May 21, 2019

The Champion of Spiritual Maturity

Who is your spiritual hero? Asked this at a recent conference, Irecalled a story from the Talmud.

The Rabbis of the first century considered the status of an oveninvented by an entrepreneur named Achnai. Rabbi Eliezer, thepatrician elder statesman of the academy, declared the oven pure. Buthis colleagues demurred and overruled him.

Rabbi Eliezer offered every argument. But his colleagues would notbudge. The oven was declared impure.

Enraged that neither his stature nor his argument could sway thedebate, Rabbi Eliezer produced a miracle: “Let the carob tree proveit!” he said. The earth shuddered, and the carob uprooted itself androcketed into the air.

“No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the scholarsretorted.

“Let the stream of water prove it!” he said. And the streamproceeded to flow backward.

“No proof can be brought from a stream,” the scholars said.

Rage pent up soon becomes spite. And Rabbi Eliezer, now boilingwith frustration, turned to the walls of the academy and commandedthem to fall in upon the assembled scholars. But his counterpart,Rabbi Joshua, arose and addressed the walls: “When scholars are indebate, what right do you have to interfere?” And, so, the walls didnot fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua. But neither did they resume theirupright position, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. To this day, thewalls of Yavneh — indeed, of all Jewish institutions — lean overjust a bit.

Finally, beyond all restraint, Rabbi Eliezer invokes the highestauthority: “If I am right, let it be proved by Heaven.” Whereupon,reports the Talmud, a Heavenly Voice called out: “Why do you disputeRabbi Eliezer? In all things, the law agrees with him!”

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua arose again and quoted a verse fromthis week’s Torah portion: “It [the Torah] is not in heaven!”(Deuteronomy 30:12). What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yermiahexplained: “The Torah has already been given on Mount Sinai.Therefore, we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice.”

Rabbi Eliezer produced real and wondrous miracles. On this, therewas no dispute. Nor was there disputing the reality and authenticityof the voice from heaven. But the Rabbis vested authority in neithermiracles nor voices. Rabbi Joshua speaks for the tradition when heorders God to recuse Himself from the discussion. God gave us Torah.And, along with Torah, the authority to interpret it, using thepowers of human reasoning, imagination and compassion. Even GodHimself cannot interrupt that process. Once the Torah was given, Godwas no longer revealed in miracles and voices, but expressed in humanintelligence and conscience. And how does God feel about all this?Listen to the story’s postscript:

Rabbi Nathan was a mystic who periodically met with Elijah theprophet, God’s messenger. Rabbi Nathan asked Elijah, “What did God doat that moment” — the moment when Rabbi Joshua pushed Him out of theacademy?

“He laughed with joy,” Elijah replied, “and said: ‘My childrenhave defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!”

A spirituality of obedience and submission, dependent uponmiracles and voices from the sky, represents spiritual childishness.Spiritual maturity demands the chutzpah to put away the need forsigns and wonders, and to cultivate the authority of conscience andthe powers of intelligence. We may not always be right. After all,Rabbi Joshua’s position contradicts the Voice of Heaven. In giving upthe voice of Authority from outside, we give up a degree of certaintyin our religious life. But we gain the opportunity to becomeempowered as spiritual adults. That is the will and vision of a Godwho celebrates, “My children have defeated Me!”

Rabbi Joshua, the champion of spiritual maturity, is my hero. Heunderstands the radical depth of Moses’ teachings in this week’sTorah portion (Deuteronomy 30:11-13): “Surely, this Torah which Ienjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is itbeyond your reach. It is not in heaven that you should say, ‘Whoamong us can go up to the heavens and get it for us?… No, the thingis very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observeit.”

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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