metsia 59a-59b - after the mention of "It is not in heaven" and just before the description suggesting that [the Holy One] "was laughing and saying my children have prevailed over me, my children have prevailed over me" a verse from Exodus 23 (verse 2 to be precise) is grossly misrepresented within the Talmudic story.
A number of comments here...

:arrow: There is much in Jewish tradition that seems “counter-intuitive” to Christian minds. The inverse applies, too – there is much in Christian tradition that seems counter-intuitive to Jewish minds.

The two traditions have different hermeneutics and different matrices of meaning. So participants in one tradition may regard mental maneuvers in the other tradition as irregular, since they have not been steeped in the same interpretive environment.


:arrow: I had noticed the statement you refer to, attributed to Rabbi Jeremiah, but I did not include it in my earlier presentation.

It is worth mentioning that this portion of Bavli Baba Metsi’a can be engaged both as a unity and as a composite: as a unity – when considering the thought of the talmudic editor(s); yet as a composite – when delving behind the finished product to plumb its antecedents.

Though the talmudic editor(s) chose to include the viewpoint attributed to Rabbi Jeremiah, this does not necessarily mean that the Jeremiah viewpoint accurately reflects the significance of the “oven” vignette as it was originally intended, or the mental maneuverings of Rabbi Joshua in particular (if the vignette is based, to some extent or another, upon actual occurrence). The Jeremiah comment may be a secondary layer of reaction, which the talmudic editor(s) found significant and incorporated into the text.

When engaging the “oven” vignette, then, it may not be necessary to incorporate the Jeremiah comment – as I did not.

But since you have raised this subject, I will tender some response.
SteveD wrote:
[A] verse from Exodus 23 (verse 2 to be precise) is grossly misrepresented within the Talmudic story. Although the Biblical text instructs that one should not speak up in a cause to turn after a multitude to twist judgment, the Talmudic citation fails to acknowledge the negative element within the passage. In other words, as recorded in the Talmud, the text is reframed in such a manner as to suggest the opposite meaning as that found within the Scriptures. The Talmud suggests - "follow/incline after the majority" ...

{and}

The concept advanced by the rabbis appears to affirm a position categorically opposed to the candid expression found within the Scripture verse referenced (by means of neglecting elemental aspects of the verse). It is worth noting that Exodus 23:2 suggests that contrary to giving consent to the majority, one should “not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law].” ... Exodus 23:2 – English and Hebrew: The Stone Edition Tanach (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1999).
As I have mentioned, talmudic literature can be extremely terse in its formulation – to the point of obscurity, for many readers. The text can be quite skeletal, and the reasoning(s) behind it will not always be explicated. At times, it can require great effort to try and discern what is transpiring in a passage – to reconstruct the dynamic flow of ideas. This can be like attempting to follow an AM-radio broadcast while driving on the freeway; intermittently (and at times, inconveniently and frustratingly!), the signal drops out – and one is left to intuit what would have filled the gaps, as best one can.

Accordingly, we should not be quick to assume that the Jeremiah statement is haphazardly or arbitrarily inverting Exodus 23. There are a number of other possibilities...


:arrow: On one hand, the terse reference in the talmudic text may rest upon an inference from Exodus 23: because it is commanded not to follow the majority “unto evil,” one might infer that the general procedure is “you are to incline after the majority.”

We find something like this in Tosefta Sanhedrin 3.7: Rabbi says, “From the inference of that which is said, ‘You shall not follow after the many to do evil,’ I draw the inference that I should be with them to do good.”

And from the targums – the “Living” and “Amplified” bibles of their day – we find that this was a rather standard treatment of the verse:

My people, children of Israel, you shall not go after the many to do evil, but rather to do good… {Tg Neofiti}

My people, children of Israel, do not follow the multitude to do evil, but to do good… {Tg Pseudo-Jonathan}

My people, my people, house of Israel, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil, but rather to do good… {Frag Tg P}

My people, O Israelites, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil; but rather to do good… {Frag Tg V}

As usual, we do not find explanations for the rationale behind these glosses in the targums themselves. But they may have been inferred from the presence of the qualifier “unto evil” in the first part of the verse: Why is such a qualifier necessary? Because the usual procedure is to follow after the majority.

So, when we encounter the statement attributed to Jeremiah in Bavli Baba Mesi’a, it may be drawing upon these sorts of antecedents, or at least paralleling their mental maneuvers.


:arrow: On another hand, we may take into consideration the figure of Rabbi Jeremiah, who is portrayed in the Bavli as “not playing well with others.” On one occasion, this Jeremiah asks if the rabbis were indeed certain about a matter of discernment; his teacher rebukes him, “Haven’t I told you not to place yourself outside of the established law?” {Bavli Rosh Hashanah 13a; cf. Bavli Sotah 16b} On another occasion, Jeremiah poses a question that results in his being thrown out of the study-house. {Bavli Baba Batra 23b; Bavli Sotah 16b}

This same Jeremiah is portrayed as trash-talking about other rabbis: “Foolish Babylonians! Because they live in a country of darkness, they repeat obscure traditions.” {Bavli Bekhorot 25b; cf. Bavli Yoma 57a, Bavli Pesahim 34b}

And so, we see that Rabbi Jeremiah is (at some times, anyway) less than circumspect – willing to question or bad-mouth established authority. And like Rabbi Eliezer, he is ejected by his colleagues (though at a later date, through exhibiting deference, Jeremiah is reinstated). As such, we may consider the possibility that the remarks attributed to Rabbi Jeremiah in the “oven” segment are to be taken sarcastically. In this vein, Jeremiah would be purposefully misquoting Exodus 23.

Let us consider what sort of structure this would yield in Bavli Baba Mesi’a:

Point (Eliezer) – Here is every imaginable argument for my position.
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not accept those arguments.
Point (Eliezer) – Look at this carob-tree miracle!
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not take that sort of proof.
Point (Eliezer) – Look at this water miracle!
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not take that sort of proof.
Point (Eliezer) – Listen to this heavenly miracle!
Counterpoint (Joshua) – “It is not in heaven.”
Point (Jeremiah) – Sure, Josh. Like it sez, “stretch to follow the majority.” (Not!)
Counterpoint (Nathan) – Ehh, G-d was cool with the play.

We may add here another vignette with Rabbi Jeremiah:

Rabbi Jeremiah was in session before Rabbi Zira {his teacher}, and they were engaged in the study of a tradition. The time came for praying, so Rabbi Jeremiah hastened to adjourn. With regard to this, Rabbi Zira cited the verse, “He who turns away from hearing the Torah — even his prayer is an abomination.” {Bavli Shabbat 10a; cf. Proverbs 28:9}

Here we find Jeremiah prioritizing prayer over study of tradition. So perhaps one might paint Jeremiah as the sort of person who would be inclined to defer to an experience of heaven over a hegemonic tradition. Another reason, perhaps, for Jeremiah to be sympathetic to Eliezer’s position in our primary vignette.

But, all this having been said – Jeremiah might have been the perfect character to bolster Joshua’s position. Like Eliezer, he had challenged the majority view; like Eliezer, he had been ejected by his colleagues. But Jeremiah eventually defers to the hegemony and is reinstated. So it may be that the Jeremiah statement is not intended to be facetious. Rather, it may be intended (by the talmudic editors in particular) to stand in juxtaposition to Rabbi Eliezer: here is another strong-willed outcast, but this one eventually recognized the principle of deferring to the majority.


:arrow: There remains yet another possibility: the Jeremiah statement rests upon an alternate syntactic construal of the verse in Exodus. Let’s look at a somewhat transparent rendering of the Hebrew verse, split into its three components:

You shall not after the many unto something negative and you shall not answer concerning a dispute to extend/turn after many to make extend/turn.

Now, one might readily construe the verse so as to correlate the last component with the middle one.

But one eminent targum – Targum Onqelos – takes a different tack: Do not follow the multitude to commit evil, nor refrain from teaching [when you are being asked] what is your opinion on a dispute; the final decision is to follow the majority opinion.

This appears to derive from construing the last component as independent from the middle component. Such a construal is not grammatically impossible. And so the Jeremiah statement might rest upon this sort of thinking.


:idea: Wrapping this section up, though – whether the remark is sincere or sarcastic, there are ways in which its treatment of Exodus 23 might be something more than a haphazard error or an arbitrary inversion.
SteveD wrote:
This sort of exegetical technique fails to maintain what I understand to be an acceptable level of integrity in handling Divine instructions, not to mention the method's failure to establish grounds for an authoritative interpretive community. Consequently, ‘Rabbi’ Gamaliel’s special plea for pragmatic justification in the interests of maintaining Jewish unity and honor for “the Lord of the universe” appears rather disqualified by merit of a lack of competency and/or reverence demonstrated by him via the early rabbinic exposition of Scripture.
Perhaps we have already tempered some of these criticisms through our engagements above. But a few more comments, here...

:arrow: RE: a lack of competency...

It can be quite easy to underestimate rabbinic competence. To some extent, this can be blamed on the obscurity of rabbinic literature. It can be very challenging at first to discern and appreciate the rabbinic genius. But after some acquaintance with rabbinic studies, one will find that one cannot be cavalier about dismissing rabbinic literacy and intellectual prowess.

