Not in Heaven


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parshat nitzavim (deuteronomy 30)

Join Geoffrey Stern, Rabbi Adam Mintz and Theatre Director and Professor Michael Posnik in a live recording of Madlik Clubhouse as they explore the verse in Deuteronomy 30 that proclaims that the Torah is not in Heaven. We explore it in context and in the agada. We take a literary journey into the iconic story of the oven of akhnai.

Sefaria source Sheet:


Geoffrey Stern 00:00

This week's parsha is nitzavim and you are listening to Madlik weekly disruptive Torah. And by disruptive, we mean Torah that hopefully makes you think about the Torah slightly differently, from a new angle, with a fresh pair of lenses, revisit old friends, as I often do, or meet new characters, new stories and react to them in a fresh way. And we record this clubhouse, and we post it as a podcast on all of your favorite podcasting platforms. So if you miss it, or if you want to share it with somebody, if you want to give us a few stars and a nice review, go check out Madlik. And so we want to get started, this is actually a very special week, because it's the last Shabbat, the last week of the year. So we have to finish dramatically. And today, I'd like to say this is the dramatic version of Madlik because we are going to be discussing a story in the Agadda, which is the material, I think I know it's been made into a play. But who knows, it could be even a movie coming to a theater near you, because it has so many turns to it. And so many different characters with character flaws and a storyline that is engaging. So, let us begin, we are reading from Deuteronomy 30. And the Torah says, speaking about the Torah, it says "It is not in the heavens that you should say, who amongst us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it. Neither is it beyond the sea that you should save Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it." So it seems to be a pretty straightforward sense of the Torah is here. You don't have to go far. What do you think Rabbi is the straightforward meaning of "Lo Bashamayim Hi", that the Torah our teaching our tradition is not in heaven, and it's not on the other side of the sea,

Adam Mintz 02:36

Firs tof all Geoffrey, thank you so much. It's a great parsha to end the year with. I think what it means is that the best excuse you can give his Torah is too hard observance is too hard tradition are too hard. Tradition is for the Super religious, for the people who can appreciate all of this. The answer is absolutely not. It's not in heaven. It's not far away. It's in our hearts and inside our mouths, it's up to us. It's right there. For us. It's the word I like to use in this portion is it's accessible. And we have to remember the Torah is accessible. If Torah is accessible, then we can we can reach it also.

