Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Concering the Production of Cucumbers By Magic: or, Amal and Ben study Talmud, Part One
me: so which do you want to hear about
more about the tragic life of elisha ben abuyah?
or about the magic cucumbers?
Amal: magic cucumbers!
me: So Rabbi Eliezer has been placed under a ban
probably not as harsh as the ban which will later be placed on Elisha ben Abuyah
but he's def got cooties
OH HOLY CRAP WAIT A MINNIT
I just realized who Eliezer is!
he's THE OVEN GUY!
so they are arguing about an oven
and whether the oven could become unclean
this is an akhnai oven
"an oven consisting of tiles separated from one another by sand, but externally plastered over with cement"
he refuses to go with the flow about this oven
they all think the oven can become unclean
he thinks, no, it can't
he summons a voice from heaven
i cite a paraphrase here:
It has been taught: On that day (of the discussion about the new Aknai oven) R. 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 R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what (right) have you to interfere?"
Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright (position), in honor of R. 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 voice from heaven called out: "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!"
But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It is not in heaven."
What did he mean by this?
Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol (the heavenly voice), because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "After the majority must one incline."
R. Nathan met Elijah (the prophet) and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?
He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me."
... this is a pretty crucial moment in Judaism becoming a religion of egalitarian debate rather than of ongoing revelation. it means no one has pope-like access to the Latest Divine News
but moving on
so they ban him
me: this is a tricky business because as you may have noted
he has friends upstairs
in fact, he has the power to destroy the world
if he's in a bad mood
However Rabbi Akiva is the man for the job
he's a smooth talker
you'll recall he's the only one of the four to enter paradise and survive
he dons black garments and sits at a distance of four cubits from eliezer
which i guess is how close you're allowed to sit to a banned person
just to be clear
Amal: he's been banned because of his opinion on ovens.
me: i don't think so
because they have differing opinions on everything all the time
my opinion is that he's being banned because he's a fuckin' showoff
Amal: hee! okay.
me: plus he tried to collapse the building on them
and they'd all be flat except luckily rabbi joshua cast a counterspell in time
and folks are pissed off
Amal: By "counterspell" you mean he pointed out the logistics of how this could not possibly happen because the walls would not collapse on debating scholars, right?
The cinematic illustration of this in my head is pretty awesome btw.
me: well what he actually said was "When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?"
he rebuked the walls, basically
Amal: So like, they were crumbling, and then they uncrumbled.
He RETCONNED THE WALLS.
me: but in order to not piss off Eliezer, the walls were now leaning
they were conflict-avoidant walls
Amal: (DIES LAUGHING)
Ben Judaism is AWESOME.
OK go on.
me: they were just hanging out, being walls, and now they're stuck in the middle of a magic rabbi fight
Akiba says, "I got this"
i.e. "I will go," answered R. Akiba, "lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world."
it is very funny to read the footnote by the modern commentator who is clearly deeply uncomfortable with the serious magic shit going down here and writes: " I.e., commit a great wrong by informing him tactlessly and brutally."
excuse me modern commentator did you just see the walls and the brook and the heavenly voice?
me: i'm pretty sure if Akiba says Eliezer can destroy the world, he's speaking literally
Amal: Modern commentators are the best.
me: you modern commentators get off my lawn
Amal: Or rather discomfited commentators of any period are the best.
so Akiba sits four cubits away and Eliezer is suspicious like, um, why are you sitting exactly four cubits from me punk?
"Akiba," said R. Eliezer to him, "what has particularly happened to-day?
"Master," he replied, "it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee." Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes.
