Not in Heaven? Then Where?
In this week’s parsha (Devarim 30:11-12) we learn one of the fundamental and remarkable concepts of Judaism.
“It is not in the heavens…”
In its context this phrase teaches that the Torah is not impossible to comprehend and observe. The Torah has been given to us and for us to observe. It is “our” Torah now. But the sages of the Talmud understood this phrase as teaching a second idea.
One of the most famous stories in the Talmud is the story concerning a dispute about an oven and the laws of purity (Bava Metziah 59b). Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was one of the greatest of the teachers in the Mishna and he ruled that this oven was pure. His colleagues all disagreed and said it was impure. The subject was debated and Rabbi Eliezer defended his position but to no avail.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer called upon Heaven and sought Divine support for his position. He proclaimed, “If the law is like my opinion, let these miracles prove my point.” And truly there were miraculous events. A tree was uprooted and flew through the air, the walls of the study hall suddenly curved inward and a stream of water reversed its flow. But Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents said that miracles do not prove anything.
The Torah is on Earth
Rabbi Eliezer then proclaimed, “Heaven will prove me right!” And a heavenly voice announced, “Why are you opposing Rabbi Eliezer when the Halacha is always in accord with his opinion?” At that moment Rabbi Yehoshuah stood up and proclaimed the words from our parsha (Devarim 30:12) :“It is not in heaven.”
Why? Because the Torah itself says to follow the majority (Shemot 23:2).
The status of the oven was put to a vote by the very human rabbis, here on Earth, and it was decided by the majority that the oven was impure.
The tale concludes with one more story. The Prophet Elijah was asked, what was God’s response to the vote by the humans? Elijah replied that God smiled and said, “My sons defeated me, my sons defeated me.” Why did God smile? Didn’t the Heavenly voice say that Rabbi Eliezer was correct? Didn’t the sages reach the wrong conclusion? How could they disagree with God?
Even the Divine can be Examined Critically
There are two explanations for this story that I wish to share.
One explanation is according to the Ramban. Simply put, and as shocking as it may seem, the Ramban denies the existence of an objective incontrovertible truth in the study of Torah. The Talmud itself intimates as much when it says concerning the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai that “These and these are the words of the Living God.”
The Ramban in his introduction to his commentary “Milchemet Hashem” writes the following words:
Every student of our Talmud knows….that in this discipline there are no absolute proofs as there are in mathematics and geometry. Rather we put all of our effort and all of our lives into distancing one of the opinions by means of persuasive reasoning….
Yes, a Divine voice was heard in the House of Study. But even that Divine voice could and should be examined critically.
Finding Holiness on Earth
A possible related explanation can be found in the Sfat Emet (parashat Mishpatim 5632/1872). The Sfat Emet quotes the Rebbe of Kotzk’s comment on the words, “And a holy people you shall be…” (Shemot 22:30).
The Rebbe of Kotzk said that God has no shortage of perfect, holy angels up in heaven. He could have kept the Torah in heaven for the angels but chose to entrust His Torah to us on Earth. God’s wish is for us to sanctify ourselves on Earth through his Torah.
As our parsha says, “It is not in heaven.”