Geoffrey Stern 03:21

I agree with you totally. And I would read translate the phrase "Lo Bashamayim hi" that it is not in heave as it's not in the sky. In other words, I think if you look at the two verses together, one says it's not up in the sky. And the other says it's not beyond the sea. It's very temporal. It's saying you don't have to go look anywhere else. You don't have to go on a trip, you don't have to go on an experience. You don't have to go find yourself a yogi. And I think in the Devarim Raba, it gives a bunch of explanations, but one says "it is not in heaven". They said to Moses, our teacher, but hey, you said to us it's not in heaven. It's not in the other side of the sea. But where is it? He said to them in the place that is close in your mouths in your hearts to do it. It is not far from you. It is close to you all." And I think that's exactly what you were saying. It's almost to say, you know, people searched the whole world to find something only to find. They had it all along. I think that even looking at it and thinking of heaven in terms of a sense of heaven and hell or heaven as the abode of God. The truth is if you look up this word in the five books of Moses, it typically means sky. So, so that we are going to launch a journey that began In the Talmud, where all of a sudden, this simple verse of saying, hey, it's not a pie in the sky, it's not up in the sky, it's right in your own hand, transformed and became something very dramatic. And I think it's a great example of what we were talking about in past weeks, how everything in the Torah, whether it's the activities that we're commanded to do, or the texts that we read, can take on a life of their own and be different things to different people as we move forward. So there is a famous story. And it is considered, I think, one of the most favorite stories and one of the most famous stories in the Aggadah, which is the the tradition of allegory and of myth and of stories in the Talmud, as opposed to strict laws. And it's known by the name of the oven that is the the subject matter. Its in Baba Mitziah 59b And it starts by talking about rabbis discussing a particular oven that was formed in the shape of a snake, you got to kind of think of yourself as forming a playdough snake and then making it into an oven. So there are lines or spaces in between, and the rabbi's are discussing something very technical as to whether it is kosher, or if it's "tahor", if it was pure or impure, and we don't need to get into the details. But we do need to know that one of the rabbi's whose name was Rabbi Eliezer he said to them that he believed that it was kosher. And the rest of the rabbi's said, No, we think it's impure. And so on that day, Rabbi Eliezer, who believed it was kosher gave all the possible answers in the world and the rabbi's did not accept his explanation. So this is one Rabbi named Rabbi Eliezer. He has a against a bunch of rabbis. And then he went on to say if the law is like me, he says, Let the carob tree prove it. And sure enough, a miracle happened and the carob tree was uprooted from its place 100 cubics. Some people save even 400 cubits. And the rabbi's answered him and said one does not say bring a proof from a carob tree. So Rabbi Eliezer said to them, if the Halacha is in accordance with me, let this stream prove it .... the aqueduct prove it. And all of a sudden, the water on the aqueduct started moving in the opposite direction. And they said to him, one does not cite a proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer started to get blue in the face, and he says if the halacha is in accordance with my opinion, let the walls of the study hall prove it. And sure enough, the walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to him, if Torah scholars are discussing Torah with each other. What does it mean to you? What is your involvement? So the walls did actually not fall out of deference to Rabbi Yehoshua, but they didn't straighten up in deference to Rabbi Eliezer until today, they still remain leaning. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer came to the end of this thread, and he says, if the halacha is like me, if the law is with me, let heaven prove it. And a divine voice a "bat Kol", came down from heaven and said, Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, the halaqa is always according to him. At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said, "Torah Lo Bashamayim hi", the Torah is not in heaven. What is the relevance of the phrase "it is not in heaven"? He said, since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a "Bat Kol" a divine voice. And it says "Acharei Lerabim Lehatot", we go after the majority.... This is kind of like a Beatle song. There are many stops here. We could definitely stop here. But I'm going to go One more little insight before I stopped for our first discussion. The Gemora says Rabbi Nathan, one of the rabbis who had been arguing against Rabbi Eliezer happened to meet Elijah the Prophet on the street. And he said to him Elijah what was God doing when this discussion was happening? and Elijah the prophet said he smiled, and he said, "My children have defeated me. My children have defeated ME."Nitzchuni Bonai, Nitchuni Bonai". What a story and we're not even halfway through. Rabbi, Michael Posnik...., what do you think of this story?

Adam Mintz 10:18

So I, Geoffrey I'm also interested by the last line that you added, "my children have defeated me"? Is that good or bad? I mean, are we supposed defeat God? Or is that a criticism? What's the end piece? But I'm gonna turn it over to Michael, because Michael is gonna give us a dramatic insight into the story.

Michael Posnik 10:41

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's the only place in all of our literature where God smiles or laughs.

Geoffrey Stern 10:54

I hope that's not true. But

Adam Mintz 10:56

I don't think that's true. But you know what, but it's good anyway, even if it's not true it's a good insight.

Michael Posnik 11:03

if there's another one, then that would be nice to see that but so you asked if it was good or bad. Gods smiled or laughed. And I think he understood the picture and that he couldn't do anything about this. He gave the Torah and people have to address it according to their their needs. There's also a question here. I understand the oven as being really about the community and Rabbi Eliezer, because there seems to be a question about one of the stones or part of the oven was repaired. And because of the repair, the question was whether the odd stone or the odd stones that have been repaired, made that made the oven unclean, or unable to use it to kasher anything. And this to me, I read about as this community there are people in the community who are like the odd stones. Are are they to be counted in the minyan (quorum of 10 Jews), or not to be counted in the minyan and if they behave differently if they react differently? If they were kind of exiled. And the story unfortunately plays itself out. That Rabbi Akiva comes to Rabbi Eliezer who's now excommunicated, becomes into Herem, so he's out of the community, the community tosses him out.

Geoffrey Stern 12:42

Well, let's not jump ahead too much. We don't want to give away the surprise ending!

Michael Posnik 12:47

Well the surprise ending is a sad surprise. So those are just some thoughts that I think it is our responsibility to address the questions that come up in the Torah. I also wonder about the rabbi's need for power to hold the community together. And Rabbi Eliezer seems to be in the way to a kind of unified view in the community. These are massive questions that we're constantly dealing with, do we really go with the majority? Or is the minority view acceptable? This is today, this is in our world as well. So just some thoughts. nothing terribly dramatic, but just some thoughts.

