Based on a lecture by Rabbi Alter Bukiet.
As an educator, did you ever encounter a situation in which you proved your opinion to be true, and yet, the majority of your colleagues, did not agree with you? Did you go with your insight or with that of the majority? Let’s see how the Talmud deals with this issue.
(The Talmud is a collection of debates among Jewish sages on the Torah laws, compiled in the 6th Century, A.D.).
In an aggada (a legend, parable, or anecdote used to illustrate a point of a Law in the Talmud) found in the Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b, rabbis debate whether an oven that became impure can be purified. ,All, except Rabbi Eliezer, agreed that it can not be purified. Despite rabbi Eliezer’s proofs of truth, the law is according to the majority. The question is why, and how is it related to our reality as educators?
Here is the translation of the aggada:
On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward all the arguments in the world, but the Sages did not accept them.
Finally, he said to them: “If the halakha (law) is according to me, let that carob ¬tree prove it.”.
He pointed to a nearby carob tree, which then moved from its place a hundred cubits, and some say, four hundred cubits. They said to him: ”One cannot bring a proof from the moving of a carob tree.”
Said Rabbi Eliezer: “If the halakha is according to me, may that stream of water prove it.
The stream of water then turned and flowed in the opposite direction.
They said to him: “One cannot bring a proof from the behavior of a stream of water.”
Said Rabbi Eliezer: “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study prove it.”
The walls of the House of Study began to bend inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and rebuked the walls of the House of Study and said: “If the students of the Wise argue with one another in halakha, what right have you to interfere?” In honor of Rabbi Joshua, the walls ceased to bend inward; but in honor of Rabbi Eliezer, they did not straighten up, and they remain bent to this day.
Then, said Rabbi Eliezer to the Sages: “If the halakha is according to me, may a proof come from Heaven.”
Then a heavenly voice went forth and said: “What have you to do with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakha is according to him in every place.”
Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said: “It is not in the heavens” (Deuteronomy 30:12).
What did he mean by quoting this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah: “He meant that since the Torah has been given already on Mount Sinai, we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, for You have written in Your Torah, ‘Decide according to the majority’ (Exodus 23:2).
Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah. He asked him: “What was the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing in that hour?”
Said Elijah: “He was laughing and saying: “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.””‘
Two rabbis who lived at different times interpreted this aggada
Rabbi Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), and Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha) (1555 – 1631)
The Vilna Gaon interpreted Rabbi Eliezer’s proofs (the carob tree, the water, and the walls) as criticism of the character of the rabbis in this aggada. He says that in order to pursue something one needs three qualities:
1. to be a minimalist – not to multitask, and be tied down to too many things.
2. to tame the ego – to be able to change views if needed.
3. not to be lazy – to change one’s opinion one must study the issue in depth .
The carob tree is represented in the Talmud as a minimalist. – Rabbi Eliezer used the miracle of the carob tree as a proof that he is correct. By doing so, he criticizes his collogues as if he is saying: “you are not minimalists, you do not focus on one thing at a time.
Water flows from the top (high ego) down. By having the water go up, a miracle that defies nature, Rabbi Eliezer suggests that his colleagues’ ego is too inflated, and that makes it difficult for them to change their minds.
The walls of the house of learning represent learning, and learning is not a form of laziness. One can not be a good student and be lazy at the same time. By having the walls caving, Rabbi Eliezer criticizes his colleagues as complacent. They do not make the effort to change their opinion.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels interprets the proofs that Rabbi Eliezer brings as criticism of the leadership skills of the rabbis. The carob tree survives only 70 years, so is the leadership of the rabbis that will remain localized and limited in time, it will not effect the generations to come.
As for the water- he says that the leaders came to the decision because of their egos, and that they are not willing to change.
The walls he says, represent religion, and Rabbi Eliezer is suggesting not to use religion and to hide behind God, he wants the rabbis to explain themselves so people can live with their explanation.
After the rabbis did not agree, Rabbi Eliezer introduces a higher voice. The higher voice agrees with Rabbi Eliezer, but that does not help either. Then God looks at the argument, He smiles and says: “my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me” He sides with the majority. He is like a parent, and in a very compassionate way, He tells his child that He agrees with him, and yet disagrees with him too.
This Talmud is saying that humans do not live in the perfect spiritual Heavens, and sometimes even though the minority is right, it needs to accept the decision of the majority in order to prevent chaos. From the reaction of God to the conflict, one can learn that when one disagrees with the majority, one should find a way to live with it and at the same time to keep his/her convictions. God, through the voice from Heaven, agrees with Rabbi Eliezer, but yet, He smiles and says that his children defeated him, and sides with the majority. If one does so, we will have unity, civility, and respect to each other.