Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Concering the Production of Cucumbers By Magic: or, Amal and Ben study Talmud, Part One"

It occurs to me that maybe the whole last-minute interrogation about amulets and shoes is in order to distract Rabbi Eliezar so he won't use his last chance to blow up the world...

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 22, 2012 01:59 PM

You guys. Best midrash EVER. Ever ever ever.

Posted by Karen at August 22, 2012 03:35 PM

I did not know the story about the field of cucumbers. Totally in character for Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, though. Love it.

I am now wondering if there's some connection between great wisdom and anger issues in the Tradition. Moses: wonder working, legal wisdom, Divine speaks for him; anger, constant complaining, hitting stuff; dies outside the Land. Eliezer: wonder working, legal wisdom, Divine speaks for him; anger, constant complaining, setting stuff on fire; dies excommunicated. I can't think of another (Shammai?) but if it's just EbenH it's an awesome echo. If there are more, it's probably something deeper.


Posted by Vardibidian at August 22, 2012 04:22 PM

There's also the original Elisha, who flips out and gets kids devoured by bears if you mention his bald spot.

It's a very interesting speculation -- about the anger issues -- and we could sort of construct an obvious, albeit somewhat Marvel Comicsesque, explanation, in which being attuned to Higher Knowledge causes stress resulting in erratic behavior.

(To explain the Marvel allusion: I'm thinking Dark Phoenix, or one of those Kirby panels in which Dr. X or the Silver Surfer is holding their agonizing brains which are being filled with Ultimate Knowledge while they kneel and bend backwards in anatomically challenging postures and amazing Kirby spiky yellow energy with brown dots of various sizes around its borders flies out of their heads.)

However, I don't think we have enough data yet. I mean Gamaliel seems to be as cool as, you'll pardon the expression, a cucumber, and he can dispel tsunamis. And Akiba is the very essence of calm and savoir faire and self-possession, and he did LEARN the cucumber magic, plus he survives a trip to Pardes which drives other men mad, dead, or heretical. So I don't think it's a general rule necessarily, though there is a sense that You Might Not Want To Mess With This Stuff Unless You're, Like, Akiba Or Somebody.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 22, 2012 04:41 PM

You guys just made my day.

Posted by Sofia at August 22, 2012 04:49 PM

I like the Kirby Energy Spikes concept of Divine Inspiration, that leaves the recipient subject to uncontrollable rages. Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder, though, if it's just a simple lesson about how Sages of Blessed Memory are different, one to another, some being nice and others not very nice, warning us against taking our Sages as role models. Except that there are so many stories that tell us to take Sages as role models.

Also: wondering about how Jesus the wonder-worker fits into this, in terms of anger, wonder-working, unpleasant death. If the EbenH stories are (as they probably are) falling into their formal form (as it were) during the period of the ascendancy of the Jesus stories among the nations, they would fit in to a self-definition business that is very complicated and rich. EbenH as a sort of counter-Jesus. Although the Haninah ben Dosa wood-stretching would have to fit into it somewhere.

And a fight between Jesus and Eliezer would be awesome. Table-turning! Wall-bending! Tree-blasting! Crop-destroying! Eliezer causes a flood, but Jesus can walk on water! And the Sanhedrin standing around, taking bets and calling fouls.


Posted by Vardibidian at August 22, 2012 05:09 PM

V, do you have some other good tractates to point me at for Episode Two?

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 22, 2012 06:15 PM

This is awesome!

But I have a question. A couple of them, really.

1. Eliezer is doing, or asking to have done, all this stuff: the carob tree, the water, the walls, the voice from heaven.

The others say they're not going to accept those as valid arguments. But what was their understanding of the metaphysics of what was going on? Did they feel like Eliezer was in some way causing this stuff? Or calling on God to cause it? Or that it was all just happening because Nature itself agreed with Eliezer in all ways, so whatever he said was true by definition? (Did the walls make some kind of a conscious choice to take the middle road, or did the rabbis and/or God cause them to do so?) Or do these distinctions about causation not make sense in this context?

2. In particular, there was a voice from heaven! Whose voice are we to understand that that was? Was God speaking directly to them? Did they feel at all weird *IGNORING A VOICE FROM HEAVEN*? I mean, isn't that kind of the ultimate argument-from-authority?