Geoffrey Stern 13:31

Let me let me focus a little bit you mentioned about God smiling, let's let's take a second to look at some of the words that are used here. The word for smile is "Chiyuch". And inside of that, I believe is is Chai, which is life, and certainly humor. And this has a lot of irony in the story. It has a lot of tragedy, and God is all there in the drama and in the smile. The other word that I love here is "nitzchuni Bonai" , which is typically translated as having "defeated me, "netzach" can be to to be victorious, but as Rabbi Riskin pointed out, "Netchak", can also mean eternal "netzach Yisrael" and so Rabbi Riskin translates this as my children have defeated me, "my children have eternalized me." And before I open that up to discussion, remember when Rabbi Eliezer asked the walls of the Beit midrash" to prove him right? If you remember that was the only instance where the rabbi's jumped in and said to the walls of the Beit Midrash of the study hall. Don't listen to him Don't go all the way because we are engaged in the discussion of Torah the word that they used is "Amar Lehem Talmidei Chachamim nitzachim ze et zeh", that we are discussing, we are battling over Torah one with with the other. Again, the word netzach. Here. So I think, at the most basic part of the story, as we kind of pause, right here is yes, you have all of those elements that you described, Michael, you have the question of the individual, you have a question of the authority of the community, you have the question of, are we looking for truth? Or are we looking for compromise. But certainly, the reason a story like this lives forever, is because God is smiling, and we are doing what he wants us to do. And ultimately, that might be why the Torah is no longer in heaven. It's kind of like a father or mother who teaches their child something, and then has the Glee of watching their child take it somewhere that maybe they hadn't even thought of.

Adam Mintz 15:58

There's a lot there. You just said, I love the idea, Rabbi Riskin's famous idea that has been saying for many years, that my children have eternalized me, that arguing with the God is good, that shows that we're alive, that shows that we're thinking it's such an amazing idea, isn't it? "Nitzchuni Bonai.. they've defeated me, but they eternalize me by defeating's the same word.

Geoffrey Stern 16:27

Absolutely. So we could stay here for the rest of the day. And I actually always thought that the story, as I just told it, was the key to the amazement and the beauty of this story, but it goes on. So now the rabbi's said, Okay, what do we need to do against Rabbi Eliezer, so the first thing that they they did is they put all the ritually pure items that Rabbi Eliezer said, were pure, and they burn them in a fire. And I know all of the images that that brings up amongst us. And then they said, Let's reach a consensus. And let's ostrocize him and lets put him in herem, the word that they use to put him in herem is kind of interesting. And it's one that a play that Michael was involved picked up on, instead of they say cursing, they say blessing, but it's understood that they just didn't want to utter the words of Herem of ostrasizng a Jew. So they they basically ostracize him. And then they have to figure out how we going to convey the message to him that he is ostracized. And so now we have another giant of the Torah raise his hand. And Rabbi Akiva says, I am his beloved disciple, I will go lets an insanely person go and inform him in a callous and offensive manner. And he would thereby destroy the entire world. They're going to excommunicate someone who can move carob trees and water in different directions. So what did Rabi Akiva do? He wrapped himself in black, he sat for cubics away from Rabbi Eliezer as you would sit from someone who is excommunicated, and the details are all there, I invite you all to go read them. And it goes dramatically. He rent his garments. He removed his shoes. Rabbi Eliezer said What happened? Who died, he started to cry, he shedded tears. And all of a sudden things in the world started to get afflicted and destroyed just because Rabbi Eliezer himself started to cry. And then the anger was great that day. And he finally realized that he was being excommunicated. You could not sugarcoat this message. And then the story goes on to Rabbi Gamaliel, who was the head of the Sanhedrin and was involved with this decision. And like the prophet Jonah, he's on a boat, and the water, the water is raging, and the boats about to sink. And he says to himself, he says to God, it seems to me that this is only for the sake of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hercanus This must be for what happened to him and he stood on his feet and he said Master of the Universe. It is revealed and known before you that neither was it for my honor that I acted in ostracizing him, nor was it for the honor of the house of my father, rather for your honor, so that disputes will not proliferate in Israel, and as a response to sea calmed from its raising, and Ima Shalom, we get a woman in the story. This is the wife of Rabbi Eliezer. She knows that if Rabbi Eliezer ever put his head down on his arm and says the Tachanun Prayer where he cries out to God for that which has befallen him the world will be destroyed. And so she makes it her mission never to let him say the Tachnun prayer because, guess what her brother is Rabbi Gamliel. And sure enough she's successful until one day, maybe it was because she thought it was Rosh Chodesh the new moon when you don't say Tachnun, maybe it was because a poor ani came to the door, but her attention was swayed, he said Tachnun. And the next thing we know a shofar blew announcing the death of Rabbi Gamliel. And the story ends and she says, Why did this happen? EMA shalom said, this is the tradition that I received from the house of my father, all the gates of heaven are locked, except for the gates of 'Ona'at Devarim' verbal mistreatment. And that is the end of this story. And as far as I can tell, the only pragmatist the only player in this story that is guiltless is possibly the walls of the Beit Midrash that compromised and didn't fall down. But every everybody else is so much to blame. What are your thoughts?