Of course, one still may disagree with rabbinic tradition, to greater or lesser extents. Competency does not guarantee inerrancy.


:arrow: RE: a lack of ... reverence ...

A fundamental problem with rabbinic interpretation may be excessive reverence. The rabbinic mind can ferret a cavalcade of meanings from the Torah text, sometimes hinging upon the most subtle nuances or ephemeral connections – and this can appear justifiable from an extremely reverent view of the Torah and its potential for enlightenment.

Of course, there can be a problem with prevailing upon the text to an overly great extent. If a pious view is so reverent as to become overwrought, then one might well be wary of terribly ingenious and subtle conclusions that are wrangled from the text.


:arrow: RE: ’Rabbi’ Gamaliel’s special plea ... appears rather disqualified by merit of a lack of competency and/or reverence demonstrated by him via the early rabbinic exposition of Scripture.

This seems a bit out of order. The talmudic text does not state what Gamaliel’s own interpretive rationale was for his decision, so we have little grounds for disqualifying his plea on technical grounds.

The text does ascribe statements to Joshua, and to Jeremiah, and to Nathan. The Joshua view – which we have explored above – cannot be demonstrated to be incompetent or irreverent. And even if we are not favorably impressed by the Jeremiah statement, Jeremiah is a figure from centuries after the “oven” controversy; Gamaliel can scarcely be held responsible for an interpretive maneuver that is attempted long after his own time. The Nathan anecdote is legend, and in any case, we have no conclusive reason to hold Gamaliel responsible for it.

But we can derive some support from the talmud for Gamaliel’s plea. As we find in Bavli Baba Mesi’a itself, Rabbi Eliezer was married to Gamaliel’s sister. So Gamaliel’s handling of the situation would have involved at least the danger of some damage to his own reputation and that of his house. This adds some weight to Gamaliel’s plea that “I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house....”


:arrow: RE: an acceptable level of integrity in handling Divine instructions ...

I will use this quote as a springboard to the question “Did the rabbis in our vignette make the right call?

A few things to keep in mind, when mulling this over...

:!: If the rabbis admit miraculous events as conclusive evidence, then they have opened the door for wonderworkers to seize the wheel in community affairs. This might seem very spiritual and romantic, but it can be a recipe for disaster. When authority hinges upon the spectacular and the phenomenal, then it is easy for the community to go flitting after spectacles and phenomena.

Not terribly long after the setting of our vignette, the church goes through its own hour of wrestling with a not entirely dissimilar issue (viz.,the Montanist controversy). And the church emerges from that with an outlook that prioritizes institutional stability and continuity of tradition.

We may return again to Deuteronomy (for what it’s worth). The Deuteronomic text does not send people to wonderworkers in order to settle their controversies. It sends them to the social institutions – clergy and judiciary. If this seems unsatisfying, let us consider that there are a great many more dubious wonderworkers than there are authentic ones.

:!: If we look at the case in question, it seems questionable that Eliezer’s position was in fact the right one.

The case is described in Mishnah Kelim 5.8: If one should cut [the oven] up into rings, and put sand between the rings – Rabbi Eliezer declares it [unsusceptive to uncleanness], but the sages declare it [susceptive to uncleanness]. Such was the oven belonging to Aknai.

The shape of the situation seems to be as follows... An oven was considered susceptible to uncleanness [q.v., Leviticus 11:35]. But what if a practical loophole could be made to avoid this problem? It must have been inconvenient to destroy and replace an oven every time it was rendered unclean!

So what if the oven was not “an oven”? If the pieces of the oven were placed in close proximity to each other, but not actually joined to one another? This arrangement could function as an oven, but it might be pled out as a bunch of parts, and not as “an oven.”

Rabbi Eliezer argues for this sort of loophole, but the rabbinic majority will not buy it. And should we? The artifice is made from the parts of an oven, and it functions like an oven, and it is intended to serve the function of an oven. It seems, in plain sense, that this artifice is essentially an oven – and thus it is susceptible to uncleanness like other ovens.

Beyond this – which ruling is likely to best preserve the intent and dynamic of the commandment? Is it Eliezer’s, which will result in a lot of “pseudo-ovens” and a commandment that is rarely, if ever, practiced or given attention? Or is it that of the majority, which preserves the commandment as a relevant concern in the life of the people?


:!: The “heavenly voice” does not merely comment on Eliezer’s position about the oven; it asserts that “in all matters the [legal paradigm for conduct] agrees with him!(we will return to that later...)

But what do we find amongst Eliezer’s other interpretations?

Rabbi Eliezer was arrested on account of [heresy]. ... And when he left court, he was distressed to have been arrested on account of matters of [heresy]. His disciples came to confort him, but he did not accept their words of comfort.

Rabbi Akiba came and said to him, ‘Rabbi, may I say something to you so that you will not be distressed?’ He said to him, ‘Go ahead.’

[Akiba] said to him, ‘Perhaps one of the [heretics] told you something of [heresy] which pleased you.’

[Eliezer] said to him, ‘By heaven! You remind me – once I was strolling in the camp of Sepphoris. I bumped into Jacob of Kefar Sikhnin, and he told me a teaching of [heresy] in the name of Jesus ben Pantiri, and it pleased me. So I was arrested on account of matters of [heresy], for I transgressed the teachings of Torah: ‘Keep your way far from her and do not go near the door of her house.’
{Tosefta Chullin 2:24}

In this vignette, Eliezer applies Proverbs 5:8 to Christianity – which most Christians would not appreciate. What is more, Eliezer seems to corroborate the principle that one should keep far away from Christianity.

Now, admittedly, Eliezer’s paradigm here might not amount to a “legal paradigm” – but if this is his paradigm in this matter, might Christians doubt his paradigms in other matters?

SteveD wrote:
“The prooftexts cited by Yehoshua and R. Yirmiah, ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deut. 30:12) and ‘Incline after the majority’ (Exod. 23:2), have different – and quite opposite – meanings in their original contexts. They are interpreted by the sages to give themselves authority to overrule the divine will. The sages’ claim to interpretive authority, then, ultimately depends on the very interpretive authority that it claims!” Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 41.
:arrow: At the risk of being redundant – I will dispute that the invocation of “It is not in heaven” is contrary to context; that has been dealt with above.

:arrow: The reference to Exodus has also been dealt with above, and if one may not concur with the way that the text has been handled, one may yet find the handling to be understandable.

:arrow: We should consider that the text in Bavli Baba Mesi’a comes in stages. The rabbis who overruled Eliezer may not have understood themselves to be overruling the divine will – they may have only seen themselves as overruling spectacular phenomena, turning instead to the verdict of the judiciary, per their scripture.

This same sort of tension recurs in the Christian experience of our times. Some Christians place great value upon spectacular phenomena; but others, when faced with such phenomena, prefer to turn to their scripture and prioritize their understanding of it instead.

It is only when we come to the anecdote ascribed to Rabbi Nathan that it is explicitly given that the rabbinic majority overturned the divine will. This is an anecdote in retrospect, and while it may help us understand the view of the talmudic editors, it does not necessarily reflect the outlook of the rabbis in the original controversy.

But even here – overturning the divine will is not necessarily a negative thing. According to the Tanakh, Abraham and Moses both confronted the divine will, and Moses appears even to have prevailed so as to change G-d’s will [Genesis 18:16ff.; Exodus 32:7-14].

Loving relationships involve give-and-take. This is the case even when there is an inequity of power or authority between the parties involved – particularly when the more powerful party wishes the less powerful party to exercise initiative and to have power and authority of their own.

Let us consider the example of a parent who owns a ranch, and who wants their child to share in the enterprise. Why does the parent want this? For the intimate companionship it would yield, perhaps. Perhaps out of a desire to pass along what has been meaningful to them in their life’s work. Perhaps out of a desire to see the child fulfill their potential.

With such things in mind, the parent may invest the child with initiative, power, and authority that they may exercise on the ranch. And with such things in mind, the parent may be loath to trump the child’s initiative, power, and authority – even when the child is imperfect in their exercise of these investitures.

Now, with this sort of thing in mind, let us turn to consider the words of the “heavenly voice” in our “oven” vignette:

Again he said to them: 'If the [legal paradigm for conduct] agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven!' Whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: 'Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the [legal paradigm for conduct] agrees with him!' But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' {Bavli Baba Mesi’a 59}

Note that the “heavenly voice” does not thunder forth a decisive verdict. Rather, it pleads a case: why argue with Eliezer, since in all matters the standard is in alignment with his opinion? And the “heavenly voice” may be pleading a case because heaven is consciously withholding from imposing itself as the decisive party here.

And there is more – if it is indeed heaven’s position that the clergy and judiciary make the determinative call in this sort of situation, then the “heavenly voice” may simply be pleading from precedent: the Sanhedrin has established Eliezer’s interpretation as the prevailing one in every case, so why make a departure now?

If this is the actual scenario, then Rabbi Joshua calls it out – heaven does not render this sort of verdict, and heaven is not attempting to render a verdict. And: Eliezer does not render this sort of verdict; heaven withheld from proving his opinion outright. Rather, the judiciary renders the verdict: the “oven” is a no-go.

