Thursday, April 05, 2007


Last Weekend at Talmud Study ...

... we read the famous story where R. Eliezer disagrees with the majority and appeals to divine revelation, which rules in his favor. Whereupon R. Joshua and R. Jeremiah (a Karaite conspiracy theorist would have a field day with these names being "used" by the Gemarah to voice this opinion) famously respond that the Torah, having been given at Sinai is now ours to interpret according to reason.

Religious liberals often use this story as justification for modifying the law for our own time -- the Torah was given to us at Sinai and it is now ours to interpret. However, within the context of the Talmud (Bava Metzia, Folio 59), it is R. Eliezar's opinion which is lenient (although in general, R. Eliezar was rather strict and austere). The reasonable majority is actually being, in the view of us liberals, rather un-reasonably conservative. We liberals would do well to remember that the Puritans (and to some degree certain quarters of liberalism are more Puritan than they'd like to think) came out of the Age of Reason and that many of the tropes of modern fundamentalism emerged from the Enlightenment: a faith in reason is not necessarily a liberal faith.

And interestingly, even though R. Eliezar is excommunicated, this is depicted as something that leads to all sorts of further calamities because R. Eliezar does seem to have a hotline to God. So is the Talmud, which elsewhere celebrates R. Eliezar (a very enigmatic figure, actually -- feel free to discuss this in comments: my thoughts on the subject are not yet coherent, otherwise I'd say more here), really trying to place reason above revelation? Or is the real liberal lesson of the Talmud that God doesn't like it when reason, tradition and majority rule are used to justify un-reasonable demands of religious orthodoxy?

Remember, of course, this story comes within a discussion of why you should be very careful with what you say lest you embarrass someone so much their blood runs from their face, which would be tantamount to physically shedding blood. Which teaching comes in the context of laws against price-fraud. So how does this all connect? Hmm ... what think y'all?

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