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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Whose Religion is this?

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on September 9, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Shemot, Yitro, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Mitzvot

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at hresnikoff@yctorah.org.

It is a truism among us that keeping the Halakha is synonymous with doing God’s will. However, our sources provide a strong argument that this is not always the case. Some sources (like the Grand Inquisitor) suggest that God’s will should trump rabbinic authority. Others (like Tanuro shel Achnai) present the paradox that it is God’s will that rabbinic authority should trump. Our final source suggests that none of these but rather the power of minhag should be the trump over both. So I present a question more than an argument: Are there moments when the Halakha conflicts with God’s will? Who would we be responsible to if such a thing were to occur? If such a thing is impossible, what do we make of the sources which raise rabbinic authority and the power of minhag above the will of God?

Exodus 19

(א) בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי:(ב) וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר:(ג) וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו יְקֹוָק֙ מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:(ד) אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי:(ה) וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־ הָאָֽרֶץ:(ו) וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:(ז) וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ יְקֹוָֽק:(ח) וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְקֹוָ֖ק נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה וַיָּ֧שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־יְקֹוָֽק:
 In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 And when they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mount. 3 And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying: ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: 4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. 5 Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; 6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’ 7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. 8 And all the people answered together, and said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words of the people unto the LORD.

Exodus 20

(טו) וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק:(טז) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת:(יז) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֘ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וּבַעֲב֗וּר תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶחֱטָֽאוּ:(יח) וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד הָעָ֖ם מֵרָחֹ֑ק וּמֹשֶׁה֙ נִגַּ֣שׁ אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הָאֱלֹהִֽים:
14 And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. 15 And they said unto Moses: ‘Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ 16 And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not; for God is come to prove you, and that His fear may be before you, that ye sin not.’ 17 And the people stood afar off; but Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.

Questions:

  1. Based on this week’s parasha, what is the ideal relationship between the Jews and God? Mediated or unmediated?
  2. How are we to take the Jews choice to have Moshe mediate between them and God?

Deuteronomy 5

(כה) וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְקֹוָק֙ אֶת־ק֣וֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶ֔ם בְּדַבֶּרְכֶ֖ם אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֵלַ֗י שָׁ֠מַעְתִּי אֶת־ק֨וֹל דִּבְרֵ֜י הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבְּר֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יךָ הֵיטִ֖יבוּ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽרוּ:(כו) מִֽי־יִתֵּ֡ן וְהָיָה֩ לְבָבָ֨ם זֶ֜ה לָהֶ֗ם לְיִרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י וְלִשְׁמֹ֥ר אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתַ֖י כָּל־הַיָּמִ֑ים לְמַ֨עַן יִיטַ֥ב לָהֶ֛ם וְלִבְנֵיהֶ֖ם לְעֹלָֽם:(כז) לֵ֖ךְ אֱמֹ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם שׁ֥וּבוּ לָכֶ֖ם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶֽם:(כח) וְאַתָּ֗ה פֹּה֘ עֲמֹ֣ד עִמָּדִי֒ וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אֵלֶ֗יךָ אֵ֧ת כָּל־הַמִּצְוָ֛ה וְהַחֻקִּ֥ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תְּלַמְּדֵ֑ם וְעָשׂ֣וּ בָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָהֶ֖ם לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:(כט) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם אֶתְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תָסֻ֖רוּ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל:
24 And the LORD heard the voice of your words, when ye spoke unto me; and the LORD said unto me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken. 25 Oh that they had such a heart as this alway, to fear Me, and keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever! 26 Go say to them: Return ye to your tents. 27 But as for thee, stand thou here by Me, and I will speak unto thee all the commandment, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which thou shalt teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it.’ 28 Ye shall observe to do therefore as the LORD your God hath commanded you; ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.

Questions:

  1. How are we to understand God’s approval of the Jews choice? Does this change the relationship between the Jews and God? Who is your average Jew supposed to turn to in order to know how to serve God?

Deuteronomy 17


(יא) עַל־פִּ֨י הַתּוֹרָ֜ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר יוֹר֗וּךָ וְעַל־הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט אֲשֶׁר־יֹאמְר֥וּ לְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂ֑ה לֹ֣א תָס֗וּר מִן־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־ יַגִּ֥ידֽוּ לְךָ֖ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל:
11 According to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

Questions:

  1. How does this relate to the last verse of the previous text? Are there ever contradictions between the two?

Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvoth, Principle 1

השרש הראשון שאין ראוי למנות בכלל הזה המצות שהן מדרבנן. דע כי זה הענין לא היה ראוי לעורר עליו לבאורו…אבל העירונו עליו מפני שטעו בו רבים ומנו נר חנוכה ומקרא מגלה בכלל מצות עשה וכן מאה ברכות בכל יום ונחום אבלים ובקור חולים וקבורת מתים והלבשת ערומים…

