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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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