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Comment on Yael’s Thoughts Bava Metzia 59b

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 9, 2007


My Friend Yael posted about a passage in the Babylonian Talmud – Bava Metzia 59b:

“In the story of Torah not being from heaven (Bava Metzia 59b), the rabbis use as proof texts passages that are made to mean something they do not seem to be saying. “[…]”That’s how I am with Torah as well. Some are bothered that I claim I have this same right to view Torah as mine, to let Torah speak to me in ways it may not speak to others. […]” Torah was given to all of us. It’s just as much mine as it was the sages. I’m quite at ease with Torah; it doesn’t bother me in the least to view verses in nonstandard ways any more than it bothered the sages. It’s my heritage. Cool.”

This is the passage, with it’s footnotes:

“On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument,3 but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah 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 halachah 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 urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’4 What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.5

3. Lit., ‘all the arguments in the world’.
4. Deut. XXX, 12.
5. Ex. XXIII, 2, though the story is told in a legendary form, this is a remarkable assertion of the independence of human reasoning.”

Exodus 23:2 “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice;”

Didn’t the Rabbis just say the very opposite? So why are they using Exodus 23:2 as a proof text?

Well, the Torah also says: Deuteronomy 12:8 “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes; “

To me this all indicate that G-d wants us to exercise independent thinking in regards to Torah, but he also wants us to keep Torah the same way everyone else does. Why would He want that?

When I was first researching Judaism I asked a Rabbi if I could tie in a blue thread in my Tzitziyot. He asked me if I planned on wearing them in public or in private. I said either way. He said to me that Tradition says that all threads needs to be white, because the blue had at one time disappeared, and if I wore a blue thread with my white, perhaps I would tempt someone to envy, so for the sake of Chessed I should wear white Tzitziyot in public, but it would be ok to wear a blue thread in private.

I think that the Sages used the passage from Exodus 23 as a proof text, because they, as Bava Metzia implies, realized that it would be halachaic chaos for the PEOPLE if the Sages didn’t say that the “majority rules”. There is wisdom in this – there are people out there that are “weak”, unless they feel that they have something to back them up – their own understanding is not enough for them, so they need a majority to say: “You are Ok.”

For their sake, so that Torah does not become “a stumbling block” or “a curse” do we need to accept “halakha according to the majority” – this doesn’t mean that I cannot practice according to what I understand, or believe, it only means that if I do so in public I need to be careful, so that I do not inadvertently bring grief to my fellow man through my Torah Observance.

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20 Responses to “Comment on Yael’s Thoughts Bava Metzia 59b”

  1. Yael said

    Just to clarify for your readers who are not mine, I am not speaking about observance in this post, I am speaking about interpretations of Torah, finding meaning in Torah for my everyday life that others do not see.

    An example would be my seeing the story of the red heifer as not being about literal purity and impurity but instead being about perceptions. If I view others as impure and myself as pure, the pureness I see in myself is really impure. If I instead see others in a good light and don’t think so highly of myself, I become pure.

    Some people are bothered that I take this freedom with Torah rather than just going with whatever the commentaries say. I say I am just following in the tradition of the sages who were also quite free with their interpretations. This is the comfort with Torah of which I spoke.

    Observance is a different matter altogether. The right to find Torah wisdom in places others don’t necessarily see it is what I claim for myself.

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  2. I am sorry if I misrepresented you in any way, that was never my intention.

    To me the right to interpret Torah also in halachaic matters also follows logically – but as I say, must be practiced with chessed. Which for the most part means that I stick to what is stipulated by the Sages. 🙂

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  3. Yael said

    No offense taken. I just wanted to clarify for your other readers that I do not advocate antinomianism.

    I just saw it as you read something I wrote and it got you to thinking about it from a different angle which is what you wrote about. You did the same thing with my post as I do with Torah. No problem. Except I did have to clarify what was the surface meaning!

    I have a blog that I don’t let many people read where I freely discuss my thoughts on halakhah and changes I would like to see. It is not public I suppose for much of the same reasoning as you gave. You might view it is the equivalent of me wearing a blue thread in private.

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  4. Not sure I advocate antinomianism either, as I do think halakhah is fixed. I just don’t think halakhah can or should be applied the same in all cases. I have to ask myself what is the “Spirit of the Law” in each instance or I end up observing the mitzvot by route and not as a cognizant choice.

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  5. Yael said

    I’m back and forth a bit, those tensions….I daven three times a day whether I feel like it or not because I think that is what I should do. It’s my habit and I’ve found great meaning to pushing through with this no matter my mood. But…the rest of my observances I’ve backed way away from and am rethinking a lot of it. I’m thinking about what it means to be an observant Conservative Jew as compared to an observant Orthodox Jew. I don’t have any desire to be Orthodox but it seems to me if I just follow rules that is exactly what I am doing.

    I am reading a book on Jewish law right now which is written with the assumption that all Jews should strive to increase their observance. My question is why should I think this way? Perhaps it is time to rethink all this observance. If it meant anything to people they would follow. Since by and large most Jews are quite non-observant shouldn’t our rabbis look at the whys of this, that perhaps none of this has much meaning to our lives anymore and that just as the rabbis of old shifted Judaism from the Temple to the synagogue perhaps today it is time for another shift?

