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That time the rabbi nearly made the study hall collapse -- or Talmudic lessons in compassion

I gave my first session in Talmud this week at HUC, in my Introduction to Talmud class with Rabbi Alona Lisitsa. Even though I have learned this passage many times over the years, I read it with new eyes. Would love to hear your thoughts.   Rabbi Eliezer was a difficult guy. He lived albeit 1800 years ago, but the Talmud recalls his personality with such vividness that we can easily recognize the type –  you know, the one who does not let up no matter what, the one who is constantly screaming about the same issue and you all just want him to go away. We can feel in the text how much his colleagues and peers found him to be an annoying stickler. So much so that they excommunicated him. They ousted him, and they ruined his life, taking away everything that was dear to him – even as they knew that he was right about, well, everything. Can you imagine? He may have been right, but he was very much alone. His wife was so worried about his depressed state following all this that she would not let him recite the prayer of supplication (tachanun) that requires bending over. He was so down that she was afraid he would never get up. That is how affected he was by the fact that his colleagues refused to see things his way. The story goes like this. According to the text in tractate Baba Metzia (59a), there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and, well, everyone else, about the purity of a certain oven. According to the majority of the rabbis, this oven – called tanur shel achnai, or “The serpent’s oven” – lost its purity when it broke. Rabbi Eliezer says that even though it is broken, it was put back together with sand and should be treated as pure as every other oven. That entire debate takes exactly one line of the Talmud. But then something happens. Something strange, mysterious, wild and crazy-making. Rabbi Eliezer does not take no for an answer. He continues to argue. He brings up every proof he knows. The other rabbis refuse to concede. He looks around. “If I am right,” he says. “This carob tree will prove it!” The carob tree jumps 100 meters (amot, actually). Some say 400 meters. The rabbis didn’t flinch. “We don’t bring proofs from carob,” they said. “If I am right, let this aqueduct prove it,” he said. The aqueduct quickly complied, and began flowing backwards. The rabbis were like, meh. “We don’t bring proofs from aqueducts,” they sneered. Rabbi Eliezer was getting frustrated with his impenetrable peers. “If I am right, let the walls of this study hall prove it,” he said. The walls started coming down, and only the intervention of Rabbi Joshua stopped them from landing on the entire study population. Legend has it that the walls stayed half-up, like the leaning tower of Pisa, till this day. And yet, despite all these supernatural...

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Are Jews really chosen? Or are all religions really the same?


I watched a captivating little video clip today about a man who has tried out six different religions – a few varieties of Christianity, two types of Islam, Hinduism, and currently Judaism. His conclusion? It doesn’t matter. All religions are the same. You can imagine how people of each religion might respond to this. After all, the whole point about being in your religion – for many people, at least –  is that you consider it special. How many wars have been fought because people of a certain religion felt the need to prove to the world that theirs is the best, most correct, or only authentic religion? Too many to count. People around the world have, for centuries or millennia, dedicated their lives to the idea that their religion is the True Word of God. Judaism does this, too. I realize that many Jews will take deep offense at what I am writing here, the notion that Judaism promotes its own specialness no differently than every other religion. I can hear the shouting already. How can you say that? How can you put us in the same category as Islam? As Christianity? What kind of blasphemy is that? Jews really ARE different! Yes, we have been telling ourselves that for a long time. Some of our most important moments are swathed in language that says we are chosen and special. Friday night Kiddush: Ki vanu bacharta, Because You chose us and made us holyBlessing on reading the Torah: Asher bacharta banu mikol ha’amim, for choosing us from among all the nations.The Amidah of the High Holidays and festivals: Ata b’chartanu mikol ha’amim, You chose us from among all the nations We have ingrained this notion that our religion is special, unique, or better than everyone else’s inside our collective memory and consciousness. So has Christianity. So has Islam. I’m just saying. So along comes this curious and courageous guy and says something that, to be honest, I have been thinking for a long time. All the religions are the same. We all like to think we are unique, but we are all basically doing the same thing. And what is it that people in all the different religions are all doing?     He gives an analogy of fingers pointing to the moon that comes from Buddhism: It is as if we are all pointing our fingers, looking for the moon, and instead of finding the moon, we are all obsessed with our own fingers. He doesn’t say what “the moon” is in the analogy, but I have some thoughts about it. We are looking for spirituality, purpose, meaning, the God within, the reason why we are here, the way we are all connected, the larger spirit beyond our little lives, collective consciousness, our Divine sparks. We are all divine beings and we are trying to hear that divine voice within our minds. We are all looking for this, and religion often brings us closer to that. Of course, organized...

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