Jewish Journal


May 4, 2010

Always Heard

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)


During the rabbinic debate over the Oven of Akhnai, Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis disagree about the purity of an oven (Baba Metzia 58b-59a). Rabbi Eliezer is convinced he is right and, during the argument, miracles prove he is correct: a carob tree moves, a stream flows backward, the walls of the beit midrash tremble, and even a Bat Kol — a voice from heaven — cries out against the rabbis: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? In all matters, the halachah agrees with him.”

Famously, Rabbi Joshua rebukes the Bat Kol: “The Torah is not in heaven,” which Rabbi Jeremiah explains to mean: “Since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You wrote long ago in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘After the majority must one incline.’ ”

Advocates for changing the Jewish tradition love to quote this story, especially its conclusion: “Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him: ‘What did the Holy Blessed One do at that moment?’ ” “God laughed [with joy],” Elijah replied, saying, “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me,” interpreting God’s laughter — and the moral of the story — as divine endorsement of total rabbinic authority over the Jewish tradition.

But the story doesn’t end there. In the Talmud, the story frames a conversation about a verse in this week’s parasha: “Don’t be cruel to one another. You should fear your God. I am Adonai your God” (Leviticus 25:17).

Rabbinic tradition understands the particular type of cruelty being referred to in this verse as ona’at devarim — verbal cruelty. Before the story begins, Rabbi Hisda is quoted as saying: “All gates [of prayer] are locked, except the gates [through which pass the cries of] ona’ah [wounded feelings].” The rabbis give many examples of ona’at devarim:

• a buyer should not ask a seller for the price of an item if one has no intention of buying;
• one must not taunt a convert who comes to study Torah saying, “Shall the mouth that ate forbidden food come to study Torah uttered by the mouth of God?”;
• and one must not speak to someone in pain as Job’s companions spoke to him saying, “Whoever perished being innocent?”

The quintessential example of ona’at devarim is how the rabbis treat Rabbi Eliezer — it was not enough to win the argument; they had to destroy him, too.

“On that day, all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.” Rabbi Akiba gently informs him of the news and Rabbi Eliezer rends his garments, removes his shoes, sits on the ground and tears stream from his eyes — tears of ona’ah that, in light of Rabbi Hisda’s statement, rise to heaven and bring calamity on the world: “The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up.” Not only does the rabbis’ cruelty directed toward one of their own bring destruction to the natural world, it threatens to destroy the rabbinic academy itself.

When a wave threatens to wreck a ship he is traveling in, Rabban Gamliel, head of the rabbinic academy, defends himself: “God, You know that I acted not for my own honor, nor for the honor of my father’s house, but for You, so that strife would not multiply in Israel,” at which the raging sea subsided. But Rabbi Eliezer’s tears will not be contained.

A woman named Ima Shalom is caught in the middle: She is married to Rabbi Eliezer and is Rabban Gamliel’s sister. Afraid for her brother’s life, and aware of the power of her husband’s tears to wreak havoc, she carefully watches Rabbi Eliezer and prevents him from falling on his face to say the Tachanun prayer, an intense plea before God. But one day, she makes a mistake and returns to find Rabbi Eliezer fallen on his face.

“Arise,” she cries out, “You have killed my brother!”

Rabbi Eliezer asks his wife, “How did you know [that my prayer led to his death]?”

“I have a tradition from my father’s house,” she says. “All gates [of prayer] are locked, except the gates [through which pass the cries] of ona’ah [wounded feelings].”

Sometimes we must choose between being right and being in a relationship. Rabbi Eliezer was right, but he would not follow the majority. The rabbis had the right to impose their decision, but they were cruel and chose to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer. In doing so, they wounded him and lost their leader in return. Be careful in being right that you do not become cruel along the way. The cries from those we’ve hurt rise straight to heaven.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber will be a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Israel for the 2010-11 academic year and, in July 2011, will become the rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, N.C. He is currently completing an eight-year tenure as the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

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