    Sometimes I wonder.

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  6. There’s a wonderful little story about our ability to make those decisions for ourselves.

    It was Yom Kippur and an old man was feeling sick – he had been for a while, and now, with Yom Kippur upon him, he felt really weak, and thought to himself, that he probably was too ill to fast. But to be on the safe side he decided to ask the Rabbi. So he dragged himself, crawling, hobbling very slowly to the Rabbi’s house. As he opened the door he saw the rabbi sitting there at a table laden with all kinds of food – he for sure wasn’t fasting, though it was Yom Kippur!

    The old man looked at the Rabbi, at the table and got up his courage to ask.
    – “Rabbi, now is Yom Kippur, and it is time for fasting, but I have been ill and weak, I still am, I thought I might abstain from fasting this year, what do you say?”
    The rabbi looked at him, wiping smaltz from his chin and replied.
    -“No!” and went back to eating.
    -” But why, Rabbi, here you are, healthy and well, and you are not fasting on Yom Kippur and all? Why may I not abstain from fasting?”
    The Rabbi put down his knife, looked at the man and answered.
    -“Because you asked.”

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  7. “If it meant anything to people they would follow. Since by and large most Jews are quite non-observant shouldn’t our rabbis look at the whys of this, that perhaps none of this has much meaning to our lives anymore and that just as the rabbis of old shifted Judaism from the Temple to the synagogue perhaps today it is time for another shift?”

    To me the question is “Why doesn’t it mean anything to people?” Isn’t that what should be investigated instead? Isn’t one reason that people think of observance as “old, stuffy rules and regulations”.

    Just today I read an article through Jewshcool about Reform youths who are rebelling against their parents’ and grandparents’ lack “piety” by donning tzitzit, kippot, tefillin and walking out of non-traditional services. Which of course has the Reform Movement shaking their heads in despair, that their tradition of “non-observance” is being spurned.

    But what if all those observances could be given “new” spiritual meaning? What if we put G-d back into the equation? Because that is what I see lacking – people don’t understand that Observance is an expression of spirituality of a need for closeness to G-d. The don’t get that those rituals are a way to connect spiritually

    Every time I wash my hands, put on tefilin, tzitzit, start my day with “modeh ani” and say the Shema, it’s a way of saying to G-d “Here I am, ready to serve!” while tuning in my own spirituality.

    I think that is missing.

    ??

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  8. Yael said

    Somtimes I think about traffic in Manila, Philippines. There were very few traffic signs when I visited there years ago and few of the signs that were there were followed. Traffic was in a constant snarl; it took forever to get anywhere. Some friends were teasing me because they had heard that here in the States people stopped for Stop signs even when no one was around. They found this incredibly amusing. Why would anyone do such a thing. I told them yes, we do stop and we are also able to get where we want to go without so many hassles because people by and large obey the signs.

    I always looked at observance that way. From the outside it may look foolish, but it helps us get where we need to be going. Sometimes though I wonder, what is the point of this or that sign? Isn’t it stupid to have a Stop sign here where a Yield sign would be more appropriate? Why do we still need signs pointing out hitching posts ahead? Don’t we have so many signs any more that they’ve become a hindrance to traffic flow rather than a help?

    Perhaps observance is an expression of spirituality, but if so it’s not resonating with people. At one time the sacrifices filled this role for people but who thinks they would do a thing for us anymore? Me, I find my spiritual connections in many ways totally unrelated to observance, but I also think my observance of davening three times per day leaves me open to that spirituality, donning tallis and tefillin leaves me open to that connection. Others don’t find any meaning in fixed prayers. Does one size really fit all? Haven’t we always had multiple voices in the community, multiple ways of living Jewish lives? Is it really valuable to push observance as the end all and be all to Jewish living? I have to wonder.

    I’ve just become quite cynical lately after too many interactions with jerks who claim to be the most observant. I just don’t see their lives as anything worth emulating. So, what do I see as valuable instead? That is what I am thinking about right now.

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  9. I always looked at observance that way. From the outside it may look foolish, but it helps us get where we need to be going. Sometimes though I wonder, what is the point of this or that sign? Isn’t it stupid to have a Stop sign here where a Yield sign would be more appropriate? Why do we still need signs pointing out hitching posts ahead? Don’t we have so many signs any more that they’ve become a hindrance to traffic flow rather than a help?

    I don’t know, perhaps those rituals are important to me, because I am homebound and live far away from the Jewish Community, they are basically the only thing that tells me I am Jewish – I know that what attracted me to Judaism were the rituals, and I find them deeply meaningful, that doesn’t mean I follow them to a tee – it only means they are there and that I can use them to “reach out”. And that the more I use them the more I feel connected – but I guess it’s different for different people. My observance is MINE. It’s my way of looking at G-d and say: here, this is me. Something I haven’t experienced elsewhere. One size does fit all, but there are different colors and flavors, and no color or flavor is wrong or less than anyone else. In the end it is between me and G-d what color my socks are 🙂

    I think the signs are there to point us in the right direction when on occasion we loose our bearings, and for those who are just starting out

    Perhaps observance is an expression of spirituality, but if so it’s not resonating with people. At one time the sacrifices filled this role for people but who thinks they would do a thing for us anymore?