If this is not reading too much reservation into the “heavenly voice,” then we may have G-d behaving like our parent with the ranch above. Resuming the analogy... The rancher’s son is having a disagreement with a well-respected employee, who is adamant about a particular issue. The employee tries to go over the son’s head, asking the rancher to validate his opinion. So what does the rancher do? He does not want to compromise his son’s authority, and so he asks, “Son, you’ve always thought Eli makes the right call. Why argue with him?” But the son knows the lay of the land, and says, “Dad, like you said at the get-go – this one’s my call to make.”

Even if the rancher might agree with Eli’s opinion – or might think it socially expedient to let the venerable ranchhand have his way – the rancher will still uphold his arrangement with his son, and may even respect him for standing his ground.

All this may seem troubling to a Christian mind. But I will wrap things up on this point by noting that there is an Abrahamic religion that is fundamentally oriented around submission to God – Islam, which literally means “submission.” The literal meaning of Israel, on the other hand, has to do with man wrestling with the heavenly [q.v.,Genesis 32:28]; and Judaism is not so disinclined as Islam or Christianity to wrestle with G-d. Love and loyalty do not utterly preclude it.
SteveD wrote:
Meanwhile, the book of Deuteronomy does instruct its reader to anticipate the coming of a prophet greater than Moses who is to be listened to (Deut. 18:15-19). Evidently, whoever composed Deut. 34:9-12 was certain that such an individual had not yet risen up among the people. Christians understand Moses to have spoken prophetically of Jesus (Acts 3:22-26) while the majority of the religious Jewish population had rejected this interpretation. In light of the destruction of the Second Temple, it is not surprising to me that the text might be exploited in such a manner by a religious society with vested hopes of maintaining religious solidarity and order. Understandably, such hopes must have faced a difficult challenge in attempts to recover from a dismantling blow of this magnitude. The fact that the timing of the judgment which Jesus prophesied to come upon the society (Mt. 23-24) corresponds with the subsequent levelling of the temple structure may have even provoked the re-framers of Judaism to expedite their efforts in redirecting the interests of their fractured community. "The Oven of Akhnai" appears to bear literary record to the nature and character of the leadership of that community.
:arrow: I am unaware of Deuteronomy anticipating a prophet “greater than Moses.” Can you give me a precise reference?

:arrow: I incline toward understanding Deuteronomy 18 as addressing the prophetic office in general, and not one ultimate individual. One might consider the broader context in the chapter.

:arrow: RE: the timing of the judgment which Jesus prophesied to come upon the society (Mt. 23-24) corresponds with the subsequent levelling of the temple structure...

On one hand, I am unaware of why the “timing” would have been so impressive. Perhaps you can elaborate on this for me.

On another hand, it is not so impressive for anybody in that time to have anticipated a similar outcome. Rome was a superpower, largely by dint of force, and Palestine was a political powder-keg. If matters were to explode in the region, one could easily imagine the Roman response. And the temple had suffered disgrace and destruction before, so it was not unthinkable that such a catastrophe might happen again.

And on another hand – though Christians may be much impressed by the destruction of the temple, one does not need to be terribly impressed by the Christian opinion of its significance. After the sack of Rome in 410 CE, many people looked at the catastrophe as a punishment for abandoning the old Roman religion. But most Christians, of course, would be disinclined to see the event as a vindication of the old pagan gods and a cosmic abolition of Christian faith.

The destruction of the temple in 70 CE was not necessarily a vindication of Christianity or of any other competitor to Judaism; neither was it necessarily an abolition of Jewish faith. Or we may cast the same scenario back six-plus centuries – when Babylon destroyed the first temple, it did not necessarily vindicate Baal or Asherah, and it did not necessarily abolish the faith of the Jews.

:arrow: RE: In light of the destruction of the Second Temple, it is not surprising to me that the text might be exploited in such a manner by a religious society with vested hopes of maintaining religious solidarity and order.

We have already gone over the text, and it may not be so badly exploited as you have imagined it to be. But one must also admit that some early Christian sources are willing to go through interpretive gymnastics in order to come up with certain results; consider, if you will, Matthew 2:15, Galatians 3:16; Epistle of Barnabas 9:7-9.
SteveD wrote:
A note that I plucked from R. Burton Visotzky (Reading the Book, p. 42) points out that “once religious authority ceased to be vested in the temple and as a result ceased to be vested in the Bible that promoted that temple, authority moved from the Word to the readers of the Word.”
Did you also pluck his comment from the next page over: “What Rabbi Shimeon is pointing to is the fact that for Judaism, much as for Christianity in the late first century, the Temple ceased to be a source of authority in biblical religion. Even more startling, but true in both sister religions, is that in some ways the Bible itself ceased to be an authority. Stated more accurately (and less paradoxically) the Bible remained a source of authority only through the ongoing interpretation of the documents it contained.

So Visotzky doesn’t leave Christians out of the party, does he? ;)

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Thank you for your time and attention, Steve.
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"The more something is repeated, the more it becomes an unexamined truth...." (Nicholas Thompson)
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StevenD
Posts: 40
Joined: Sat Aug 23, 2008 2:25 am

Re: The Oven of Akhnai...

Post by StevenD » Sun Oct 10, 2010 5:28 pm

Greetings Emmet,

Thanks for putting up with the long period of silence between posts. Hopefully the saying will prove true, better late than never. Currently, I hope to provide the greater part of a response to your last message. As I’m afforded liberty to do so, I’ll plan to respond to a couple more points – presumably within the next week. I’m grateful for your patience with my somewhat unpredictable response time.
RE: The ultra-literal use of the proof-text lifted from Deuteronomy 30:12 ("It is not in heaven")

Talmudic literature can be extremely terse and allusive. Textual references can be given in highly abbreviated fashion, sometimes consisting of only a few words. But the broader context of those words may be taken into view, even if it is not being quoted verbatim.

If we look at Deuteronomy 30, we will find that there are a number of elements that are relevant to the “oven” controversy. I have quoted the immediate context previously: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” {vv. 11-14, ESV}

We can easily identify the immediate parallelism here: on the one hand, “not too hard for you”/”neither is it far off”; and on the other hand, “not in heaven”/”neither is it beyond the sea.” But we also may note the corresponding elements of the larger structure, which we may diagram as follows:

(A) this commandment ... is not too hard for you
(B) neither is it far off
(A’) it is not in heaven...
(B’) neither is it beyond the sea...
(B) the word is very near you
(A) it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it


Given the structure as diagrammed above, our understanding of “not in heaven” should take into consideration “not too hard for you.”

To begin with, we may note the diction. Where the passage reads “not too hard for you” in the ESV, we may mine the Hebrew word rendered “hard” in two respects: on one hand, there is a potential connotation of wondrousness or marvelousness, employed on a number of occasions to refer to extraordinary acts of G-d; on another hand, there is a potential connotation of being separate.

Accordingly, the commandment is not so wondrous or so beyond humans that they cannot handle it. And this dovetails with the parallel that it is “not in heaven” – it is not a wonder that lies in the province of G-d, beyond the sphere of humanity.
Of primary concern regarding the rabbinic declaration “it is not in heaven” is the manner by which the legend seems to isolate and recast the theme of the Biblical verse (a segment of it anyway) with a focus upon legal particulars while God is depicted as a sort of “has-been” who has met his match in the wit of the rabbinic community. Indeed, the reference attributed to “the Holy One, blessed be he” frames God as if he were somehow impressed with the rabbis as “he was laughing and saying, my children have prevailed over me, my children have prevailed over me.”

This sort of tale might reveal greater incentive to build an image of respect and confidence in the rabbis rather than God himself. This concerns me.

One reason I find this disappointing is related to determining the subject of the text. As you suggest, apparently the rabbis did understand “it is not in heaven” to refer to something “not too hard” (or difficult). This being the case, one might reasonably wonder why the rabbinic delegation had trouble arriving at a consensus in the matter?

Again, as you suggest, verse 11 (the preceding verse) informs that the commandment “is not too hard”...“neither is it far off”. Though I generally agree with your diagram of the verse, you may have overlooked a key phrase within the verse – as a segment was lacking from your illustration. Verse 11 also informs that “this commandment which I command you today” is not too hard/wonderful. Thus, the mention of “today” does seem to suggest that whatever the command might be – the command was something given that day.

A claim that the commandment would somehow refer to a matter arrived at by the consensus of a first-century rabbinic disputation does appear to be a stretch. Levitical standards of purity were doubtlessly intended to be kept (Lev. 11:35) by the community to whom these standards were addressed – which also had a functioning levitical priesthood. Disputes pertaining to the maintenance of oven purity might reasonably be placed in league with the tithes of “mint, anise, and cumin” - while Deut. 30:12 appears to be wrested from a context that more appropriately appeals to “the weightier matters of the law” which Jesus addressed, namely, “judgment, mercy, and faith” (Mt. 23:23-24).

