This commandment that I command you today is not beyond you or far from you. It is not in heaven, that you might say ‘Who shall go up to the heavens for us and bring it to us so that we might hear it and act upon it’ (Devarim 30:11-12)”

In the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), there is a well-known story about a man named Achnai who had a ceramic oven, and there was a dispute among the rabbis as to whether his oven was susceptible to tum’ah (ritual impurity) or not. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that, because it was made of broken shards of ceramic glued back together, Achnai’s oven did not count as a single vessel, and therefore was not susceptible to tum’ah. The other rabbis, led by Rabbi Yehoshua, disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, let the carob trees show it!” Immediately, the carob trees began to sway. Rabbi Yehoshua said “We do not accept proof from the carob trees. Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, let the walls of the academy show it!” The walls of the academy leaned to one side. Rabbi Yehoshua said, “We do not accept proof from walls.” Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, let Heaven decide!” A Divine voice came down and testified on Rabbi Eliezer’s behalf. Rabbi Yehoshua said “We do not allow Divine voices to interfere in our rulings. The Torah was already given at Sinai, and it is written ‘It is not in heaven!’ At that point, God laughed, saying “My children have defeated Me! (Hebrew: ‘nitzchuni banai’)”

What follows this story of Achnai’s oven is an account of Rabbi Eliezer being banned from the circle of rabbis as a result of this dispute, and his disciples abandoning him until finally seeing him at his deathbed, contrite at having abandoned their teacher.

This story, of course, has many layers of meaning. Let us focus first on the aspect of Torah not being in heaven. It is taught here that this means that flesh-and-blood rabbis, and the majority of observant Jews, decide what Judaism, i.e., Torah, is. Divine will is dependent on the interpretation of human beings! The Divine Torah was already given at Sinai. It is no longer in heaven, but down here on Earth! This is the meaning of God laughing and saying “nitzchuni banai”; “My children have defeated Me! They have correctly followed My own teaching that Torah is not in heaven, and therefore, I cannot intervene!”

There is another meaning to the Hebrew word “nitzchuni”. Aside from the interpretation “they have defeated me,” it can be translated as “they have made Me eternal”. God, of course, was already eternal, but here, by telling God to stay out of the dispute, God’s presence in the Torah is made eternal. By this, I mean that Torah, as a means for human beings to relate to God, is an earthly, human thing. Otherwise, it would be inaccessible. Human beings do not have Divine wisdom, and are not normally able to perceive anything beyond three special dimensions, the forward flow of time from past to future, and our own individual experiences. God would not be eternal in the Torah if Torah were not earthly. God would be fleeting and essentially absent.

The harm, then, that was done to Rabbi Eliezer as a result of the dispute, was a very typical part of a human power struggle. That this human power struggle, that between himself and the other rabbis, was the result of a religious enterprise, an attempt to properly ascertain the will of God in a particular case, does not change the interpersonal dynamic between the rabbis. They are human beings, and it is they who decide how to properly exercise and interpret the Divine will. We say that Torah is a tree of life to all that hold fast to it, and all of its paths are peace. Must we say so ironically? If Torah is human, and humans fight, then how is it true that all of its paths are peace? The answer comes in the fact that the story of Rabbi Eliezer is itself Torah. We, as we study it, learn from it not only the halachic information in the dispute, but the nature of the power struggle, and the consequences for all involved in Rabbi Eliezer’s ban. We ourselves become better equipped to make peace because we know this story.

Shabbat Shalom!

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