For the Sake of Heaven
The well known story of the oven of Akhnai, found in b.talmud bava metzia 59a-b is often celebrated in progressive Jewish circles as ‘proof’ that the decision of Jewish law and practice lie in the authority of individuals or communities (or the rabbis) rather than ‘in heaven’. In this story Rabbi Eliezar and his colleagues are arguing about whether or not an oven, is Kosher. He is adamant it is, instructing trees to move, water to flow backwards and walls to bend, miracles to try and prove his point. Whereas his colleagues are convinced it is not and it is they who declare the famous, ‘lo bashamayim hiy’ this decision is not in heaven, when the ‘bat kol’ the heavenly voice sides with Rabbi Eliezar. When read in its context, this story is not one of a celebration of human autonomy and authority in the face of God but rather, a lesson about how we speak and behave toward one another. Set amongst laws and conversations which deal with ‘the wrong doing of words’ the story of the oven of Akhnai is a lesson in how not to treat one another in matters of dispute and is critical of the other Rabbis treatment of Rabbi Eliezer.
In recent years, it has often felt that the art of being able to hear multiple voices and hold different narratives has been lost. As politics and opinions polarise, helped by social media algorithms, people seem quicker to disregard and shut out voices they do not agree with rather than being able to agree to disagree. This brings a new challenge to our diverse and varied community. When the wider society seems to be lacking such spaces, how are we able to create community environments where people feel allowed to have varied opinions, narratives and beliefs?
The story of the oven of Akhnai appears with slightly different versions in the Palestinian (Jerusalem) and Babylonian Talmuds. In both version, Rabbi Eliezar is excommunicated – excluded for having a different opinion. The Bavli outlines R. Eliezar emotional reaction to the excommunication whereas the Yerushalmi takes it one step further, not just excommunicating R. Eliezar but scratching his name from his teachings in Talmud. What strikes me by the Yerushalmi account is that now, any teaching in Talmud that does not have a name attributed to it could be assumed to be the voice of R. Eliezar meaning, not only is, in some ways his voice amplified, but also his opinion and teaching assumed.
When we try to silence those we do not agree it does not just lead to individuals feeling excluded from the community but so often it leads to the amplification of the very opinions that people were trying to push out and assumptions around who people are and what they stand for, rather than real connection and understanding. I often revel in how Jewish tradition holds within it a celebration of disagreement, for volumes upon volumes in the Talmud we have rabbis arguing, interpreting and unpacking the words of Torah and for centuries the Jewish people have followed suit, grappling with text and ideas as a way to connect to each other, God and spirituality.
Dispute is in our tradition. I think of the story in Talmud of Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Reish Lakish who were chevruta partners (Torah study partners) they constantly challenged each other and fought for the many years of their friendship and partnership. One day the argument got too much and the friends fell out never to study together again. Yochanan was never able to find another study partner, as he needed the argument from Reish Lakish to further his understanding, connection and meaning.
As we navigate difficult conversations at NLJC I hope for us all that we can facilitate a culture that recognises the power in disagreement. May we listen to each other with respect and judge each other with charity, and may we not say ‘lo ba shamiyim hiy’ – the answers are not in heaven but rather macklochet l’shamayin, our controversies are for heaven. May the eternal guide us with wise counsel, and establish the work of our hands. And let us say – Amen.
Rabbi Anna Posner