Gauging by the context of chapter 30 (esp. v8), I reckon that the commandment (most suitable to the subject of the phrase 'It is not in heaven'-v12) is to return to the Almighty in repentance and faith. Citing this verse with reference to settling a future matter pertaining to whether an oven is ritually clean or not appears to be far removed from authorial intentions disclosed within this text. [29:29 even informs, “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the revealed things are to us and our children forever – to do all the words of this law.”] As the specs of oven cleanliness don’t appear to be featured within the Deuteronomic text and the Levitical instructions aren't so detailed to address Eliezer's 'loophole oven' - might not one simply point to the command given for "today" and safely call the matter settled as one of those things that “belong to the LORD”? On the other hand, returning to the Almighty in faithful obedience was a command that all the people (including their children) were instructed to keep.
And yet, there is more: within Deuteronomy, the root for the Hebrew word rendered “hard” appears on two other occasions. One of these is in the passage that I have quoted previously: “If any [matter] arises requiring decision between one [blood] and another, one [judgment] and another, or one [diagnosis] and another, [matters] within your [gates] that [are] too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision.

Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the LORD will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left.

The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.” {17: 8-13, ESV, alt.; emphasis added}

Here, the ESV translates as “too difficult for you,” but the Hebrew root is the same. So, given the sort of mental maneuver that underlies gezerah shavah, this passage might be brought into the discussion.
Although I can appreciate your locating a common root within both Deuteronomy 17:9 and 30:12 – the form of the word does differ between the two.
The two usages maintaining direct correspondence with 30:12 appear to be Exodus 34:10 (“Behold, I am cutting a covenant – before all your people I will make marvels which have not been created in all the land or in any of the nations”...) and Psalms 118:23 (“This is from what the LORD did – it is marvellous in our sight”).

Matching consonants with the term you highlighted in Deuteronomy 17:9 there appear to be four other uses within the Tanakh.

Nevertheless, the link you suggested between these two portions of Deuteronomy provokes further thought.

Lengend has it that Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was born of a priestly lineage, as a Christian this makes little difference to me; however, for the sake of discussion I would expect a Torah-based community to esteem the legal vantage-point of a Levitical descendent (particularly if a well-known portion of Deuteronomy 17 were to weigh in on the matter) more highly than the average ger.

As you suggested, the text states “And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision”... “The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the LORD your God, or the judge, that man shall die.” Possibly I’m overlooking the likelihood that there were other priests among the rabbis represented among the majority? Glad it’s not assigned among my pile of homework to sort this one out...

Earlier within the thread you cited a segment of Matthew 23 as support for obeying the scribes and Pharisees. This does appear to accurately represent the command that Jesus gave to “the crowds and his disciples” while the temple was yet standing. It is no secret that this instruction was followed up by a series of “woe’s” (the “me attitudes”?) which eventually culminated in Jesus’ rejection of the “house” in Jerusalem as “desolate” (v38). I understand this to suggest that followers of Jesus need not yield any further obedience to the establishment upheld by the scribes and Pharisees – particularly after the temple was demolished.

[A side note: A few weeks back (as days drew near to ‘yom kippur’) I watched as a man swung a chicken around his head 3 times and said the words, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This rooster shall go to it’s death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.” The ‘rabbi’ who instructed him in this procedure stood by with a grin of obvious approval. Although some may argue that modern ‘rabbis’ are the successors of the priesthood, or at least serve in the place of judges (Sifre, piska 153), I’m inclined to think that neither Jesus nor any of the ordained and functioning priesthood (barring Nadab, Abihu, and select others)/judges would encourage blood sacrifices of this nature. This is one example (a particularly shocking one to me) among popular, modern ‘orthodox’ Judaism that may offer some indication where the rabbis may be inclined to lead their people.]
But beyond this: the commandment lives in the hearts and mouths of Israel. Accordingly, if one is searching for the commandment, one turns to the congregation of Israel.

(Such a conclusion might be received skeptically by a Christian audience. But the rabbis were not Christians. And if the rabbis had an optimistic confidence in their own ability to articulate the word of God, well, I challenge the reader to identify a church that doesn’t feel likewise.)

So the parallelism affords a contrast: one does not go looking to heaven to find the commandment; one goes looking to the congregation of Israel. And if this seems out of order – one might argue, using Deuteronomy, that heaven has designated Israel (in the persons of its priests or judges) as the arbiter of the commandment. As such, heaven’s designated order is to subcontract articulation of the commandment to Israel.
If you were to make such a statement before these official religious offices had become obsolete (say 2000 years ago), I would tend to agree with you. However, shifts in historical development over the past two millenia suggest that defaulting to the mediation of the priests and judge(s) is no longer an option. This appears to be another subject related to time-sensitive data (the other was Deut. 30:11 “which I command you today”).

On the mention of Israel’s “priests or judges” (in keeping with Deuteronomy 17:9 “the priests – the Levites and the judge”); the post-temple dispute (whether historical or not) that we’re discussing fails to handle the matter from the posture of either office—at least insofar as the Talmudic text informs me. As I read Baba Metsia 59, it looks to me rather that the rabbinic community had usurped the role which I understand Deuteronomy 17:9-13 to have reserved for the priests (the Levites) and the judge. Nowhere does the text mention ‘rabbis’.

Deuteronomy 17:10 mentions “that place which the LORD shall choose”. Yet, without the authority structure in place as prescribed by Deuteronomy, at some point one may begin to question whether such a “place” should again be occupied.

Consequently, your suggested statements might be more amenable to the text had you accounted for the past tense nature of the Scriptural claims. The priesthood (the Levites) and the judge are passe elements to Israel, these features are now extinct – as is the temple. Without the presence of these basic features, the rabbis appear to lack legitimate warrant to claim succession along the Deuteronomy 17 appointed seat of authority.
SteveD wrote:
[A] verse from Exodus 23 (verse 2 to be precise) is grossly misrepresented within the Talmudic story. Although the Biblical text instructs that one should not speak up in a cause to turn after a multitude to twist judgment, the Talmudic citation fails to acknowledge the negative element within the passage. In other words, as recorded in the Talmud, the text is reframed in such a manner as to suggest the opposite meaning as that found within the Scriptures. The Talmud suggests - "follow/incline after the majority" ...

{and}

The concept advanced by the rabbis appears to affirm a position categorically opposed to the candid expression found within the Scripture verse referenced (by means of neglecting elemental aspects of the verse). It is worth noting that Exodus 23:2 suggests that contrary to giving consent to the majority, one should “not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law].” ... Exodus 23:2 – English and Hebrew: The Stone Edition Tanach (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1999).
On one hand, the terse reference in the talmudic text may rest upon an inference from Exodus 23: because it is commanded not to follow the majority “unto evil,” one might infer that the general procedure is “you are to incline after the majority.”

We find something like this in Tosefta Sanhedrin 3.7: Rabbi says, “From the inference of that which is said, ‘You shall not follow after the many to do evil,’ I draw the inference that I should be with them to do good.”

And from the targums – the “Living” and “Amplified” bibles of their day – we find that this was a rather standard treatment of the verse:

My people, children of Israel, you shall not go after the many to do evil, but rather to do good… {Tg Neofiti}

My people, children of Israel, do not follow the multitude to do evil, but to do good… {Tg Pseudo-Jonathan}

My people, my people, house of Israel, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil, but rather to do good… {Frag Tg P}

My people, O Israelites, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil; but rather to do good… {Frag Tg V}

As usual, we do not find explanations for the rationale behind these glosses in the targums themselves. But they may have been inferred from the presence of the qualifier “unto evil” in the first part of the verse: Why is such a qualifier necessary? Because the usual procedure is to follow after the majority.

So, when we encounter the statement attributed to Jeremiah in Bavli Baba Mesi’a, it may be drawing upon these sorts of antecedents, or at least paralleling their mental maneuvers.
1. The text quoted is Hebrew, not Aramaic: The short (3 word) extraction is written in Hebrew, providing an identical match with the Masoretic Text of Exodus 23:2 in every way – apart from what seems to be the Biblical meaning and context. Consequently, the probability that the rabbinic compiler(s)/editor(s) read the addendums (pluses) of the Aramaic paraphrases back into the text would require:

- The association with the select paraphrase to take decided precedence over the meaning inscribed within the Biblical text (highlighting a feature hardly discernable from the Biblical text itself) and

- The process of retroverting the Aramaic back into Hebrew so as to convey the new meaning while still retaining the identical form of the phrase cited from the Torah.

Though I suppose that a maneuver of this nature is possible, one might expect that during the twofold process of feeding the Targumic (or Tosefta’s) meaning back into the Biblical phrase (while also being mindful to either convert the Aramaic back to Hebrew or carefully splice the Hebrew of the Torah [in spite of the intentions Moses penned]), a man’s conscience should begin to afflict him (Prov. 30:5-6).

The conscious decision to handle the Scriptures in such manner appears dubious at best – as the text becomes simply a rallying tool to bolster support for positions of the rabbinic majority.

[It is acknowledged that the Tosefta does quote from the Hebrew text; however, even this text would have required the removal of an additional ‘vav’ (להטות->להטת) from the nikud in order to match the form found in both the Torah and Baba Metsia 59. Though this process may appear more reasonable than borrowing from one or more of the Targums, again, questions of integrity might reasonably develop if the Talmudic text developed in this fashion.]