Michael Posnik 21:27

Geoffrey? It is truly a dramatic story. Because at the moment when God smiles or laughs, there's a lightness to the whole thing. And there's a sense of winning as it were, there's a sense of completion in the community. But that laughter turns to tremendous tragedy and grief and the death of the prince of the Sanhedrin and the murder, through Tachanun... through prayer. It is a devastating tale. And I know the translation at the very end, which he says through the one who has been verbally abused. I know there are many other translations... I read one that said that all the gates are closed except the gates for the broken heart. And this story, I think, is a broken heart. It's not about an oven. I mean, it's about an oven, which is somewhat ironic and strange. But there's broken hearts all the way through this. And those rabbis who won the day as it were over God, they grieve. I think that oven was probably never used to get it's it's quite a powerful, dramatic story. I always think that the comic mask and the dramatic mask tied together with one string. It's not two separate masks. It's one and this story's really indicative of it. The last thing I want to say is Rabbi Akiva having to do that work. It's so close to the holiday now. It's so close to Rosh Hashanna, when we all must go and do work. That's difficult to do on ourselves and forgiveness, things like that with other people. So it's very moving moment. Rabbi Akiva going in black, and having to having to give this message. Geoffrey, you read very dramatically, I have to say I would cast you in a minute.

Geoffrey Stern 23:39

Was was this play ever performed? I know you sent me a script from a Daniel (Danny) Horowitz,. It's called a page of Talmud... was it ever performed?

Michael Posnik 23:48

It was performed when Donny wrote it in Tel Aviv sometime in the 80s. I produced it at the 92nd Street y with the Talking Band. And it was done. About a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago. Yoni Oppenheim produced it downtown in the theater with a company of people. They did that one and Donny Horowitz also wrote the story of Kamtza bar Kamtza", which is also not a happy story. Needless to say but very powerful. Yeah, it was produced, and maybe other places too. I don't know.

Geoffrey Stern 24:28


Adam Mintz 24:31

it is amazing. Michael, I want to just go back to your idea of putting together the comic with the dramatic. Is it an interesting interlude. The God is smiling, even though it's such a tragedy. Aren't you struck by that?

Michael Posnik 24:49

That's why I went into the theater. Because ou never can resolve that. And the theater and all poetry and really good art does not let you resolve things like we try to do in real life? Like we tried to win the day with a halacha or whatever like the rabbi's. The world is resolvable. And so we are bound to live in, in the midst, in between those two amazing powers, we have to come out whole in some way. Well, that's our job.

Geoffrey Stern 25:23

But to me, it's the question of when does that occur in this story, it occurs right before they break back to the present and start burning Reb eliezer's stuff, and before they excommunicate him, where he smiles, it's rather an amazing place. Because if you recall, they said two arguments. One is that the Torah is not in heaven. And 2, that we go Acharei L'Rabim L'hatot. that we go after the majority. And that's amazing. Because if you look at Exodus 23, which is what they quote, Exodus 23 says, You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong, "Lo acharei l'rabim" . And if you look at Rashi, on that, he says they are Halachik interpretations of the sages that go against the wording of the text. Athis is the part of the story that I think most people take away, and they don't get into the Sturm und Drang afterwards, that he was smiling, because his children had taken the text in a direction, either not meant, not intended, or even in a whole new directiion. And if it had ended there, maybe it would have been a nice story. But I think the challenge becomes when they therefore want to burn his vessels, or in his books, quiet him and stop him. And you know, the good of the, the whole, for that sake, that becomes a little dangerous. And Michael, you shared a text with me, which is absolutely unbelievable. It's from the Brothers Karamazov. And it's chapter five, the Grand Inquisitor, and there it talks about a regular day in Spain, where the Grand Inquisitor was killing some Jews burning them at the stake. And then all of a sudden, people look to the church and there's an infant that had died, and a holy person comes and brings that child back to life. And then Grand Inquisitor knows who it is. So he locks him up in jail. And literally, it's a similar parallel story to ours where the Grand Inquisitor says, I know you are Jesus the Lord. And you can't come back, you can come and change the rules because we don't need you. For 1500 years we clerics have been changing the rules because man cannot live with the freedom that you gave. So it's fascinating in terms of those who are supposed to be listening to the words of the Spirit can change it, and that can be good, but then they can silence it. And that is bad.

