The Story Of Rabbi Eliezer

The following story from the Babylonian Talmud (Seder Nezikin, Baba Metzia 59b speaks for itself:

[…] Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them:

– ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’

Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits.

– ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.

Again he said to them:

– ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’

Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards

– ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.

Again he urged:

– ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall.

But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying:

– ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’

Hence they did not fall, in honour of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to them:

– ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’

Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out:

– ‘Why do ye dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him?’

But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed:

– ‘It is not in heaven.’

What did he mean by this? — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You (God) have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him:

– What did (God) the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?

– He laughed [with joy], [Elijah] replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’

It was said: 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.

A number of issues appear with this story. The ones that are immediately obvious are listed below:

  • Nowhere in the Old Testament (Tanakh) does it say that one should follow the majority, as Rabbi Jeremiah claims. This is a statement from the Oral Law.
  • The main theme of this story is the “correct interpretation” of the Old Testament (Tanakh), instead of forming a relationship with God and of focussing on what God says about the passage.
  • This story allows the rabbis to supersede God’s word, i.e. to interpret it at their own will and to create new commandements that God never intended.
  • Using this story and other passages in the Talmud, the rabbis put themselves above God himself by claiming that he (God) has to conform to the interpretations of the rabbis.

This frame of mind makes me wonder whether it isn’t the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.
Jeremiah 8.8

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