On That Day

“Living with halacha is risky—living without halacha is impossible,” said David Hartman. On that day, in the bet midrash our teacher was probing a core Talmud text of the Hartman canon, “The Oven of Achnai,” a story that underscores Rabbi Hartman’s style, his passion, his Torah, and his idea of what a bet midrash should be, at its best.

“On that day,” the ancient storyteller began, Rabbi Eliezer’s halachic case was unconvincing. Contrary to his colleagues, he insisted that an oven constructed of layered, unattached clay coils was impervious to ritual impurity. Such a pile might serve a purpose, but it was not a “vessel” subject to the risks of ritual impurity encountered by items that could be moved, whole, from place to place.

To Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents, his arguments must have seemed like that oven’s coils of clay—pure, perhaps, but without coherence. Like the oven, his arguments were neither moveable nor responsive to the changing needs of living experience.

Rabbi Eliezer was infuriated and frustrated. He was the carrier of uninterrupted traditions from Sinai. His Truth was unfailing, but when his arguments failed, he turned argument into exhortation, reason into wonder-working coercion. At his command, a carob tree danced down the road, a canal’s waters flowed backward, and the walls of the bet midrash began to collapse. All signs—arguments notwithstanding—that his was the Truth.

However, the Torah from Sinai that he bore could not be borne by the living moment. Rabbi Eliezer’s Torah could exist up above, beyond the gravity of human complexity, where angels might prize it solely for its beauty. But the bet midrash, below, would certainly collapse under the weight of his teaching.

The Torah of living experience was “not in the heavens,” as Rabbi Joshua would say when he silenced the divine voice that was Rabbi Eliezer’s final support for his claim. But before contending with heaven, Rabbi Joshua would defend the earthly Torah of the bet midrash by rebuking the walls that were tumbling at Rabbi Eliezer’s command: “When sages contend,” he said to the teetering stones, “what place do you have in the matter?!”

Those walls were now caught between two forces, said the storyteller: “Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, the walls did not collapse; out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they did not stand straight again.”

Greater than the power of either sage over the walls was the power of the storyteller who was able to sustain those precarious walls for all time, saying: “And so do they remain standing despite falling until this day.”

From “that day” with which the story began, to “this day,” on which it continues, we sit within those perilous and permanent walls to discern halacha, the path by which we “proceed/holech” in the world of vying claims to truth. There, in the bet midrash, we risk the certain danger of dangerous certainty. We accept the risks of mistake, of anger, and embarrassment. But what choice do we have in the matter? After all, our teacher told us on that day in the bet midrash: “living with halacha is risky—living without halacha is impossible.”

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