Michael Posnik 28:12

It's very interesting question also about the supernatural. All of the proofs that Rabbi Eliezer brings are supernatural and miraculous. And when the people asked Jesus to jump off the top of the synagogue, he refused, as he said, I don't want your faith to be in the supernatural. I want you to have faith because you have faith not because of something amazing... carob tree, or the water or the walls, or even a bat Kol. He wants people to believe so it's a very interesting conversation about how the super and how we live with quote the supernatural. And is there such a thing? And why do we keep longing for it? So the church, the Grand Inquisitor says, Yeah, we have them in the palm of our hand, you could have to but you didn't know you wanted them to be. You wanted them to be real mechen And not believe in something because of some kind of miraculous. Miracles aren't the whole thing. So in that sense, the rabbis saw one thing with the rabbis burning the stuff the burning the stuff is, is like the extra 500 people that were killed at the end of the Purim. Megillah.

Adam Mintz 29:30

Wow, Michael, there's a lot of stuff here that you're that you're pulling together. I think, Geoffrey, I appreciate that you brought Michael in because I think you're right. You really have to catch the dramatic moment. There's the religious moment. But there's the dramatic moment in this story. And it could it be that the dramatic moment is even more powerful than the religious moment.

Geoffrey Stern 29:52

So I totally agree. We only have a few more minutes, and I can't but ignore the parallels to The High Holidays that are coming upon us this sense of on'ah devarim you're right Michael It doesn't say onah devarim it doesn't say, depriving somebody throughwords it just says on the app. And those of you sensitive to the language know that on Yom Kippur, the key is onitem et naphshechem.. that we should make ourselves kind of suffer. So there is a balance here that the worst thing that one can do is use the same words and if Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur are about anything they're words, they can save, but they can also they can also hurt. The real takeaway for me is, I always thought of this story from where we started and where we ended, and I never asked myself why was the story told? And maybe that's because in the Vilma Talmud, this literally forms on one page. But if you turn the folio and see how this all began, the rabbi's were discussing this sense of humiliating somebody, they said on the previous folio, it is preferable for a person to engage in sex with a woman who is possibly married, then humiliate somebody else in public "yalbim pnei haveru b'rabim. Then it goes on to say that Rav Hisda says all the gates of heaven are to be locked except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment. And then it goes on to say that apropos of this statement, we learned a story about a tanor (an oven) about Rabbi eliezer. So it isn't about where the Torah comes from. It's not about how we can change the Torah as much as we love that kind of stuff on Madlik. It's not about anything except what they did to Rabbi Eliezer. About how after God smiled, they didn't know how to end the joke, and they had to become in the name of unity. They ostracized somebody, and as we head into the holidays, we have to know that yes, neilah is coming and the gates of prayer will be closed, but there's only one thing that can pierce those gates, and that is the cries of somebody who has been hurt and what that means is on the other side, that with words, we can provide solace and we can provide uplifting thoughts and support and maybe that will open up the gates too but this is an amazing pre Rosh Hashannah Pre yom kippur story, I believe.

Adam Mintz 32:46

Amazing. Geoffrey, thank you so much. Thank you, Michael, for your insights today. Shabbat Shalom, everybody we say Shana Tova, when we see you next year, we'll be in 5782. But the Torah continues, we're coming to the end everybody. Join us as Vayelech next week. A short portion, but short and sweet and it's a wonderful portion Geoffrey Shabbat Shalom and shana tovah to everybody.

Geoffrey Stern 33:10

Shanah Tova to you all.