Monday, April 16, 2012

What did R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua fight about?

Kids like the The Hunger Games. Bored housewives, Time magazine tells us, are swooning over Fifty Shades of Grey But the trilogy that has my attention is The Sages, by Benjamin Lau. As I told you after I finished volume I (The Second Temple Period) the appealing thesis of this series is that by unpacking some of their great teachings we can discover tantalizing information about the world in which the Sages lived and the forces that shaped their personalities.

In the first volume Lau presents the context of the famous Hillel and Shamai disagreements. In the second (From Yavneh to the Bar Kochba Revolt) he explains how their fundamental philosophical points of disagreement survived in the teaching and behavior of their intellectual heirs, including R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus* and R.Yehoshua.

* I wonder if anyone ever said to him, "Nu, what's your father's Yiddish name?"

A favorite example: Eliezer Hyrcanus was, by the standards of Yavneh, an arch conservative who claimed never to have taught anything he hadn't heard from his own teachers, a group that, ironically enough, included the great reformer R. Yochanan b. Zakai. R. Eliezer's chief intellectual rival was R. Yehoshua who believed the work of a Sage was inherently a creative exercise. In several anecdotes, students visit R. Eliezer, who invariably asks: "What novel thing was taught in the Bes Medrash today?" As Lau shows to my satisfaction, this question is a taunt when R. Eliezer asks it.** The possibility that Sages might invent something new is unacceptable to him. When R. Eliezer asks his students "What novel thing was taught in the Bes Medrash today?" he is really challenging R. Yehoshua's right to be innovative and his practice of putting questions of religious law a to a vote.

** When students visit R. Yehoshua he also asks this question. Through the stories, Lau shows that R. Yehoshua's attitude is very different. His question is sincere. He approves of novel teachings. 

As Lau frames it, the battles between R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and R.Yehoshua are arguments over the origins of authority. R. Yehoshua, in this presentation, has the healthy self-doubt of a modern. He doesn't trust himself or his traditions. In one story - the famous Oven of Ahknai - R. Yehoshua even disavows supernatural signs and refuses to be swayed by the testimony of a Bas Kol. Authority, he insists, is rooted in human deliberation and human consensus. Lo baShamayim he: We will arrive at the right answer together through the use of our own minds and our own powers of creativity. And the answer we arrive at through the use of process is, by definition, the correct answer.

R. Eliezer, on the other hand, will have none of this. Like strict traditionalists of our own day, the only teachings that R. Eliezer finds legitimate are the teachings R. Eliezer claims to have heard directly from his own teachers. And I use the word "claim" not to suggest the R. Eliezer was lying when he attributed his ruling to his predecessors, but to underscore that even a "cemented cistern that loses not a drop"*** like R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus is incapable of passing on a teaching without also interpreting it somehow. Though I don't claim R. Eliezer was dishonest or that he attempted to acquire a credibility trump card by falsely attributing his own teachings to his ancestors, we must say he lacked this elementary post-modern awareness.

*** In Pirkei Avot 2:9 we're told that R. Yochanan b. Zakai described R. Eliezer this way.

The book also gives an exposition of the famous Yavneh Coup, during which the patriarch Raban Gamliel was deposed, that is at once respectful to the sources and nearly breathtaking in its insight. I'll discuss this in a future post.

Search for more information about the postmodern lessons of the Oven of Akhanai at

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