2. The Biblical text mentions not twisting judgment, but the scenario depicted within the Talmudic account cites words from Exodus 23:2 as if to enforce a verdict that appears to have already been presupposed by the majority. The concern is that the Biblical text is being exploited, possibly so as to gain leverage contrary to its plain design. The text says not to turn after the majority to twist judgment, yet the majority demand that the text be understood so as to favor their own judgment. This appears to present a problem (Rubenstein made a similar point in the quote cited above).
On another hand, we may take into consideration the figure of Rabbi Jeremiah, who is portrayed in the Bavli as “not playing well with others.” On one occasion, this Jeremiah asks if the rabbis were indeed certain about a matter of discernment; his teacher rebukes him, “Haven’t I told you not to place yourself outside of the established law?” {Bavli Rosh Hashanah 13a; cf. Bavli Sotah 16b} On another occasion, Jeremiah poses a question that results in his being thrown out of the study-house. {Bavli Baba Batra 23b; Bavli Sotah 16b}

This same Jeremiah is portrayed as trash-talking about other rabbis: “Foolish Babylonians! Because they live in a country of darkness, they repeat obscure traditions.” {Bavli Bekhorot 25b; cf. Bavli Yoma 57a, Bavli Pesahim 34b}

And so, we see that Rabbi Jeremiah is (at some times, anyway) less than circumspect – willing to question or bad-mouth established authority. And like Rabbi Eliezer, he is ejected by his colleagues (though at a later date, through exhibiting deference, Jeremiah is reinstated). As such, we may consider the possibility that the remarks attributed to Rabbi Jeremiah in the “oven” segment are to be taken sarcastically. In this vein, Jeremiah would be purposefully misquoting Exodus 23.

Let us consider what sort of structure this would yield in Bavli Baba Mesi’a:

Point (Eliezer) – Here is every imaginable argument for my position.
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not accept those arguments.
Point (Eliezer) – Look at this carob-tree miracle!
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not take that sort of proof.
Point (Eliezer) – Look at this water miracle!
Counterpoint (other rabbis) – We do not take that sort of proof.
Point (Eliezer) – Listen to this heavenly miracle!
Counterpoint (Joshua) – “It is not in heaven.”
Point (Jeremiah) – Sure, Josh. Like it sez, “stretch to follow the majority.” (Not!)
Counterpoint (Nathan) – Ehh, G-d was cool with the play.

But, all this having been said – Jeremiah might have been the perfect character to bolster Joshua’s position. Like Eliezer, he had challenged the majority view; like Eliezer, he had been ejected by his colleagues. But Jeremiah eventually defers to the hegemony and is reinstated. So it may be that the Jeremiah statement is not intended to be facetious. Rather, it may be intended (by the talmudic editors in particular) to stand in juxtaposition to Rabbi Eliezer: here is another strong-willed outcast, but this one eventually recognized the principle of deferring to the majority.
Unlikely as this option seems to me, my lack of familiarity with the nature of r. Jeremiah leaves me little opportunity to challenge the suggestion. Supposing the claim of sarcasm is legit, at what point does the sarcasm apply and at what point is the reader to take r. Jeremiah’s words seriously? Not to belabour the point, but the description of the dialogue you presented was abridged a bit.

According to the Talmudic account, the first response to r. Joshua’s statement “It’s not in heaven” is a question (posed in what appears to be editorial form), “What is meant by not in heaven?” The text continues with r. Jeremiah offering the response, “[that] already the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. We don’t have (give) attention to an echoing voice [from heaven]. [That/Because] you already wrote in the Torah at Mt. Sinai...‘after the majority to incline.’”

Maybe this seems plausible to some, but I find this difficult to accept. Nevertheless, the Talmud is not my book so my I’m not required to approve of the manner in which its editor(s) handle the Scriptures.
There remains yet another possibility: the Jeremiah statement rests upon an alternate syntactic construal of the verse in Exodus. Let’s look at a somewhat transparent rendering of the Hebrew verse, split into its three components:

You shall not after the many unto something negative and you shall not answer concerning a dispute to extend/turn after many to make extend/turn.

Now, one might readily construe the verse so as to correlate the last component with the middle one.

But one eminent targum – Targum Onqelos – takes a different tack: Do not follow the multitude to commit evil, nor refrain from teaching [when you are being asked] what is your opinion on a dispute; the final decision is to follow the majority opinion.

This appears to derive from construing the last component as independent from the middle component. Such a construal is not grammatically impossible. And so the Jeremiah statement might rest upon this sort of thinking.
The fact that Onkelos was also a ‘tanna’ of the same era as Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and others (not sure about r. Jeremiah) does not commend the objectivity of his paraphrase for solving such a dispute.

After considering the alternate rendering you’ve suggested I’m not so sure that the construction is linguistically/morphologically possible. The first two fragments may stand alone:

1. לֹֽא־תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּים לְרָעֹת – You shall not be after the many to do evil
2. וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶה עַל־רִב לִנְטֹת – and you shall not answer about a case to turn [stretch/bend]

However, as the remaining segment is a verbless clause (segment one uses the imperfect verb “be”, segment 2 includes the imperfect form of “answer”, but segment 3 offers no verb other than the final verb which appears to be an infinitive construct. Unless I’m mistaken, the lamed appears because that verb is in succession with another verb. Though oftentimes a verb ‘be’ may be implied within an otherwise “verbless” sentence, I believe the infinitive construct (characterized by the “lamed”) requires at least an implied verb ‘be’ to morph into the construct form. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the peculiarity of the final segment does not seem to accommodate for even an implied “be” verb. Thus (unless this principle only applies within the modern tongue), the infinitive construct seems to require more sentence structure (another verb – whether visibly present or previously implied) in order to maintain form.

3. אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּֽת – after many [is/am/are/was/were] to turn [stretch/bend]
(fails to contain the necessary components to convey a coherent thought)
Wrapping this section up, though – whether the remark is sincere or sarcastic, there are ways in which its treatment of Exodus 23 might be something more than a haphazard error or an arbitrary inversion.
Recently I had a conversation with a student of Judaism (attending a yeshiva school) who emphasized that the Torah commands one to obey the rabbis, even if the rabbi says right is left and vice-versa. After I suggested that this was not to be found within the Pentateuch - possibly within rabbinic writings, but not the Torah itself – the fellow persisted to assert (and even proceeded to emphasize his point by swearing before God with raised hands) that the command was indeed within the Torah.

To my surprise, he began to relay the story of “the Oven of Akhnai”. A short time later a challenge related to the potentially defective Exodus 23:2 quote was presented, and the student demanded that we look at a copy of the Talmudic story. A scanned copy of the Artscroll series version of the tale was conveniently made available. When a series of prospective solutions were discussed as less than satisfactory explanations for the apparently ‘stray’ quotation, the student resolutely insisted that Artscroll (the printers) erred in their citation of the text. After discussing what the Soncino version said, the student vowed to speak with his rabbi, assuring me that the rabbi (who, I'm told, encourages the students to look for discrepancies of this nature with a critical eye) would provide the solution to our dilemma.

On another occasion, about a week later, we met again (another student was also present). The first student volunteered that he had spoken with his rabbi and discovered that the text did appear to misquote Exodus 23:2. Apparently, this was confirmed by the rabbi. The argument that one should follow after the majority respecting the rabbis’ judgment was still upheld – and a discussion of Deut. 17:8-13 ensued during which the other student and myself concluded that the text fails to provide grounds to sustain rabbinic authority - the instructions specify “the priests (the Levites) and the judge” and state nothing about ‘rabbis’. Hope you’ll pardon tedium of the lengthy story, but the timely nature of the encounter seemed worth the mention.

The ‘rabbi’ who initially introduced this story to me also affirmed (with a sly smile on his face) that Exodus 23:2 was misquoted within this text. Having said this, unusual as the case may be, I’m inclining to follow suit with the ‘rabbis’ on this one.
RE: ’Rabbi’ Gamaliel’s special plea ... appears rather disqualified by merit of a lack of competency and/or reverence demonstrated by him via the early rabbinic exposition of Scripture.

This seems a bit out of order. The talmudic text does not state what Gamaliel’s own interpretive rationale was for his decision, so we have little grounds for disqualifying his plea on technical grounds.

The text does ascribe statements to Joshua, and to Jeremiah, and to Nathan. The Joshua view – which we have explored above – cannot be demonstrated to be incompetent or irreverent. And even if we are not favorably impressed by the Jeremiah statement, Jeremiah is a figure from centuries after the “oven” controversy; Gamaliel can scarcely be held responsible for an interpretive maneuver that is attempted long after his own time. The Nathan anecdote is legend, and in any case, we have no conclusive reason to hold Gamaliel responsible for it.

But we can derive some support from the talmud for Gamaliel’s plea. As we find in Bavli Baba Mesi’a itself, Rabbi Eliezer was married to Gamaliel’s sister. So Gamaliel’s handling of the situation would have involved at least the danger of some damage to his own reputation and that of his house. This adds some weight to Gamaliel’s plea that “I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house....”
Working from the premise that Gamaliel “was the chief Jewish leader and largely responsible for Eliezer’s excommunication” (quoting from your earlier post), I may have presumed him to wield more influence among the matter than is actually the case. Hope you’ll pardon me if I’ve misrepresented the man.