So after this very sympathetic and indirect way of informing Eliezer
Eliezer is somewhat mollified, where somewhat mollified means that in his temper tantrum he only:
a) destroys a third of the world's olives
b)destroys a third of the wheat
c) destroys a third of the barley
d) optionally, according to some, "the dough in women"s hands swelled up", which if you ask me is kind of a plus really, but hey
e) burned a bunch of stuff with his eyes, X-Men-Cyclops style
f) rose a giant tsunami to drown Rabbi Gamaliel, who is the president of the assembly and so most directly responsible for the ban, plus he probably was the one who had the idea, not being any too pleased about his authority being upstaged by brooks, collapsing walls, and heavenly voices
Amal: d) (but what if it was supposed to be unleavened bread!)
me: OH GOOD POINT
though, no, I don't think screwing up religious observance is Eliezar's style
destroying the world, yes.
Amal: (you know the Arabic word for yeast is "corruption"?)
well maybe it was passover, and he made the bread rise knowing they'd have to throw it out
and start over which DOES sound like his style
Amal: Right, that was the impression I was getting!
Oh man imagine the women!
NOOOOOO OUR DOUGH IS RISING
WHAT IS HAPPENING
me: "ha ha suckers! barley -- BOOM! olives -- BOOM! better start baking that matza again honey!"
Amal: STUPID RABBIS!
me: "ban me, will you!"
me: So anyway, Gamaliel is in this boat, and there's a tsunami
"It appears to me," he reflected, "that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus."
Amal: Gamaliel ancestor of Sherlock!
me: my thinking exactly
So then he sweet-talks God, saying, "Listen, God, I did not do this for my own honor, nor that of my family. I did it for You. Just stop a second and think what would have happened if I'd let him prevail. 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."
"If I let Eliezer get away with this, the whole assembly would be dominated by any half-assed magic rabbi who could turn a stream backwards or destroy a world. Is that really what you want? Torah debate decided by dueling magicians? We might as well go back to turning staves into snakes, am I right? So chill, okay?"
or at least that's what I got out of
"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! "
me: At that the raging sea subsided.
Okay so Eliezer is mad.
He goes home.
he's calmed down enough not to destroy the world
but he's simmering.
he's kind of a crotchety old bastard.
Every day he says his prayers and there's this emotional climax, this particular space for private prayer, after the Eighteen Benedictions. Back in those days, you"d fall on your face in supplication at this point in the service.
Now check it out.
Eliezer has a wife.
His wife is named Ima Shalom
"the Mommy of Peace"
She also happens to be Rabbi Gamaliel's sister
She knows her husband is working himself up into a lather about her brother
So every day, when he's about to fall on his face and ask for what's closest to his heart
she interrupts him
day after day
Eliezer comes to the end of his prayers, kneels with his creaky old knees onto the carpet, starts mumbling, "Sovereign of the Universe, thou knowest the desire of my..."
"Elieeezer! Did you take out the trash?"
"Gaddamit woman i'm -- ah hell --!"
Possibly she's less subtle
Maybe she's like "Oh HELL no because I KNOW you thinking on messing with my brother and ain't NOHOW happening around here because I WILL get in your face Eliezer!"
this would have worked
except that she makes an error in her calendrical calculations
see, on the Festival of the New Moon you can't perform petitionary prayers, I guess.
So she thinks it's a 29-day month and today is the New Moon
and so just as she's going to interrupt him
a poor man comes to the door begging
and she's like "well, it's the New Moon anyway, so he's not allowed to fall on his face"
so she takes the beggar some bread
and when she comes in
there's Rabbi Eliezer, on his face.
"Aw FUCK" says Ima Shalom
"Arise," she cried out to him, "thou hast slain my brother."
"How do you know?" he says, rather evasively.
"We have a saying in my family", she says: "all gates are locked, except the gates of wounded feelings"
at this point the tractate in question, Baba Mezi'a 59b, veers off into a digression about wounded feelings
me: in particular, hurting the feelings of converts to judaism
Amal: Hold up.
Amal: I suddenly need to switch PhDs
me: ha ha ha ha
Amal: I need to become a Talmudic scholar in order to illuminate the Talmudic influence on The Princess Bride.