3. The Wikipedia entry you linked to for "Not in Heaven" says, among other things:

"...God himself acquiesced in His exclusion from the halakhic process. Having revealed His will in Sinai in the _grundnorm_, He Himself, according to the Rabbinic explanation, entrusted the interpretation of His will to the Sages."

Okay, that's kind of cool. But if God entrusted the interpretation of His will to the Sages, then why intervene in their argument? Why send a voice from heaven to say, yeah, Eliezer is right?

It kind of sounds to me like a work meeting--or, say, a convention panel, but meeting might be apter given that the boss has the ability to fire people--where the boss (or moderator) says "You guys decide this on your own" but then five minutes later jumps in and says "Actually, that guy is right and the rest of you are wrong"--and then the rest of the execs (or panelists) say "Oh, don't pay any attention, that's just the boss(/moderator) talking, let's decide on our own." Admirably anarchist, but kind of surprising.

Posted by Jed at August 22, 2012 06:54 PM

Well, I think there are many possible answers to this. Interpretation of both the Torah and the Talmud is called midrash -- from lidrosh, "to seek" -- for a reason.

But what you're pointing to is clearly the point of the story. Yes, it was unambiguously a voice from heaven, i.e. God's voice (or perhaps an angel speaking on behalf of God, or some part of God's not-always-entirely-unitary-or-simple selfness). That's the whole point of the story. The sages overrule God. In fact the point of the story, teleologically speaking, is to establish that the sages can overrule God.

Did they feel weird doing so? I don't know; I expect they felt stubborn, and pissed off at Eleazar for showboating, and pissed off at God for intervening, and possibly scared. But they definitely felt that they were in the right to do so, and a good thing, too, from my perspective.

Here are some clues that help answer your questions. Consider the Prophet Elijah's report of God's reaction: He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me."

Did He laugh "with joy"? That's in brackets, so some commentator added that. Perhaps He laughed ruefully, or perhaps He actually found it hilarious. In any event, He was clearly surprised -- surprise is an element of laughter. He clearly saw it as a kind of competition -- the sages "defeated" Him. And He clearly was delighted -- or at least grudgingly amused -- to have lost. And for me, the reason is obvious from the word "sons". Because that's precisely the relationship in which you'd feel competitive, you'd try to intervene and control things, and then when you fail, when you are defeated, your reaction would be pride. I remember when Aviva started smoking me at poker, and when Knees Tag became unplayable because the kids got too good. I was so excited.

The other clue is Gamaliel's appeal which stops the tsunami: "Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! "

Consider: he's about to get whacked by a tsunami. He says this and the tsunami is calmed. The effect of his words is clearly to change God's mind. Is this because he provides new information? No -- as he says, "thou knowest full well". So why does it change God's mind? Presumably because he's calling God to account, reminding Him of his responsibilities and the consequences of His actions. That's why my gloss on it is: "Yes, yes, I got it, I voted down Your Heavenly Voice. But do you think Eliezar is the only one who can call down Your Heavenly Voice? Let's face it; you're kind of a loose cannon here."

The God of the Tanakh really is a loose cannon, constantly flipping out and destroying nations and species, then regretting it. The God of the Talmud seems mellower by comparison, but still not necessarily the most consistent dude.

In your analogy, they blow off the boss, or rather they say "hey! that's not your department, all right? you delegated that!" ("not in heaven!") and then later the boss is mad and calls the tech lead into his office in a tsunami-mood, and the tech lead calmly says, look, this isn't going to work out for you to delegate decisions and then meddle. I did this for your sake. And the boss says, ok, ok, I get it.

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 22, 2012 07:39 PM

Meredith Trauner comments in email:

"I learned an interesting point about the Akhnai oven from Rabbi Menachem Creditor: Eliezer, although against the rest of the rabbis, was taking the position of the common folk. Who wants to have to build a whole new oven every time a lizard happens to walk into yours? Nobody! Much better to just build your oven out of Lego bricks. (Everyone knows that a Lego oven can't be an unclean thing, because it isn't one thing at all, it's a whole bunch of bricks.) But no, the other rabbis wanted everything to be done the hard way."