Meanwhile, this is about as far as I'll go tonight. As suggested, I'll plan to respond to select portions (that don't appear to already be addressed by default here) within another post.

Gratefully,
Stevend

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kaufmannphillips
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Re: The Oven of Akhnai...

Post by kaufmannphillips » Sun Jan 30, 2011 8:55 pm

Hello, Steve,

Thank you for your response of October 10. We are not having a rapid discussion here, but we may hope that it is a worthwhile one! :smile:
You wrote:
As you suggest, apparently the rabbis did understand “it is not in heaven” to refer to something “not too hard” (or difficult). This being the case, one might reasonably wonder why the rabbinic delegation had trouble arriving at a consensus in the matter?
From the talmudic narrative, it appears that there was one outlier who strove against the general viewpoint: Rabbi Eliezer stands alone against the consensus.


As for Rabbi Eliezer… On one hand, we may note that people often have differences of opinion over simple/mundane matters, and not only difficult/marvelous ones.

But on another hand, we may consider once more the classic paradox of Houses Hillel and Shammai: “These and those are the words of the living G-d…{Bavli ‘Eruvin 13b}. Different parties may have different legitimate interpretations of a commandment – if one postulates that commandments may legitimately (and intentionally!) carry with them a number of viable interpretations.

If such is the case, the pertinent issue might not be difficulty (construed in my previous posting as being wondrous or beyond humans), but rather social resolution. Returning to Houses Hillel and Shammai, we see the paradox resolve into a prevailing social standard: “…but the decided law is in accord with the House of Hillel{ibid}.

If one adopts a paradoxical outlook, then one may consider the pivotal question in this controversy to be proper application, not correct interpretation. Which legitimate interpretation shall Jewish society adopt as their common paradigm for behavior? One decided by the magisterial court, or one festooned with signs and wonders? As we have seen in a previous posting, Deuteronomy prescribes an appeal to the magistrate {17:8-13}.



The general protocol for handling “difficult” cases does appear within the Deuteronomic text, and the conceit of the text features it as part of Moses’ oration on “that day{17:8-13}.

As such – the way to handle “difficult” matters is not too “difficult” for the congregation of Israel, since these matters are settled by a priestly or magisterial verdict. And what could be more simple than that? :wink:




These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.{v. 23c, ESV}

Many Christians like to taxonomize the commandments into these worth caring about and those not worth caring about. But most rabbis would not taxonomize in such a way – and neither does Matthew’s Jesus.

And what about Deuteronomy’s Moses? He spends part of “that day” proclaiming commandments about the tithe – along with commandments about diet, holy days, tassels on clothing, uncleanness through bodily emission, and muzzling of oxen {q.v. chh. 12; 14; 15; 16; 22; 23; 25; 26}. And yet, when 30:8 proclaims “you shall again obey the voice of the LORD and keep all his commandments that I command you today,” there is no indication that any of these commandments are being held apart from others that are “weightier{ESV}. Neither is there any indication that any of these commandments should be neglected.




I disagree with your reckoning. Context reveals chapter 30 as part of a conclusion to the monumental oration that Moses has been giving throughout the book of Deuteronomy. And when the text refers to “the commandment” in verse 11, this needs not be construed as a single command {cf. Exodus 24:12; Deuteronomy 5:31}. Accordingly, one may construe the text as referring to the commands of the oration as an entirety (with the immediate referent being “his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law”) {Deuteronomy 30:10; ESV}.

Moreover, the purpose of the oration is not only to establish a paradigm for the immediate generation of Israel, but also for future generations. This is why Moses writes the oration down and prescribes that it be read publicly every seven years {q.v., Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 19, 22, 24-26}.


And on one other point – it is commendable for a Christian interpreter to be sensitive to citing verses in a matter “far removed from authorial intentions.” But it must be admitted that Christian scripture makes this sort of citation without scruple {q.v., Matthew 2:15 // Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:17f. // Jeremiah 31:15ff.; Matthew 1:22f. // Isaiah 7:14}.

In late antiquity, some forms of Judaism may have held so high an opinion of their scripture that they saw its words reverberating throughout the matrix of history, way beyond their original settings. This sort of outlook would afford using scripture as a touchstone in a variety of far-flung contexts.

Of course, we do not have to agree with such a florid handling of scripture, no matter how pious its roots may have been. But if one can accept it within one’s own tradition, one is ill-justified to reject it in another’s tradition.




The Deuteronomic oration of “that day” does not prescribe surrendering “difficult” cases to mystery; it prescribes settling them through appeal [17:8-13].

In the Deuteronomic oeuvre, this protocol for social resolution is “revealed,” not “secret” – and it is “revealed” in order “to do” it.




One grammatical form is imperfect and one is participial. The difference is incidental, and does not compromise their basic commonality of meaning.




I welcome you to identify your source(s) for this legend. In my (quite cursory) research, Eliezer appeared to have been identified by some sources as a Levite, but there was no mention of priestly lineage; and even so, I found no references to primary sources in support of this lineage {q.v., Jacob Neusner, Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus: the tradition and the man, vol. 2, pp. 253-59}.

For what it’s worth, we may take a glance at Joshua ben Hananiah, who gives the climactic statement opposing Eliezer in our pericope. Ben-Sasson writes: “R[abbi] Joshua came from a family of Levites; in his youth he had served in the Temple, and even then his outstanding personality had gained him considerable influence among the scholars, particularly those connected with the Temple{A History of the Jewish People, p. 327; cf. Bavli ‘Arakhin 11b}.


(( Incidentally, we may note that rabbinic tradition also has Joshua ben Hananiah go through his own crisis with authority. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2.8f., Joshua doubts the propriety of the sacred calendar set by Gamaliel II, who was head of the rabbinic court. Gamaliel issues an ultimatum to Joshua, summoning him to the court in a way that would impinge upon Joshua’s sense of how the calendar should be.

Eventually, another sage points out that arguing against the rulings of Gamaliel’s court would result in arguing against rulings of every court from Mosaic times to the present. Joshua relents, and is welcomed by Gamaliel with honor: “Come in peace, my rabbi and my disciple – my rabbi in wisdom, and my disciple who has accepted my matters.”

So once again, we have a rabbinic sage who has disagreed with the magisterial authority. But in his crisis, Joshua relented; and in our “oven” pericope, he stands on the side of the authority. ))


But returning to your line of objection – as you have noted, other members of the court could have had a priestly lineage; one of Eliezer’s and Joshua’s notable contemporaries was Jose the Priest {q.v., Mishnah ‘Avot 2.10}. But our talmudic pericope does not address that possibility one way or the other.

And why not? Well, Deuteronomy 17:12 indicates that one is accountable to heed the verdict of the priest or the judge. So the presence or absence of priests might not be a determinative concern – surely no greater a concern than the absence of the Ark of the Covenant had been during the Second Temple era. If the remainder of temple ritual could carry on regardless, so too could the remainder of the appeals process carry on regardless. So long as the judge rendered a verdict, the appeals process could stand.

And in the time of our “oven” pericope, the role of magistrate was filled by a court headed by Gamaliel II.

(Now, if one wishes to object that this was a council, and not a singular “judge,” it may be noted that the term in Deuteronomy 17:12 is participial – literally, “the judging” {cf. II Kings 15:5; Isaiah 16:5}. So, the council as a collective singular could easily enough be deemed “the judging party{say, the beit din}.)




:arrow: It seems doubtful to imagine Jesus commanding the crowd to heed the scribes and the Pharisees, only to vacate that directive some five minutes later. And Jesus is not long for this world at this point in Matthew, so we might wonder at the purpose for giving such a directive if the passion and resurrection were to overhaul the socioreligious economy in less than a week. Why bother to subordinate the multitudes to an imminently irrelevant authority?

:arrow: We also may note that Jesus does not cavil at the scribes and/or the Pharisees lacking a Levitical pedigree.

:arrow: Christians may interpret “Your house is left to you desolate” in different ways. But a Jewish person would smile at applying the phrase to rabbinic Judaism, which has been tremendously durable and fertile.

You wrote:
A few weeks back (as days drew near to ‘yom kippur’) I watched as a man swung a chicken around his head 3 times and said the words, “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This rooster shall go to it’s death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace.” The ‘rabbi’ who instructed him in this procedure stood by with a grin of obvious approval. Although some may argue that modern ‘rabbis’ are the successors of the priesthood, or at least serve in the place of judges (Sifre, piska 153), I’m inclined to think that neither Jesus nor any of the ordained and functioning priesthood (barring Nadab, Abihu, and select others)/judges would encourage blood sacrifice of this nature. This is one example (a particularly shocking one to me) among popular ‘orthodox’ Judaism that may offer some indication where the rabbis may be inclined to lead their people.


The ritual you describe (kapparot) has been a controversial one. It is not talmudically ordained, and it notably was opposed by the Ramban and by Yosef Karo. But many rabbis have sanctioned it.

Since we have no mention of the practice before the 800s, the responsibility for this practice does not lie immediately at the door of Gamaliel II and his ancient council. But if one wishes to complain that kapparot exemplifies the sorts of pitfalls that are liable to emerge from underwriting human authority, I readily will agree.

