Wednesday, July 02, 2008


In Case Prof Wombat (*) Wanders Over ...

A blast from the past, reposted in its entirety --

... 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?

-- so y'all can feel free to comment on this and figure that I might see it.

Also, of course, c.f. the wikipedia entry on R. Eliezer and note the possible connection to Christianity and remember that Jesus very much came from the Priestly tradition (as I've discussed on this here blog and elsewhere) and that, pace Paul, Jesus "came to fulfil the law not to abrogate it" according to even the Christian Bible -- the early Jesus movement was rather quite different than what we know today as Christianity and strains of that early movement (Ebionites, etc.) did persist for some time and no doubt could have influence R. Eliezer, both in his austerity and when he was a strict constructionist and ruled things tahor as in the example above.


* referencing the exchange, at least the parts between Prof. Wombat and myself, from here, or perhaps better here, down ... quoted below is the relevant part of my blog post related to the sermon I reference:

One thing that caught my eye (there is a pun intended, as you, the reader, will soon see), though is the Sh'ma. It is the custom of many to cover our eyes when saying the first verse of the Sh'ma. Normally this is justified as a method to ensure concentration in reading this very important verse witnessing God's unity. But there is another possible explanation. The Baal Shem Tov once said something to the effect of "the world is filled with wonders and miracles yet man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing". It is important to recognize the God's wonder in creation, but that is a relatively simple task. What is more complicated is, when facing a catastrophe or even an essential threat, as Israel faces today (more on what I mean by "essential threat" should be coming on this blog soon), to still see God. The Deuteronomist was inspired to commit these words of witness to the scroll at a time when Judah was perhaps doomed by the Babylonian threat. He also wrote of the importance of not "testing" God with demands for miracles. If we can manage to still be witness to God's unity and glory, even when we cannot see the Divine presence, if only because we have covered our eyes to block out the miracles all around us, then we truly demonstrate our faith when we say its watchword. The Deuteronomic school taught us not to offer sacrifices in local, inherently heathen (cf. the origin of the word "heathen") shrines, but also gave us rituals that allowed us to transcend sacrificial worship at even the centralized shrine, so that we could still witness God's unity even in the absence of seeing the wondrous land which God had promised us. When we cover our eyes during the Sh'ma, we fulfill the true purpose of the Deuteronomist, to worship God even in God's apparent absence.

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