ומה שייראה לי שהביאם אל זה היותנו מברכין על אלו הדברים אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על מקרא מגלה ולהדליק נר ולגמור את ההלל ושאלת התלמוד (שבת כג א) היכן צונו ואמרו מלא תסור. ואם מטעם זה מנו אותם הנה ראוי שימנו כל דבר שהוא מדרבנן כי כל מה שאמרו חכמים לעשותו וכל מה שהזהירו ממנו כבר צווה משה רבינו בסיני שיצונו לקיימו והוא אמרו (ר”פ שופטי’) על פי התורה אשר יורוך ועל המשפט אשר יאמרו לך תעשה והזהירנו מעבור בדבר מכל מה שתקנו או גזרו ואמר (שם) לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל…

ולשון גמר שבועות (לט א) אין לי אלא מצות שנצטוו על הר סיני מצות שעתידין להתחדש כגון מקרא מגלה מניין תלמוד לומר קיימו וקבלו קיימו מה שקבלו כבר. והוא שיאמינו בכל מצוה שתקנו הנביאים והחכמים אחר כן.

The first principle is that it is not appropriate to count in this general group, the Rabbinic Mitzvoth. Know that this issue should not need to be explained…But we have commented on it because many have made mistakes about it and counted the Hanukkah candle, and reading the Megillah among the positive Mitzvoth. And also saying 100 blessings every day and comforting the mourners and visiting the sick and burying the dead and dressing the naked…

And it appears to me that what brought them to this is that our blessings on these things is “who sanctified us with God’s Mitzvoth and commanded us on the reading of the Megillah and to light the Hanukkah candle and to finish Hallel. And the Talmud asks, “Where did God command us?” and they answered, “From thou shalt not turn aside.” And if for this reason they counted them, it was appropriate that they should count everything that is Rabbinic. Because everything that the Sages said to do and everything that they warned us not to do, Moses our teacher already commanded that we would be commanded to fulfill them…And he warned us not to violate anything that they established or decreed…

And at the end of Tractate Shevuoth: “I only have positive mitzvoth that were commanded on Mount Sinai, all the Mitzvoth that will be innovated in the future like reading the Megillah, where do we learn them from? ‘They fulfilled and they accepted.’ They fulfilled what they had already accepted. And this was so they would believe in all of the Mitzvoth that the Prophets established and the Sages afterwards.

Questions:

  1. According to the Rambam, are Rabbinic decrees synonymous with God’s will? What is the basis of our obligation to follow them?
  2. According to the Geonim who disagree with the Rambam and think that Rabbinic decrees belong among the 613, what is the relationship between Rabbinic decrees and God’s will? Is there a significant disagreement between the Rambam and the Geonim on this topic?
  3. When we keep Halakha, are we fulfilling God’s will? Is there ever a conflict between God’s will and the Rabbis’?

“The Grand Inquisitor”, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brother’s Karamazov, 1880, Book 5, Ch. 5, Translated by Constance Garnett

“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognised Him…The sun of love burns in His heart, and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the crowd, blind from childhood, cries out, ‘O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!’ and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the blind man sees Him. The crowd weeps and kisses the earth under His feet. Children throw flowers before Him, sing, and cry hosannah. ‘It is He- it is He!’ repeat. ‘It must be He, it can be no one but Him!’
…at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light… He knits his thick grey brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor…
In the pitch darkness the iron door of the prison is suddenly opened and the Grand Inquisitor himself comes in with a light in his hand. He is alone; the door is closed at once behind him. He stands in the doorway and for a minute or two gazes into His face. At last he goes up slowly, sets the light on the table and speaks.
“‘Is it Thou? Thou?’ but receiving no answer, he adds at once. ‘Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that.
…’Hast Thou the right to reveal to us one of the mysteries of that world from which Thou hast come?’ my old man asks Him, and answers the question for Him. ‘No, Thou hast not; that Thou mayest not add to what has been said of old, and mayest not take from men the freedom which Thou didst exalt when Thou wast on earth. Whatsoever Thou revealest anew will encroach on men’s freedom of faith; for it will be manifest as a miracle, and the freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago…
…When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: ‘Go, and come no more… come not at all, never, never!’ And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”

Questions:

  1. Does this critique of organized religion ring true for Judaism as well as Christianity? Do we have Jewish texts that echo this critique? Do we have anything that rebuts it?
  2. Dostoevsky clearly believes that people should be responsible only to God in their religious observance. Do we disagree? Do we believe that the religious establishment always represents God’s will?