The same liability is present in the underwritten authorities of Deuteronomy 17, and in the Davidic dynasticism of the “Old Testament.” The priesthood, judiciary, and kingship were each liable to failings in their exercise of leadership. And Christian leaders, at least some of whom have enjoyed (putatively) the benefit of the holy spirit, have also proven liable to such failings. So we should not be shocked if rabbinic leadership is liable to such failings as well.

kaufmannphillips wrote:
So the parallelism affords a contrast: one does not go looking to heaven to find the commandment; one goes looking to the congregation of Israel. And if this seems out of order – one might argue, using Deuteronomy, that heaven has designated Israel (in the persons of its priests or judges) as the arbiter of the commandment. As such, heaven’s designated order is to subcontract articulation of the commandment to Israel.

You wrote:
If you were to make such a statement before these official religious offices had become obsolete (say 2000 years ago), I would tend to agree with you. However, shifts in historical developments over the past two millenia suggest that defaulting to the mediation of the priests and judge(s) is no longer an option. This appears to be another subject related to time-sensitive data (the other was Deut. 30:11 “which I command you today”).

…As I read Baba Metsia 59, it looks to me rather that the rabbinic community had usurped the role which I understand Deuteronomy 17:9-13 to have reserved for the priests (the Levites) and the judge. Nowhere does the text mention ‘rabbis’.


On one hand, your objection involves construing the “judge” as a certain kind of “official religious office.” I have discussed above how the Deuteronomic text might be construed to afford the rabbinic council as the “judging” party.

As for the question of obsolescence…



:arrow: When it comes to matters of obsolescence or anachronism, certainly “one may question” how to engage the text.

Yet the question might adequately be settled for a Christian audience. After all, the Ark of the Covenant had been long missing before the time of Jesus. Since the pivotal ritual of Yom Kippur involved the presence of the Ark, one could have questioned whether the entire sanctuary cultus should have been mothballed. (I say “sanctuary,” because a temple is not required by the Torah.)

But nowhere do we find Jesus, or Paul, or any other Christian “authority” arguing that the sanctuary cultus had been rendered obsolescent by the loss of the Ark. Old Zechariah – described as “righteous” and “walking blameless in all the commands and righteous things of the Lord” – officiates in the temple, howbeit bereft of its Ark. And the apostles do not shun the temple, even after the passion and (putative) resurrection of Jesus; Paul even pays for other persons’ temple sacrifices, years later.

Apparently, then, it was acceptable in the sight of both Christians and Jews to persevere with Torah paradigms even when they could not be fulfilled to the nth detail.

:arrow: But then again, “the priesthood and the judge” are not altogether passé elements. In the former case, we find that persons of priestly line (the kohenim) still have unique roles in rabbinic Judaism (incl. pidyon haben, the redemption of the firstborn). In the latter case, we find the beit din.

:arrow: Notwithstanding the discussion that has gone before – it is of little significance to cavil that the rabbinic council fails to fulfill Deuteronomy 17 on certain points of detail, when the council’s approach may be sustained by precedent/analogy (rather than exact fulfillment).

From the precedent of Deuteronomy 17, one may derive the principle that questions of interpretation are to be settled by community officers (as opposed to popular celebrities and/or appeal to signs). This principle may be carried across to analogous situations, where the particular officers may not correspond precisely to the Deuteronomic figures of priest and/or judge.

You wrote:
SteveD wrote:
[A] verse from Exodus 23 (verse 2 to be precise) is grossly misrepresented within the Talmudic story. Although the Biblical text instructs that one should not speak up in a cause to turn after a multitude to twist judgment, the Talmudic citation fails to acknowledge the negative element within the passage. In other words, as recorded in the Talmud, the text is reframed in such a manner as to suggest the opposite meaning as that found within the Scriptures. The Talmud suggests - "follow/incline after the majority" ...

{and}

The concept advanced by the rabbis appears to affirm a position categorically opposed to the candid expression found within the Scripture verse referenced (by means of neglecting elemental aspects of the verse). It is worth noting that Exodus 23:2 suggests that contrary to giving consent to the majority, one should “not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law].” ... Exodus 23:2 – English and Hebrew: The Stone Edition Tanach (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1999).

[[kaufmannphillips wrote:]]
On one hand, the terse reference in the talmudic text may rest upon an inference from Exodus 23: because it is commanded not to follow the majority “unto evil,” one might infer that the general procedure is “you are to incline after the majority.”

We find something like this in Tosefta Sanhedrin 3.7: Rabbi says, “From the inference of that which is said, ‘You shall not follow after the many to do evil,’ I draw the inference that I should be with them to do good.”

And from the targums – the “Living” and “Amplified” bibles of their day – we find that this was a rather standard treatment of the verse:

My people, children of Israel, you shall not go after the many to do evil, but rather to do good… {Tg Neofiti}

My people, children of Israel, do not follow the multitude to do evil, but to do good… {Tg Pseudo-Jonathan}

My people, my people, house of Israel, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil, but rather to do good… {Frag Tg P}

My people, O Israelites, you shall not follow the multitude to do evil; but rather to do good… {Frag Tg V}

As usual, we do not find explanations for the rationale behind these glosses in the targums themselves. But they may have been inferred from the presence of the qualifier “unto evil” in the first part of the verse: Why is such a qualifier necessary? Because the usual procedure is to follow after the majority.

So, when we encounter the statement attributed to Jeremiah in Bavli Baba Mesi’a, it may be drawing upon these sorts of antecedents, or at least paralleling their mental maneuvers.


[[ SteveD wrote: ]]
1. The text quoted is Hebrew, not Aramaic: The short (3 word) extraction is written in Hebrew, providing an identical match with the Masoretic Text of Exodus 23:2 in every way – apart from what seems to be the Biblical meaning and context. Consequently, the probability that the rabbinic compiler(s)/editor(s) read the addendums (pluses) of the Aramaic paraphrases back into the text would require:


- The association with the select paraphrase to take decided precedence over the meaning inscribed within the Biblical text (highlighting a feature hardly discernable from the Biblical text itself) and

- The process of retroverting the Aramaic back into Hebrew so as to convey the new meaning while still retaining the identical form of the phrase cited from the Torah.

Though I suppose that a maneuver of this nature is possible, one might expect that during the twofold process of feeding the Targumic (or Tosefta’s) meaning back into the Biblical phrase (while also being mindful to either convert the Aramaic back to Hebrew or carefully splice the Hebrew of the Torah [in spite of the intentions Moses penned]), a man’s conscience should begin to afflict him (Prov. 30:5-6).

The conscious decision to handle the Scriptures in such manner appears dubious at best – as the text becomes simply a rallying tool to bolster support for positions of the rabbinic majority.

[It is acknowledged that the Tosefta does quote from the Hebrew text; however, even this text would have required the removal of an additional ‘vav’ (להטות->להטת) from the nikud in order to match the form found in both the Torah and Baba Metsia 59. Though this process may appear more reasonable than borrowing from one or more of the Targums, again, questions of integrity might reasonably develop if the Talmudic text developed in this fashion.]


Please pardon the extensive quotation.

:arrow: Last things first: when the Tosefta adds the “vav,” it is a minor matter of orthographical convention, comparable to an Englishman splicing the “u” into “honour” or “favour” when quoting an American writer.

(My turn to recount a personal vignette: some years ago, I ordered a custom piece of jewelry from an Israeli business, with part of the shema on it: HSHM eloheynu HSHM echad, and I specified the orthography of the Masoretic Text. But when my item arrived, the jeweller had slipped a “vav” into eloheynu. This is well enough, since now my item has eighteen characters instead of seventeen. Chai!)

If our talmudic source prefers the orthography of the Masoretic Text over that of the Tosefta, this is an understandable choice. But it would be quite immaterial to cavil at orthography here, since the rabbis’ comments in the Tosefta and the Talmud Bavli were probably oral in the first place, and since it is likely enough that the orthography was determined by some other person(s) in the chain of transmission behind those documents.

The rabbis’ comments scarcely would be impeached by the editorial conventions of others. And besides – for what it is worth – orthographical flux is a picayune concern when compared to the editorial variance that is apparent between the Christian gospels.

:arrow: First things last: a primary value of the targums and the Tosefta is to serve as evidence for how Jews of their era handled their scriptures.

Both in their times and ours, we can find people wrangling with the scriptural text – inferring things from it, construing it in particular ways, developing conceptual frameworks and/or filters for interpreting it. This is natural and quite appropriate. After all, the scriptures are not some sort of computer code; they are not simply fed into a parse-o-matic human processor to yield a designed result. Rather, people develop their own varying faculties and apply them to scripture, attempting to make sense of it.

Now, the bulk of targumic evidence indicates that it was very common to interpret Exodus 23:2 in a certain way. If this interpretation were tremendously common, one might understand how a rabbinic mind could regard the interpretation as not merely being inferred from the text, but actually being implied by the text – a subtle revelation that Heaven had intended from the beginning for Israel to discern.

