It is taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Halakhah (religious law) is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted.
And again he said to them “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!” Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” they rejoined.
Again he urged, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!” Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, “When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere?” Hence in deference to R. Joshua they did not fall and in deference to R. Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they are still standing aslant.
Again R. Eliezer then said to the Sages, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?” R. Joshua stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven!” (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline’. (Ex. 23:2)”
R. Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah: “He laughed [with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'”
Baba Tetzia 59b as quoted at jhom.com
If you’re not an observant Jew or otherwise don’t have the benefit of a classic Jewish religious education, the comments I’ve just quoted may seem completely alien to you. If you are a Christian and understand the implications of what is being said, you are probably offended right now. Why would you be offended? Because this teaching from the Talmud justifies the Rabbinic authority to interpret Torah. “The Torah is not in Heaven” means that the Torah was revealed but not interpreted by the Prophets or even by God and His miracles, but by learned study, decision-making, and legal rulings.
Within this context, that seems to mean that man’s word trumps God’s authority. What a shocking thing to say, but it explains much about Judaism and why the Jewish understanding of God and the Bible is fundamentally different than Christianity.
Is this just some colossal conceit on the part of Judaism to dare override the word of God and to impose man’s wisdom and authority over the Creator? From a superficial point of view, I’m sure it seems that way. And yet, though Christianity, including many factions of the “Messianic” movement, believe they are following the pure and uninfluenced “Word of God” and the teachings of Jesus Christ by shunning Talmudic principals, in fact, the vast majority of what Christians consider God’s unalterable truth was established by the so-called “church Fathers” in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Unfortunately, this coincides with the rejection of Jewish leadership from the early church and the ghastly birth of supersessionist theology, with the non-Jewish believers commandeering all of God’s covenant promises to the Jewish people for the church alone.
If God spoke from heaven (Bat Kol) to the Christian church, explained to us that our treatment of the Jewish people has been terribly wrong during the past 2,000 years, and demanded that we make immediate reparations to His chosen people, would not the church respond with its own version of “the New Testament is not in Heaven?” Would we not say that, according to our own interpretation of the Bible and the rulings of our “judges and fathers” that how we Christians have persecuted and maligned the Jews throughout the history of the church has been correct? Would we attempt to “defeat” God in that manner? In fact, that’s exactly what Christianity has done.
In this instance, I’m not so much arguing for Rabbinic authority as against Christian hypocracy. We Christians say that the Jews have no right or authority to interpret God’s Torah as they do and yet the church does exactly the same thing. We just dress it up differently and pretend we’re obeying the Word of God rather than our own willful judgments. We quote scripture to back up our claims, all the while knowing that even the Adversary has done this to justify his causes (see Matthew 4:1-11).
An anonymous person on Judah Himango’s blog was deriding the celebration of Christmas by believers recently and said the following:
It’s not about what I think or you think as mush [sic] as it is about what YHWH’s word says and what Yeshua did. Yeshua is the Living Word, it is in His Way we want to follow…
The fallacy expressed here is that the commenter believes he or she doesn’t interpret the Bible but literally follows its instructions. I’ve already written my Christmas blog (OK, I wrote it twice), so I’m not going to debate that whole thing again, but I want to make the point that we all interpret the Bible and that (in my humble opinion) no one has the inside track and the complete lock on what the Bible does and doesn’t say to Judaism, Christianity, and mankind. We’re all dancing madly on the head of a pin trying not to fall off or get skewered. We read the Bible, we study, we pray, we go to classes, we search the Internet, we attempt to glean wisdom and understanding, but in the end, even within the church, we are hopelessly fragmented about the overarching message of the scriptures. We Christians don’t even realize that, when we incorporated the Jewish Tanakh into our Holy Book as the “Old Testament”, we accepted the placement of sentences, capitalization, punctuation, and for the most part, organization of chapters and verses, and all of that was not determined in the original scrolls but by Jewish Rabbinic tradition!
At some point, just because we don’t want to go insane or leave our faith in disgust and dispair, we make a decision based on tradition, what our family did, what our family didn’t do, or the passion we see in a particular branch of one religion or another, and we say to ourselves, “this is it!” We say, “this is what God wants me to do!” Of course, that’s what everyone tells themselves when they make a spiritual decision, regardless of what denomination of Christianity they settle into, or into what branch of Judaism they subscribe.