OK carry on.
me: some say hurting the feelings of a convert breaks three laws. Some say two.
they debate about it a little bit.
Eliezer, never one to do things by halves, apparently claimed it broke thirty-six, or possibly forty-six laws
Also, if someone's ancestor was executed by hanging
don't say "hang this fish up for me"
because that shit is not funny
then they start talking about produce
so we skip over to Sanhedrin 68a
a whole other part of the Talmud
Eliezer is sick, he's dying
the rabbis decide to come visit
even though he's under a ban
plus, he killed Gamaliel
the guy's dying
So they go sit in the living room
he's in his canopied four-poster bed
I did not make that detail up
me: this is ancient Judea, or possibly Babylon, women are carrying water in clay pots on their heads, peasants sleeping with their goats
dude has a canopied four-poster bed
Amal: He can TIME TRAVEL!
me: no doubt
they're sitting in the living room, because you know
...four cubits, right?
So Ima Shalom is there, and Eliezer's son Hyrcanus is there
What kind of name is Hyrcanus for the son of a magic rabbi?
a greek name, that's what kind
however, it was Eliezer's father's name too
it's Friday night
they've got to get ready to do the sabbath thing
Hyrcanus (the son) goes in to take off Eliezer's tefillin
you can't wear tefillin on the sabbath
Amal: how come?
me: they're a weekday thing
i guess it's work?
or perhaps it's just too reminiscent of weekdays
but this is a somewhat later rule, right? a rabbinical rule
me: a rule made up by Eliezer and Gamaliel and those guys
so Eliezer yells at him
and Hyrcanus goes out crestfallen, like "he won't let me take off his tefillin, I think he's losing it"
and the rabbis are like, "no, he's not the crazy one. your mother is the crazy one, for putting a minor issue like tefillin before major issues punishable by death."
now the assumption is that they are talking about lighting the candles and putting away the meal. in other words, they are saying that paying attention to tefillin rather than to the primary laws of the sabbath is crazy
the interesting question here is, why do they say, "no your MOTHER is crazy"
since it was Hyrcanus, not Ima Shalom, who wanted to take off Eliezer's tefillin?
The text is not clear but I believe I detect a backhanded compliment to Ima Shalom (who is after all Gamaliel"s sister, and no slouch since she kept Gamaliel alive for months with her timely interventions) and a backhanded insult to Hyrcanus
because they rebuke her as crazy -- not ignorant
they expect her to be able to grasp this point of Talmudic reasoning. They pointedly don't expect it of Hyrcanus.
With his freakin' poser greek name.
So now from this incident
they're pretty sure Eliezer is not crazy, he's still sharp as a tack
so they get their courage up and they go in his room
but they have to stay four cubits away
so they're, like, pressed up against the walls.
"what are you doing here?" shouts eliezer
"we, uh, we, uh..." no one wants to tell him he's dying. "we (ahem) we came to study Torah with you."
"oh," says Eliezer, "oh NOW you come? NOW you come to study Torah? Why the fuck do you come NOW?"
"Uh, we were really busy," they say.
I am not making this up.
"And why did ye not come before now", he asked? They answered, "We had no time".
He then said, "I will be surprised if these die a natural death".
So that's a pretty serious threat.
Rabbi Akiba is there and he's, as we know, a smooth guy, not one to lose his head
R. Akiba asked him, "And what will my death be?"
Eliezer says, "Yours will be more cruel than theirs".
Eliezer knows what he's about because Akiba is going to lead a revolt against Rome and be tortured to death
Then Eliezer throws his arms over his heart and says "oh poor arms, you are like wrapped up torah scrolls! I know SO MUCH you guys! I know SO MUCH! Even though I only got as much from my teachers as a dog lapping from the ocean, it is WAY MORE than my students ever were willing to learn from me!"
"they only drew from me like a blob of ink from a tube!"
I know THREE HUNDRED LAWS about a deep bright spot which is one obscure form of leprosy!
But has anyone ever asked me about them?
