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Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eliezer, and the besting of God

September 28, 2014

On that day rabbi Eliezer [ben Horkanos] brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them:” ‘If the Halakha agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it! Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.

Again [Eliezer] said to them: ‘If the Halakha agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards – ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the Halakha agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’

Hence they did not fall, in honour of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again [Eliezer] said to them: ‘If the Halakha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the Halakha agrees with him! ‘But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed [quoting Deuternomy]: ‘It is not in the heavens!’

What did he mean by this? – Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, [quoting Exodus], ‘After the majority must one incline.’

[Later] Rabbi Nathan met [the immortal prophet] Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? – He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated me.’

(from the Talmud, Baba Mezi’a 59b, as told by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzburger, in Jews and Words)

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