Once the move had been made from “inference” to “implication,” one would consider the interpretation to be truly present in the text as written. Accordingly, one would feel no embarrassment or conscientious affliction when treating the text as connoting its common interpretation.

On this point – allow me to draw a comparison to Christian typological interpretation. Christians often approach the “Old Testament” with the expectation that their Christ will be alluded to within its pages. Upon examination, it often is the case that these allusions are not really discernable from the text of the “Old Testament” itself; they depend upon the application of Christian sensibility to obtain their allusive sense.

For example, Matthew 2 states that “[Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’{vv. 14f., ESV}. But when one examines the words of the prophet in Hosea 11, the “Old Testament” context is plainly referring to the nation of Israel, and not to some future Christ.

But a Christian interpreter, piously convinced that Heaven intended for an allusion to be present in the words of the prophet, will not scruple or blush to claim that the text contains a prophecy about their Christ.

So – both our rabbinic and our Christian interpreters imagine that their scriptures contain subtle implications. And we, from the outside, may deem their interpretations to be eisegetical – or not – depending upon our own sensibilities about the dynamics of revelation and the subtleties of scripture.



And so we have a question of opinion, as to whether or not the rabbinic majority is “twisting judgment." The opinions that you and I (and others) may hold in this regard will hinge upon our personal sensibilities about appropriate hermeneutics – and perhaps upon our personal agendas.



Would that this sort of issue were the only challenge in interpreting rabbinic literature :smile: ! A modern reader who is not steeped in rabbinic literature can find it very challenging to discern the flow of argumentation.

As for Jeremiah and the possibility of sarcasm – I will admit that this probably is not the most likely explanation for what we find in the talmudic text. But it is a possibility that we can keep on our radar.

You wrote:
The fact that Onkelos was also a ‘tanna’ of the same era as Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and others (not sure about r. Jeremiah) does not commend the objectivity of his paraphrase for solving such a dispute.

After considering the alternate rendering you’ve suggested I’m not so sure that the construction is linguistically/morphologically possible. The first two fragments may stand alone:

1. לֹֽא־תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּים לְרָעֹת – You shall not be after the many to do evil
2. וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶה עַל־רִב לִנְטֹת – and you shall not answer about a case to turn [stretch/bend]

However, as the remaining segment is a verbless clause (segment one uses the imperfect verb “be”, segment 2 includes the imperfect form of “answer”, but segment 3 offers no verb other than the final verb which appears to be an infinitive construct. Unless I’m mistaken, the lamed appears because that verb is in succession with another verb. Though oftentimes a verb ‘be’ may be implied within an otherwise “verbless” sentence, I believe the infinitive construct (characterized by the “lamed”) requires at least an implied verb ‘be’ to morph into the construct form. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the peculiarity of the final segment does not seem to accommodate for even an implied “be” verb. Thus (unless this principle only applies within the modern tongue), the infinitive construct seems to require more sentence structure (another verb – whether visibly present or previously implied) in order to maintain form.

3. אַחֲרֵי רַבִּים לְהַטֹּֽת – after many [is/am/are/was/were] to turn [stretch/bend]
(fails to contain the necessary components to convey a coherent thought)


I am wary of attributing our targumic text to a single tannaitic writer.

That being said – the source(s) behind Targum Onqelos probably had more opportunity for insight into what was grammatically and stylistically viable in the context of late antiquity than we do. So, broadly speaking, we as modern inquirers should be cautious about critiquing Targum Onqelos on those grounds, given our estranged vantage point.

You wrote:
Recently I had a conversation with a student of Judaism (attending a yeshiva school) who emphasized that the Torah commands one to obey the rabbis, even if the rabbi says right is left and vice-versa. After I suggested that this was not to be found within the Pentateuch - possibly within rabbinic writings, but not the Torah itself – the fellow persisted to assert (and even proceeded to emphasize his point by swearing before God with raised hands) that the command was indeed within the Torah.

To my surprise, he began to relay the story of “the Oven of Akhnai”. A short time later a challenge related to the potentially defective Exodus 23:2 quote was presented, and the student demanded that we look at a copy of the Talmudic story. A scanned copy of the Artscroll series version of the tale was conveniently made available. When a series of prospective solutions were discussed as less than satisfactory explanations for the apparently ‘stray’ quotation, the student resolutely insisted that Artscroll (the printers) erred in their citation of the text. After discussing what the Soncino version said, the student vowed to speak with his rabbi, assuring me that the rabbi (who, I'm told, encourages the students to look for discrepancies of this nature with a critical eye) would provide the solution to our dilemma.

On another occasion, about a week later, we met again (another student was also present). The first student volunteered that he had spoken with his rabbi and discovered that the text did appear to misquote Exodus 23:2. Apparently, this was confirmed by the rabbi. The argument that one should follow after the majority respecting the rabbis’ judgment was still upheld – and a discussion of Deut. 17:8-13 ensued during which the other student and myself concluded that the text fails to provide grounds to sustain rabbinic authority - the instructions specify “the priests (the Levites) and the judge” and state nothing about ‘rabbis’. Hope you’ll pardon tedium of the lengthy story, but the timely nature of the encounter seemed worth the mention.

The ‘rabbi’ who initially introduced this story to me also affirmed (with a sly smile on his face) that Exodus 23:2 was misquoted within this text. Having said this, unusual as the case may be, I’m inclining to follow suit with the ‘rabbis’ on this one.


I welcome first-hand experiential narratives, of course, as a student of human religion.

But as it is said, “Two Jews, three opinions” :wink: . I imagine you will recognize how perilous it would be to take the opinions of a half-dozen random Christian ministers as determinative of an issue.

Now, I do not know the individuals in your narrative, of course. But if they hail from a certain Hasidic background, they may be satisfied to shrug and smile at bald rabbinic authority. In some Jewish traditions, the “rebbe” is the essential element of religion. Persons from this sort of background may not exert themselves to discern a more complex rationale for the text than “rabbi said.”

Persons from a more liberal branch of Judaism might also neglect to exert themselves, having their own reasons for wanting to imagine the ancient rabbis as capricious and unreliable.

But I will speculate that the majority of rabbis and laypersons, regardless of their background, are not terribly familiar with either the Tosefta or the targums (excepting, perhaps, Onqelos). This could place them at a disadvantage when trying to discern what is going on behind Jeremiah’s citation of Exodus 23.

You wrote:
RE: ’Rabbi’ Gamaliel’s special plea ... appears rather disqualified by merit of a lack of competency and/or reverence demonstrated by him via the early rabbinic exposition of Scripture.

I wrote:
This seems a bit out of order. The talmudic text does not state what Gamaliel’s own interpretive rationale was for his decision, so we have little grounds for disqualifying his plea on technical grounds.

The text does ascribe statements to Joshua, and to Jeremiah, and to Nathan. The Joshua view – which we have explored above – cannot be demonstrated to be incompetent or irreverent. And even if we are not favorably impressed by the Jeremiah statement, Jeremiah is a figure from centuries after the “oven” controversy; Gamaliel can scarcely be held responsible for an interpretive maneuver that is attempted long after his own time. The Nathan anecdote is legend, and in any case, we have no conclusive reason to hold Gamaliel responsible for it.

But we can derive some support from the talmud for Gamaliel’s plea. As we find in Bavli Baba Mesi’a itself, Rabbi Eliezer was married to Gamaliel’s sister. So Gamaliel’s handling of the situation would have involved at least the danger of some damage to his own reputation and that of his house. This adds some weight to Gamaliel’s plea that “I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house....”

You wrote:
Working from the premise that Gamaliel “was the chief Jewish leader and largely responsible for Eliezer’s excommunication” (quoting from your earlier post), I may have presumed him to wield more influence among the matter than is actually the case. Hope you’ll pardon me if I’ve misrepresented the man.


Gamaliel probably did wield influence, be it political or otherwise. But we lack solid evidence for how his own interpretation and reasoning might or might not have correlated to the argumentation found in the Talmud Bavli, written centuries after his own time. Gamaliel could have had different reasons of his own for rejecting Eliezer’s contention and imposing the majority opinion.



As I have mentioned, Judaism is more comfortable with wrestling with G-d than Christianity is. Wrestling is a natural part of relationship between two parties with independent minds and wills. And, as some married persons might confirm, this wrestling does not necessarily imply that the two parties are lacking in love or respect or consideration for each other.

And, as some parents (and coaches) might confirm, it is not always one’s ultimate desire to “win” a wrestling bout.

Here we broach the question of G-d’s intention for human free will. Does G-d give people free will with the sole intention that they devote it to acquiescence? Or does G-d want to interact with humans who can, in some respects, challenge him worthily?

If the latter is true, then the G-d in Nathan’s vignette is not a “has been.” Rather, he is taking pleasure in the fulfillment of his creative aspiration.

But on a last point – we may compare this little vignette to Jesus’ interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman (q. v., Matthew 15:22ff.; Mark 7:25ff.). In that encounter, the woman wrestled with Jesus verbally, and she prevailed, and he honored her. Presumably, this exchange did not make Jesus a “has-been.”



I am interested in your response. Thank you for your time and for your efforts in engaging this.
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"The more something is repeated, the more it becomes an unexamined truth...." (Nicholas Thompson)
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