I remember reading somewhere that when the Third Temple (see the Book of Ezekiel) is built, God will build it Himself and then deliver it to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from Heaven (not unlike Revelation 21:1-3)…all except the doors. I read somewhere that in ancient times, hanging the doors on a structure was a legal act and determined ownership of the place. Hanging the doors was usually the last act in construction and even if a person built an entire house by himself, if someone came in the night and hung the doors, that person owned the house, not the builder.
I can’t remember where I read all this but bear with me. This is important.
When God delivers the New Temple from Heaven (I know this is midrash and events may not actually happen this way, but let’s go with it for now), it will be complete, except the doors will be missing. Why will the doors be missing? Because God will require man to hang the doors. Man must take ownership of his relationship with God and his duties to God as expressed in the Temple. If humanity, with the Jewish people administering Temple worship “as in days of old and as in former years” (Malachi 3:4) don’t take ownership of their relationship with God, then we have no relationship with God. We’re just wind-up toy soldiers playing a part in some lifeless version of The Nutcracker Suite (which by the way, my wife and daughter saw again just the other night and adored); robots acting out the will of God but taking no “partnership” role in that will.
I’m not talking about rebelling against God or attempting to override His authority or sovereign will, but behaving as participating junior members of Creation with God. I’ve mentioned the principle of tikkun olam (repairing the world) many times before and in order to fulfill this mandate, we have to take an active role with God in this work. To do that, we must take a form of ownership over our role as agents of God and over our understanding of His Word to us. That means taking the risk of being wrong, but doing our best anyway, to understand the infinite and unique One God, and to proceed with faith and courage.
If we are honest with ourselves and God, we should have already admitted that we’ve gotten something wrong and misunderstood God’s intent in many areas of our lives. That shouldn’t stop us from doing our best to live as holy people, but it should stop us from judging others. It should also absolutely stop us from believing that our particular brand of religion has it right while everyone else has it wrong.
It is said that God has two attributes: the attribute of Justice and the attribute of Mercy. If God created the world with more Justice than Mercy, no one would survive since no one is righteous (Romans 3:10). If God created the world with more Mercy than Justice, then we would all literally get away with murder and there would be no Judge. If He created the world with absolutely equal parts, we would all have only one chance to “get it right” the first time and then no more. God’s solution was to create the world with just a tiny bit more Mercy than Justice and that’s the world we live in today (though we’ve managed to break it since Creation). There will be a final judgment in the end, but God also allows us to make foolish mistakes, as a patient father allows a small child to stumble while trying to walk. He doesn’t expect perfection and knows we are far from capable of achieving His perfect expectations, but He does desire that we struggle with the questions about our relationship with the Divine that are always on the verge of driving us mad.
But if He is so merciful to us, why do we dare judge our fellows so harshly against our own limited and miserly standards (and make no mistake, when we judge others by our interpretation of the Bible, we are almost always using our standards and not God’s)? Have we not heard that He will forgive our transgressions in the same manner as we have forgiven those who have transgressed against us (Matthew 6:12)? Do we not believe that if God were to judge us the way we judge others, we would all be lost forever? Have we not asked ourselves “when the Son of Man returns will he find faith (Luke 18:8)?”
And yet some of us choose to employ the celebration of Christmas by others as a iron rod to beat our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ into a bloody pulp. Even if God were to judge those who adhere to the celebration of the birth of the Savior as “wrong”, it is His right to do so, not ours. Even if God were to judge those Jews who adhere to the rulings of the Rabbnic sages as “wrong”, it is His right to do so, not ours. If God has truly ruled that the Torah (and the New Testament) is not in Heaven, but was given to man to administer, then what we loose here on Earth is also loosed in Heaven (Matthew 18:18). In this, we are doing our imperfect best to join with God in being good stewards of Creation by influencing, with God, both Heaven and Earth.
If you get nothing else from this morning’s meditation, please, please take a pair of tweezers, go to your bathroom mirror, and practice pulling that huge piece of lumber out of your eye, before attempting to perform major optical surgery to remove the virtually microscopic speck in your neighbor’s eye.