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2. The Human Element

2. The Human Element


There is, however, another characterization of Torah which seems inconsistent with, and even contrary to, the Torah’s characterization as “the wisdom and will of G‑d.”

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: ‘The Torah is not in heaven!’

The Torah famously declares that “it is not in heaven.”1 In addition to being a statement on the accessibility of Torah to each and every individual,2 this is also understood to mean that the process of understanding, interpreting and applying the laws and principles of Torah is a rational-logical one, entrusted wholly and exclusively to the rational processes of the human mind. The Talmud illustrates this principle with the following account of a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages on a point of Torah law. The debate concerned whether a certain type of oven is susceptible to ritual impurity or not:

On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, let this carob tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob tree was uprooted a hundred cubits out of its place; others say, four hundred cubits. Said they to him: “One cannot bring proof from a carob tree.”

Responded he to them: “If the law is as I say, let the water channel prove it!” The water channel began to flow in reverse. Said they to him: “One cannot bring proof from a water channel.”

Responded he to them: “If the law is as I say, let the walls of the study hall prove it!” The walls of the study hall inclined to fall. Rabbi Joshua scolded them, saying to them: “If Torah scholars are combating one another in a matter of Torah law, what have you to interfere?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed, “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer—the law is as he says…”

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “It is not in heaven!”

What is the meaning of the statement, “It is not in heaven”? Said R. Yirmiyah: “We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to follow the majority opinion.”3

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.’”4

The Talmud also relates:

It was being debated in the Academy of Heaven: If the white patch precedes the white hair,5 it is impure; if the white hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there is doubt (as to which came first)?

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: “It is pure.”

The entire Academy of Heaven said: “It is impure.”

Said they: “Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah bar Nachmeini!” For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared: “I am singularly knowledgeable in the laws of tzaraat”… They dispatched a messenger [to bring him to heaven]… Said Rabbah: “Pure! Pure!“6

In his Mishneh Torah,7 as well as in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides discusses the role of prophecy in the Jewish faith. While “it is a fundamental principle of the religion that G‑d communicates to man through Torah exegesis is entrusted wholly and exclusively to the rational processes of the human mindprophecy,” the role of the prophets is not to establish or to explain the laws of the Torah, or to institute new laws and ordinances.8 That was exclusively the province of the first and greatest prophet, Moses. After the divine communication of the Torah and of the methodologies of Torah exegesis through Moses, the interpretation and application of Torah is entrusted exclusively to the Torah sages of each generation, who employ the tools of rational deduction to reveal the divine wisdom and will implicit in the Torah. A prophet can also be a Torah sage, but his opinions on Torah law are informed solely by his own reason and logic. Therefore,

If one thousand prophets, all on the level of Elijah and Elisha, have one opinion on a matter of Torah law, and one thousand and one sages have an opposite opinion, we must “follow the majority” and the ruling is according to the opinion of the sages, not the prophets… Similarly, if a prophet testifies that G‑d has revealed to him that the law regarding this commandment is such-and-such, or that the opinion of a certain sage is the correct one… he is a false prophet… as it is written, “It is not in heaven.” G‑d has not allowed us to learn Torah from prophets, but from sages basing themselves on logical arguments and opinions.9

It is the inherently finite and fallible human intellect, rather than divine revelation, that is the vehicle by which Torah is expounded and applied.

The full text reads: “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who shall cross the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ Rather, the thing is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11–14). In the words of the Talmud (Kidushin 66a), “The Torah sits in a corner; anyone who wishes to come and learn it can come and learn it.” As R. Shimon bar Yochai declares: “The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, ‘It is ours’; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, ‘It is ours.’ Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may come and acquire it” (Mechilta d’Rashbi, Exodus 19:2).
. Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a-b.
See Leviticus, chapter 13.
Talmud, Bava Metzia 86a. See Likutei Sichoth, vol. 12, pp. 64–69.
Hilchoth Yesodei ha-Torah, chapters 7–10.
Rather, prophets are sent by G‑d to call upon the people to live a righteous life by observing the Torah’s laws and statutes, and to admonish them on their transgressions; to foretell or warn of future events; to instruct on national or communal matters such as whether to go to war or to build a fortification; etc. A prophet may also convey an instruction from G‑d to temporarily suspend one of the Torah’s laws for a specific purpose; but if he claims that G‑d has instructed to abrogate or add even a single word of the Torah, he is by definition a false prophet.
Maimonides’s introduction to the Mishnah. In this context Maimonides quotes the Talmudic sage R. Ami, who declared regarding a point of Torah law, “Even if I heard it from the mouth of Joshua the son of Nun (Moses’ disciple and the second link in the chain of the Torah’s transmission through the ages), I would not accept it!” if it contradicts his own understanding of the law.
Yanki Tauber served as editor of
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An excerpt from a larger work, titled The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.
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