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The Oven of Akhnai
In studying Jewish law for a course I taught on legal systems very different from ours, later converted to a book, I came across the story of the oven of Akhnai. It starts with a dispute of the sort only legal scholars indulge in. An object of clay such as an oven that had been rendered impure, polluted through some agency such as contact with a corpse, could be purified by being broken up. The question was whether a clay oven that had been broken up and then reassembled with sand between the pieces was ritually pure or impure.
After R. Eliezer had brought out multiple arguments for his position without persuading his opponents, he finally put the question to God. “If the Halakhah is in accord with me, let this carob tree prove it.” The carob tree promptly uprooted itself and was moved 100 cubits away―by some sources 400 cubits. R. Joshua's reply? “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”
The debate continued and R. Eliezer produced two more miracles in support of his position; R. Joshua remained unconvinced. Finally Eliezer called out for more direct support and a heavenly voice responded: “Why do you debate with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the Halakhah is in accord with him.”
One of the sages replies (to God) "It is not in heaven."
Or in other words, "butt out."
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To make sense of the story so far, one needs a little background. Jewish law, like any system based on divine revelation, has an inherent problem with maintaining consistency. If the law is what God said and different judges have different interpretations of what that is they will give different rulings on the same question — whether you win your case may depend on which judge decides it. Truth, in this case about what God said, is not determined by majority vote.
Early on, the legal scholars came up with a solution to this problem based on their interpretation of a passage in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. What God said was something that each legal scholar could determine for himself but if they disagreed the law to be applied by judges was determined by majority vote of the scholars. Better that they risk getting the law wrong than that they end up disagreeing in their judgments. A scholar who disagreed was free to argue for his position but, when acting as a judge, he had to decide according to the view that had been established by the majority.
The story is happening at the end of a period of several generations in which the legal scholars were divided into two schools, the school of Hillel and the school of Shamai, which disagreed about details of the law but continued to treat the other as legitimate. Eliezer was a leading figure sympathetic to the school of Shamai, his opponents are scholars of the school of Hillel, which at that point was the larger of the two. The point of the first part of the story is that, even if Eliezer was correct in his interpretation of the law, the law applied by judges was determined by what position was supported by the majority and the majority was against him. “It is not in heaven.” The law is no longer in heaven to be determined by God but on earth, having been given by God to the legal scholars to interpret for themselves and define by majority vote.
Having rejected divine authority as a basis for the law—a decision which, according to another bit of the story, God himself approved of—the sages went on to put Rabbi Eliezer under ban. After which:
Said they, 'Who shall go and inform him?' 'I will go,' answered R. Akiba, 'lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.' What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. 'Akiba,' said R. Eliezer to him, 'what has particularly happened to-day?' 'Master,' he replied, 'it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.' Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.
A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. R. Gamaliel too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. 'It appears to me,' he reflected, 'that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.' Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, 'Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! 'At that the raging sea subsided.
Ima Shalom was R. Eliezer's wife, and sister to R. Gamaliel. From the time of this incident onwards she did not permit him to fall upon his face (in petitionary prayer). Now a certain day happened to be New Moon, but she mistook a full month for a defective one. Others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him. [On her return] she found him fallen on his face. 'Arise,' she cried out to him, 'thou hast slain my brother.' In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. (from the Babylonian Talmud
All of which makes it unclear which side God was on.
Some versions I have seen of the story say that Eliezer, despite having been outvoted, continued to tell his followers to decide cases according to their view of the law, which would explain the ban. It corresponds to what really happened in the conflict between the two schools—the school of Hillel won out and effectively suppressed the rival school.
Seen from inside the belief system, the story of the oven of Akhnai suffers from a consistency problem: Why did the sages not take God's word for which side of the argument was right and change their votes accordingly? Seen from the outside, it can be interpreted as the solution to a serious danger. The basis of Jewish law was supposed to be divine authority transmitted through the prophet Moses. What prevented a charismatic leader who claimed to speak for God from setting himself up as a new final authority on the law? Real miracles are in scarce supply but apparent miracles may not be. Hence the story can be seen not only as justification for the suppression of the school of Shammai but as a prophylactic measure to prevent future splits due to charismatic leaders.1 However persuasive their miracles may be, no proof can be brought from a carob tree — or any other miracle. Not even after God strikes the leader of the winning side dead.
The U.S. Constitution
Jewish law is not the only system to face the problem of establishing consistent law based on an authoritative source. The equivalent problem in U.S. law is constitutional interpretation and the solution is the Jewish solution. A judge or law professor is free to argue for his interpretation of the Constitution but once the Justices of the Supreme Court have voted on the subject lower judges are required to rule according to its vote.
And Islamic Law
Sharia also claims to be deduced from religious sources rather than created by a ruler, legislator, or court. The split between the schools of Hillel and Shamai in Jewish law corresponds to the division among the four schools of Sunni Muslim law. The four schools continued to regard each other as mutually orthodox for more than a thousand years—and still do.
Which suggests that legal uniformity may be less essential than one would expect.
Jewish examples would include Shabbatai Tzvi in the 17th century, who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and the Ba'al Shem Tove, founder of the Chassidic movement in the eighteenth century. A similar Islamic figure, viewed by some as a saint, by others as a charlatan, was Hallaj (Husayn ibn Mansur 858 - 922 AD). For a sympathetic view, see Schroeder, Eric. 1955. Muhammad’s People: A Tale by Anthology, pp. 522-554. For an account of him as a fraud, see al-Tanukhi (The Table-Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, Margouliouth, D.S., tr., pp. 91-93.
For a thirteenth-century Muslim comment on the issue:
“When we see someone in this Community who claims to be able to guide others to Allah, but is remiss in but one rule of the Sacred Law—even if he manifests miracles that stagger the mind—asserting that his shortcoming is a special dispensation for him, we do not even turn to look at him, for such a person is not a sheikh, nor is he speaking the truth, for no one is entrusted with the secrets of Allah Most High save one in whom the ordinances of the Sacred Law are preserved.” (Muhyiddin ibn al-Arabi, Jami’karamat al-awliya’, quoted in Al-Nawawi, Al-Maqasid: Nawawi’s Manual of Islam. Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, p. 164.
“if a man will arise, whether from among the Gentiles or among the Jews, and make a sign or wonder and say that God sent him to add or delete a commandment or to give any of the commandments an interpretation that we have not heard from Moses…, he is a false prophet.” Quoted in Elon, Menachem. 1994. Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles, translated by Bernard Auerbach and Melvin Sykes, p. 264 from Mishnah Torah, Tesodei ha-Torah 9:1.