The Torah is Not in Heaven

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus lived during the earlier centuries of the Roman Empire.  He and a group of other rabbis were once arguing over whether or not an ‘ahknai-oven was capable of becoming unclean as according to the laws of Leviticus.  The majority, led by Joshua ben Hananiah, thought that it could, but Eliezer dissented.

Eliezer protested.  “I am right and I can prove it.  If my opinion is correct, let the stream outside this house flow backwards.”  It did.

“A stream proves nothing,” said Joshua.

“If my opinion is correct, let the walls of the house lean in.”  They did.

“Some walls prove nothing,” responded Joshua.

Finally Eliezer proclaimed, “I am right, and if that is so let Heaven itself beat witness that my opinion is correct!”

And from the heavens came a voice.  “Why do you reject Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion?  He is correct on every point.”

Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah waved his hand disdainfully.  “The Torah is not in heaven.  We don’t listen to voices.”

For his opposition to the majority, an example had to be made of Eliezer, and he was excommunicated.  Thereafter he lived in retirement, although his students still visited him on occasion.

And it seems to me that the message received by his story reveals one’s views, for it is equally valid to see each rabbi as correct.  The one ignores a god who is all around him, the other clings to a religion that has no place in the secular world in which we live.

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Rhode Island and Separation of Church and State

A minister and a theologian, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, nevertheless believed that the secular and religious spheres should be kept entirely separate.  He maintained that civil authorities had no jurisdiction in matters of religion.  His preaching of this in the theocratic Massachusetts Bay colony got him expelled in the dead of winter, and he would surely have died were it not for his friendship with the Native Americans.  He founded Providence, the future capital of Rhode Island, as a place where all religions could live together in a civil society, thereby creating the modern concept of separation of church and state.  Indeed, he once wrote:

There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or human combination, or society.  It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked on one ship; upon which supposal, I affirm that all the liberty of conscience I ever pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

How shocking it is, for us of the 21st century, and yet still struggling with such problems, to look back four centuries and find a man more advanced than many of us today.