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 24, 2012 10:29 AM

I told my children this story, and when I got to the part with Ima Shalom, they immediately broke in to translate her name as "Mother Hi".

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 27, 2012 10:55 AM

My kids also shed a little light on the source of the discomfited modern commentator's discomfort with Eliezar destroying the world. Like the commentator they took carob tree transposition and streams flowing backwards in stride but their question about Eliezar destroying the world was a good one: "but God wouldn't actually let him DO that, would He?"

Which actually does illustrate how odd the whole narrative sequence is, in the context of the notion of the divine in much of Jewish thought...

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at August 27, 2012 05:56 PM

Jed, I think you are heading at this story from the wrong angle. The context is really a legal one. The Oral Law (Mishnah/Talmud) is a kind of reference work for teachers/students/lawyers/judges in a sometimes arcane legal system with civil and criminal law combined, and under a dysfunctional federal system as well, where there are (1) religious figures enforcing the Law through moral suasion and social pressure, (B) a secular local political system enforcing the local law and customs with police and jails and so forth, and (iii) Rome, far away but tremendously powerful, enforcing some not-always-predictable subset of Roman law with troops, appointments and economic pressure. The works contains both statutory law and case law (told as anecdotes, often with discussion of whether the Sage made the appropriate decision, was too harsh or too lenient, what precedents were used, etc etc etc), and also philosophical background to assist courts in making decisions where it is difficult to apply precedent. Some of this involves inventing clearly fictional case law; some of it involves telling stories about judges, good ones and bad ones.

Your focus, then, on the relationship between the Divine and the sages, or on the Divine’s character and motivation in the story, is not the focus the author meant for the readers to have. This may seem strange, because we’re used to thinking of the Divine as the ultimate subject for inquiry, rather than as a minor character. A plot device, really. But the question is not what is the Nature of the Divine but How do I run my law court.

So. This Not in Heaven story is one of my favorites, in part of course because it is so utterly crazy that all it lacks is a magic fish, but mostly because it is teaching such an important lesson to the judges and lawmakers of the system: the Law is Not in Heaven but is a Law for humans to live with and humans to administer. Wonder-working and so forth is all very nice, but isn’t admissible evidence. In last week’s parsha we read that the Judges should “not respect persons” by which we mean that the law must be applied to rich and poor alike, to the princes and the populace alike. This is such an important principle that it applies even to Eliezar and his wondrous cucumber powers.

The obvious segue, then, is to the story of Honi the Circle-Drawer (Ta’anit 23a in the Mishnah), which I happen to adore, but hasn’t the depth of Eliezar’s story. Very little does have that kind of depth, of course; y’all started with the best. What I like about Honi, though, is how little we know about him and his supposed piety (the Sleeper part of the story is great but also delightfully vague). There’s a strange child-like quality to the whole story, and if you want to work on the character of the Divine, that’s a doozie as well.


Postscript: Every time I sat down to focus on writing this out the way I intended, I got distracted by something else. So I apologize both for the tardiness of the comment and the disjointed quality of it.

Posted by Vardibidian at August 28, 2012 06:24 PM

Belated thanks to Ben and V for the further explanation/commentary!

I have no further questions at the moment, except this:

Why *isn't* there a magic fish in this story? Now that you mention it, that does seem like kind of a glaring omission.

Posted by Jed at August 28, 2012 07:15 PM

Late addendum: I just realized from V's last comment how crucial the "Not In Heaven" story must have been as a practical, pragmatic matter in real-world law courts, in an age when miracle-workers (those perceived as such) were not at all uncommon. How many courtrooms must have been crowded by petitioners saying "but Magic Rabbi Steve can heal the lame, and he saw in a dream that I am innocent!" What enormous backup for the judges to be able to say, citing Baba Mezi'a 59b, "listen, Rabbi Steve could call a Heavenly Voice down for us all to hear this moment, and it still wouldn't be admissible evidence."

Posted by Benjamin Rosenbaum at September 26, 2012 08:53 AM

Post a comment

Please choose one:

Thank you.

Remember personal info?