Dear Rabbi Fried,
In your columns, you often take a very, pardon my expression, uncompromising view on life questions based upon the Torah, often quoting the Talmud. I recently heard from my rabbi a contrary view based upon the Talmud. In the story of whether or not a certain oven was ritually pure, there was an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages. Rabbi Eliezer proved his point by a tree miraculously uprooting, the river flowing the opposite way and the walls of the study hall falling, all not fazing the other rabbis. A voice even came out from heaven saying that the truth is with Rabbi Eliezer, also not fazing the other rabbis into changing their opinion. God laughed, saying, “My children have prevailed over me.” We see that worldly needs to be lenient can even prevail over God’s strict interpretation of the Torah, and rabbis can factor in the human factor of need, which is ultimately God’s will. This would affect the Jewish view of homosexuality and many other human issues. What is your answer to this?
I would encourage your rabbi, with all due respect, to study that passage of Talmud in its source (Tractate Bava Metzia 59b), rather than quoting it wrongly and completely out of context.
Firstly, it was Rabbi Eliezer, not the sages, who held the lenient opinion concerning the oven.
Secondly, their argument, especially in light of the above, had nothing to do with worldly needs whatsoever. It was a purely legalistic dispute having to do with the intricacies of the laws of tumah and taharah, ritual purity and impurity, vis-à-vis the laws of holy foods such as tithing and sacrifices in the Temple.
The Talmud itself explains the point of the story, which is twofold.
The first concept elucidated in that source is that all disputes in Torah law are decided by the majority opinion. All the miraculous proofs in the world would not influence or stun the rabbis into changing their understanding of the issue.
The next concept is that the Torah was given in a way that depends upon the understanding of the human mind. The Torah is not an unmoving, lifeless document that sits in an ark or a bookshelf. It’s alive through those who dedicate their lives to its study; its heart beats through their hearts and breathes through their lungs. When people such as these master the entirety of the written and oral Torah, with all its depth and subtleties, and have trained their minds to think in accordance with the logic of Torah, their opinions on any given matter are Torah.
Lastly, the Talmud says that the story teaches us “Lo bashomayim hee,” meaning that once the Torah was transmitted at Sinai, it is now up to mortal men of the above definition to understand and interpret it; it is no longer “in heaven” to be decided.
What brought G-d to joy and laughter was to see these concepts embodied in His children. Although heaven’s view on things might be one way, G-d’s will is that questions of Jewish law be decided by the halachic process dictated by the Torah itself. This is the decision of the understanding of the majority versus the minority opinion. The Torah does not include the uprooting of trees or even a voice from heaven in the halachic process. The profound and steadfast belief in this system by the sages is what brought G-d such joy.
I don’t believe my views are uncompromising. They come, rather, from the belief that the Torah was transmitted at Sinai and is the ultimate truth. It provides us clear direction on the thorniest of issues, offering a welcome ray of light in such a cloudy and confused world.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,