I know THREE HUNDRED (some say three thousand) laws about planting cucumbers!
But no one except Akiba ever asked me about them!"
now when Eliezer says "laws"
i'm pretty sure it's a euphemism
as we're about to find out
"One time Akiba and I were walking together on a road, and he said to me, 'master, teach me about the planting of cucumbers' "
"And I was like oh? CUCUMBERS? You want CUCUMBERS?
So I said ONE THING and the whole field was full of cucumbers."
(That is the kind of, ahem, "law" that Eliezer means)
"So then he said 'master, you have taught me how to plant them, now teach me how to pluck them up.'"
that's Akiba for you. Unflappable.
"I said something and all the cucumbers gathered in one place."
So the visitors are getting a little uncomfortable.
He was banned for being a showoff, he's dying, now here they are to make amends, and he's still grandstanding about cucumbers
So they decide to cut to the chase
And they ask him --
here it comes --
"What is the law of a ball, a shoemaker's last, an amulet, a leather bag containing pearls, and a small weight?"
Now you may ask
why is this a big deal?
Because they are going back to the disagreements about uncleanliness.
Eliezer thought the oven was clean.
He also thought that if a leather object designed to carry something permanently became unclean, you could cleanse it without removing the stuffing
the Sanhedrin --the rabbinical council --disagreed
they said, you have to take the stuffing out
also note that they are talking about magic things. An amulet, and a leather bag containing pearls, worn about the neck to prevent illness
Also cows wore these pearl-bags around their necks
but I digress.
So they are basically like "yeah yeah, you know a lot of Torah, you can grow cucumbers with magic but WHAT about the law of CLEANSING LEATHER ITEMS MEANT TO CARRY THINGS PERMANENTLY? What about THAT huh???"
And he says "Goddamnit I told you punks a long time ago you can clean them without removing the stuffing! YOU don't HAVE TO REMOVE THE STUFFING!"
And they are like "what of a shoe that is on the last?"
the shoe has never been worn. The rabbis regard it as finished and thus liable to become unclean but Eliezer thinks it's not finished until you remove it from the last
Eliezer, red with fury, yells "it's CLEAN!!!!"
and with those words he dies
And then they remove the ban and they all act really sad
I mean, I don't mean to imply that it's an act
he was a seriously powerful and wise dude, albeit kind of scary
so they probably have mixed feelings, and now that he's dead, grief gets the upper hand
Akiba beats himself bloody with grief while they're carrying the coffin, which is not much like him
he gives the funeral address and everyone is sad
so then the talmud returns, having finished this anecdote
to the original question of Sanhedrin 68a, which is
who did Akiba learn cucumber magic from?
did he really learn it from Rabbi Eliezer?
Or did he learn it from Rabbi Joshua?
For some reason this is a big deal
The rabbis then answer themselves
Eliezer just SHOWED him the cucumber magic
but he didn't know how to DO it until Rabbi Joshua taught him
And then some rabbis break in and say
hold up now
are we actually supposed to do magic?
Isn't there something in Deuteronomy 18:9 about not doing any magic?
Posted by benrosen at August 22, 2012 01:31 PM
| Up to blog
And then some other rabbis answer them
no no it's cool
as long as you don't EAT the cucumbers
you can't do magic TO DO MAGIC
but you can do magic to learn
he was just SHOWING him how to magically create cucumbers
you can do pure research in magic, as a way of understanding the universe's workings, that's okay.
"For it has been said, Thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of these nations: thou mayest not learn in order to practise, but thou mayest learn in order to understand"
And that is the story of Rabbi Eliezer and the cucumber magic
also I am suddenly SO HUNGRY FOR CUCUMBERS
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...
You guys. Best midrash EVER. Ever ever ever.
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.
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.
You guys just made my day.
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.
V, do you have some other good tractates to point me at for Episode Two?
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.
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.
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."
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".
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...
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.
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.
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."