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Not in Heaven

October 12, 2009 – 9:47 pm29 Comments

By Simon HollowayEmpty sky

A story is told of a man who approaches his Rabbi with a question: “Rabbi, is there a Biblical source for wearing a yarmulka?”

His Rabbi nods emphatically. “Why, yes! The Torah says, ‘And Abraham went.’ Can you imagine that Abraham went… without a yarmulka!?”

This story is really just a bit of fun, but it highlights a neat distinction between what scholars refer to as exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a familiar term: it refers to the process of finding information within the Biblical text. When the Torah says that one should cease from “labour” on Shabbat, and then goes on to relate the “labours” involved in constructing the Tabernacle, an exegetical reading derives the nature of the work that is prohibited on the seventh day.

Eisegesis, on the other hand, is the process by which meaning is read into the text. We start with a cultural practise (let’s say, lighting the candles on a Friday night), and then find a scriptural passage that might be taken out of context and utilised to serve as a justification for the practise that already exists. The rabbis of the Talmud referred to such a source as an asmakhta: literally, a scriptural support, on which the practise can “lean”.

I mention all this because sometimes (sometimes) people forget just which bits of their faith derive from the Bible and which bits derive from an external body of thought. This is not to disparage external bodies of thought! Ours, after all, is a religion of many books, of which the Hebrew Bible is merely one – albeit, perhaps, the most important.

Such is the power of these secondary interpretations that people often read them back into the original text. I often find that people commence by stating that “The Torah says…”, and then conclude by mentioning something not found within the Torah at all. An example of this is with the phrase, “The Torah is not in heaven.”

This phrase does appear in the Bible, but people who quote this phrase almost always do so with a passage from the Babylonian Talmud in mind. That passage can be found in Baba Metzia 59b, and concerns a small group of sages who debate with one another over the purity of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is bolstered by earthly miracles and heavenly proclamations, is overruled by the majority, who then go on to publically humiliate him and ruin his life. As my good friend, CyberJew, has observed: the story concerns the tyranny of the masses. Nonetheless, the sad ending to the story is frequently overlooked, for such is the power of the story’s introduction. Witnessing the miracles that Eliezer produces in favour of his opinion, the other rabbis remain unconvinced and declare that “the Torah is not in heaven.” In other words, legal authority rests with the rabbis and not with continuing revelation from God.

This interpretation of the phrase is a radical departure from its usage within the Bible, and an equally radical departure from the Bible’s explicit message! The phrase appears in Deuteronomy 30:12, and I invite readers to look at it in context. It’s a beautiful chapter (one of the finest in the book of Deuteronomy) and, in this passage, concerns the ease with which all Israel should be able to perform mitzvot. Do not suppose that the Torah is too lofty for you! It is not in the sky that you should require somebody to bring it down to earth, and nor is it beyond the ocean that you should need a mariner to fetch it hence. On the contrary, it is within your own mouth and in the very core of your being.

The rabbinic interpretation glosses the word “sky” as “heaven” – which is to say, the emphasis is removed from the height-metaphor (‘Torah is too lofty for us; who will bring it down?’) and shifted to the God-metaphor (‘Torah resides in the same location as God, who alone is arbiter’). Nowhere does the Torah intimate that the law should be changed or adapted by future generations, so this rabbinic interpretation is eisegetical. That is to say, the rabbis had a tradition of reinterpreting the Biblical laws, and sought a scriptural passage that would serve as an asmakhta to their mandate.

When all is said and done, the rabbis were correct. Many of the laws within the Bible, if followed to the letter, would produce a society most barbarous by today’s standards. The sort of person who wishes to live their life in strict accordance with a literal understanding of such laws is not the sort of person you would want to count in your minyan! By providing themselves with the authority to recontextualise the Biblical message, the scholars of the Talmud turned Jewishness into Judaism. Those of us who love the religion that they founded owe them a debt of gratitude and, at the very least, the honour of recognising the nature of their work.


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