    Isn’t this because people have not looked inside observance? It might not be the most kosher way of doing it, but I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to explain the BENEFITS of observance, on a personal level?

    Haven’t we always had multiple voices in the community, multiple ways of living Jewish lives? Is it really valuable to push observance as the end all and be all to Jewish living? I have to wonder.

    Of course we have always had multiple voices and ways of living Jewish Lives. I just don’t know any other way. To me it IS being Jewish.

    I’ve just become quite cynical lately after too many interactions with jerks who claim to be the most observant. I just don’t see their lives as anything worth emulating. So, what do I see as valuable instead? That is what I am thinking about right now.

    What is valuable to you? Aren’t we told in Torah to emulate G-d?

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  10. Yael said

    I suppose I should explain, I also loved the rituals when I became Jewish, and I still do for the most part. In some instances it’s a two steps forward, one step backward kind of thing. In other instances it’s a dropping and leaving this for now at least. I probably sound much worse than I am as far as observance goes!

    Davening is really my most meaningful observance though. All the details for the services are really important to me. I have been studying halakhah as relates to tefillah and I am a stickler for these details. So, I’m not a totally lost case!

    I do question things at times though, of that there is no doubt, but as you have reminded me, just because I don’t see meaning in some ritual that doesn’t mean it is useless. It could be just the thing that brings God front and center into someone’s life.

    While reading a book I’m going through right now it just struck me the assumption that more observance should be our goal. Of course I have to question it. Should this be our goal, if so why and if not what should be our goal? I shake things up periodically in my mind and life but in the end am still safely within the confines of Judaism. Last year I was questioning why bother with God, this year it’s why bother with Judaism. Next year who knows?

    I’m not sure how we could articulate the benefits of observance since I think they are probably really varied depending on the person. Perhaps though, it is important for all of us to speak freely about the meaning we find in various rituals. People like that personal touch and it might make them take a second look or at least understand that to someone else this is valuable. Sort of like your sharing with me in this post.

    I live in a Jewish community so I see people living their Jewish lives in a variety of ways. The person who prepares food, the person who donates money and time to keep the shul running, people who keep committees going, who raise funds, people who take care of the kids, teach the kids, people who lead davening, read Torah, people who deliver food, people who visit at nursing homes and hospitals. It’s all different people with different talents keeping a community going. If everyone was like me davening, studying, writing, but really crappy with meetings, organizing things, working with kids, or raising fund the shul would be in big trouble. Perhaps observance should be more broadly defined to be doing what it takes to help a community connect to God rather than just individuals? Does that even make sense? I’m just thinking as I type.

    Sure we’re told in Torah to emulate God, but I don’t even know if I like God all that much half the time so certainly I’m wary about emulating God. My way of living a Jewish life is also different. I talk about God quite freely, but I still don’t know how much I trust God. I have my contradictions, but I am pulled into this God stuff quite reluctantly. I keep working to figure things out because I HAVE to live this life. Rabbi says it’s that Jewish soul.

    BTW, my socks are mismatched….

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  11. Yael said

    I forgot something I wanted to say. I’m really enjoying chatting with you here online. I want to open up my public blog for you to comment. No one else will be able to, but we’ll be able to chat over there as well.

    You may be housebound but your mind obviously isn’t. I’m enjoying reading your insights into Torah and Judaism. I’m reminded that there are still many more good people out here than not. Thanks.

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  12. Yael, two posts in one night 🙂 I am being spoiled 🙂 – I have to take some time and think – it’s my wife’s computer day.

    But I would love to come and comment on your public blog:-)

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  13. Yael said

    I haven’t been able to figure out with blogger how to only allow one person to comment. With livejournal that is easy to do but it seems with blogger I either have to take you on as a co-author or open the comments to anyone who registers. So….at the moment I’m going nowhere with this idea.

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  14. Well, can’t be helped. I’ll just copy and paste here and leave a link back to your blog when I do – and you can of course do the same at your end 🙂

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  15. Or you could move your blog to WordPress – where you can more easily moderate and edit comments

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  16. Yael said

    I could, but that’s a lot of work. Plus, if I can’t limit commenting to who I choose it wouldn’t solve my problem. I don’t want to have to moderate comments; I’m much too busy. Most comments aren’t nearly as interesting as yours or mine you know…..

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  17. Yael said

    whom I choose

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  18. Well, then it’s either you make me “guest speaker” (and I promise to only use the comment section) or I comment here and link back to you.

    Either way is fine with me.

    (((Hug)))

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  19. Aaron said

    I’m sorry to but in on this discussion, here, but I must say, I am not a big fan of Ha tanor shel Achnai. I mean, how many of us could really continue thinking that we were right if God kept showing us otherwise? I know I wouldn’t!

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  20. Ron Singer said

    I enjoyed reading the comments. You might be interested in my website, http://www.torahuniverse.com

    You are welcome to use the articles and info for free.

    Best wishes,

    Ron Singer

    Like

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