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia 59b

…תנא: באותו היום השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו. אמר להם: אם הלכה כמותי – חרוב זה יוכיח. נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה…אמרו לו: אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב. חזר ואמר להם: אם הלכה כמותי – אמת המים יוכיחו. חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם. אמרו לו: אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים. חזר ואמר להם: אם הלכה כמותי – כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו. הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול. גער בהם רבי יהושע, אמר להם: אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה – אתם מה טיבכם? לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע, ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של רבי אליעזר, ועדין מטין ועומדין. חזר ואמר להם: אם הלכה כמותי – מן השמים יוכיחו. יצאתה בת קול ואמרה: מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום! עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר: לא בשמים היא. – מאי לא בשמים היא? – אמר רבי ירמיה: שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני, אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול, שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה אחרי רבים להטת. – אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו, אמר ליה: מאי עביד קודשא בריך הוא בההיא שעתא? – אמר ליה: קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני, נצחוני בני.  …It is taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer gave all of the answers in the world and they didn’t accept his opinion. He said to them, “If the Halakha is like me, let the carob tree prove it!” The carob tree was uprooted and transported 100 cubits…They said to him, “we do not bring proofs from a carob tree.” He said to them again, “If the Halakha is like me, let the water channel prove it.” The water in the channel flowed backwards. They said to him, “We do not bring proof from the water channel.” He said to them again, “If the Halakha is like me – let the walls of the Beit Midrash prove it!” The wall of the Beit Midrash leaned and began to fall. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them. He said to them, “If the Sages are defeating one another in Halakha, what has it got to do with you?” The walls didn’t fall because of the honor of Rabbi Joshua, and they didn’t stand back up because of the honor of Rabbi Eliezer and they are still leaning and standing. He said to them again, “If the Halakha is like me, let the heavens prove it!” A heavenly voice said, “What do you have against Rabbi Eliezer for the Halakha is like him everywhere!” Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven!” What is “It is not in Heaven?” Rabbi Yirmiyah said, “The Torah was given at Sinai and we do not pay attention to heavenly voices. For you already wrote in the Torah on Mount Sinai, “We side with the majority.” Rabbi Natan met Eliyahu. He said to him, “What was God doing at that moment?” He said to him, “He laughed and said, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.” 

Questions:

  1. Why is God happy at the end of this story? What has been achieved?
  2. What is the problem with Rabbi Eliezer’s approach? Why is Rabbi Joshua’s approach to be preferred? What is the relationship between doing God’s will and following the will of the Rabbis in this story?

Ibid. (cont.)

אמרו: אותו היום הביאו כל טהרות שטיהר רבי אליעזר ושרפום באש, ונמנו עליו וברכוהו…

ואף רבן גמליאל היה בא בספינה, עמד עליו נחשול לטבעו. אמר: כמדומה לי שאין זה אלא בשביל רבי אליעזר בן הורקנוס. עמד על רגליו ואמר: רבונו של עולם, גלוי וידוע לפניך שלא לכבודי עשיתי, ולא לכבוד בית אבא עשיתי, אלא לכבודך, שלא ירבו מחלוקות בישראל. נח הים מזעפו.

They said: That day the brought all of the pure things that Rabbi Eliezer said were pure and burned them. And they voted to excommunicate him…

Raban Gamliel was traveling by ship. A wind came up to sink it. He said, “I think this is only because of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus.” He stood on his feet and said, “Master of the world, it is well known to you that I did not do this for my own honor and not for the honor of my father’s house. Rather, I did it for your honor, so that there would not be multiple factions in Israel. The sea rested from the storm.

Questions:

  1. What do you make of this part of the story? Is it still a triumph?
  2. What do you make of Raban Gamliel’s claim that he acted for the glory of God to prevent factionalism in Israel? Is his choice to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer a subversion of God’s will? Why does the storm stop after he explains himself?

Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Moed Katan, 81c-d

ביקשו לנדות את רבי ליעזר אמר אמרין מאן אזל מודע ליה אמר רבי עקיבה אנא אזל מודע ליה אתא לגביה אמר ליה רבי רבי חביריך מנדין לך נסתיה נפק ליה לברא אמר חרוביתא חרוביתא אין הלכה כדבריהם איתעוקרין ולא איתעקרת אין הלכה כדבריי איתעוקרין ואיתעקרת אין הלכה כדבריי חוזרין ולא חזרת אין הלכה כדבריי חוזרין וחזרת כל הדין שבחא ולית הלכה כרבי אליעזר אמר רבי חנינה משניתנה לא ניתנה אלא אחרי רבים להטות ולית ר’ אלעזר ידע שאחרי רבים להטות לא הקפיד אלא על ידי ששרפו טהרותיו בפניו …אמר רבי ירמיה חכך גדול נעשה באותו היום כל מקום שהיתה עינו של רבי ליעזר מבטת היה נשדף … והיו עמודי בית הוועד מרופפים אמר להן רבי יהושע אם חברים מתלחמים אתם מה איכפת לכם ויצאה בת קול ואמרה הלכה כאליעזר בני אמר רבי יהושע לא בשמים היא
They attempted to excommunicate Rabbi ‘Liezer. They said, “Who will inform him?” Rabbi Akiva said, “I will go inform him.” He came to his side and said to him, “Rabbi! Rabbi! Your fellows are excommunicating you.” He took him outside. He said, “Carob tree! Carob tree! If the halakha is like their words, uproot!” And it did not uproot. “If the Halakha is like my words, uproot!” And it uprooted. “If the Halakha is like their words flow backwards!” And [the water] didn’t flow backwards. “If the Halakha is like my words, flow backwards!” And it flowed backwards. All these praises and still the Halakha is not like Rabbi Eliezer? Rabbi Chanina said, since it was given, it was only given according to the majority. And didn’t Rabbi Eliezer know that the Halakha goes according to the majority? He only got angry when they burned the things he had said were pure before him… Rabbi Yermiyah said, “There was great tribulation on that day. Every place where the Rabbi ‘Liezer’s eye looked was blasted… And the pillars of the meeting place were swaying. Rabbi Joshua said to them, “If the Sages are battling what does it matter to you?” And a Heavenly voice called down and said, “The Halakha is like Eliezer my son!” Rabbi Joshua said, “It is not in Heaven!”

Questions:

  1. What is the difference in the tone of the Yerushalmi and the Bavli? Who is the villain in the Yerushalmi? Who is the hero? What is the message of the Bavli version? What is the message of the Yerushalmi?
  2. Are there any echoes of Dostoevsky’s critique in this version of the story? Has God’s will been done by the Rabbis or subverted?

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamot, 102a

אמר רבה אמר רב כהנא אמר רב: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר חולצין במנעל – שומעין לו אין חולצין בסנדל – אין שומעין לו, שכבר נהגו העם בסנדל; ורב יוסף אמר רב כהנא אמר רב: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר אין חולצין במנעל – שומעין לו, אין חולצין בסנדל – אין שומעין לו, שכבר נהגו העם בסנדל. מאי בינייהו? איכא בינייהו מנעל לכתחלה.
Rabah said Rav Kahana said Rav said: If Elijah should come and say, ‘We do Chalitza with a shoe’ – we would listen to him. ‘We don’t do Chalitza with a sandal’ – we wouldn’t listen to him, for the nation’s custom is to use a sandal. And Rav Yosef said Rav Kahana said Rav said: If Elijah were to come and say ‘We don’t do Chalitza with a shoe’ – we would listen to him. ‘We don’t do Chalitza with a sandal’ – we wouldn’t listen to him, for the nation’s custom is to use a sandal. What is the difference between them? the difference is whether we can use a shoe initially.

Responsa Mishneh Halakhot v. 8 ch. 136

ואין אחר המנהג כלום ואפילו אם המנהג הונהג בדוחק מ”מ כבר קיי”ל דמנהג דוחה הלכה כמבואר בש”ך ח”מ סי’ ל”ח ועוד ואם בא אפילו גדול להנהיג מנהגים שלא כמנהג אבותינו ואפילו הביא לו סמוכים וראיות משיטת הגאונים אין שומעין לו ואפילו קטן שרוצה להחזיק במנהג אבותינו לו שומעין כי כן נהגו. ובגמ’ יבמות ק”ב אמר רב כהנא אמר רב אם יבא אליהו ויאמר אין חולצין במנעל שומעין לו אין חולצין בסנדל אין שומעין לו שכבר נהגו העם בסנדל וכו’ ע”ש הרי דאפילו אליהו יעיד שלא לחלוץ בסנדל אין שומעין לו דאתי לבטל מנהג ישראל.
… and there nothing can override the custom. And even if the custom was established with difficulty, in any case, we already hold that custom overrides the Halakha as it is explained in the Shakh. And also, even if a great person were to try to establish a custom that is not the custom of our ancestors, and even if they brought proofs and suggestions from the positions of the Geonim, we don’t listen to them. And even if a small person who wants to hold with the custom of our ancestors, we listen to them. And in the Gemara in Yebamot “Rav Kahana said Rav said, ‘If Elijah should come and say, ‘We do Chalitza with a shoe’ – we would listen to him. ‘We don’t do Chalitza with a sandal’ – we wouldn’t listen to him, for the nation’s custom is to use a sandal.’” Behold even if Elijah were to testify that we shouldn’t use a sandal for Chalitza, we wouldn’t listen to him because he has come to nullify the custom of Israel.

Questions:

  1. What is the place of the nation’s custom in determining God’s will? Does this mean that things that the community does as a whole are by definition God’s will? Can they do it on purpose? What if it’s against the will of the Rabbis’?