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A Jewish Perspective on Freedom

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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There is a very famous story told in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a) about a discussion over an oven. The oven in question was a new invention, by a man called Achnai. Achnai brought his new oven to the rabbinical court so that they could declare it appropriate for Jewish use (a bit like getting a CE stamp on a toy so people know it's safe to use!). With the exception of Rabbi Eliezer, every Rabbi in the court declared that the oven was un-kosher (not permissible). Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every possible argument to try and convince the others that the oven was kosher, but none of his colleagues was budging.

Rabbi Eliezer was getting frustrated, and he shouted at them: 'If Achnai's oven is in fact kosher, as I say it is, then let this carob tree prove it!'

And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.

Unimpressed, the other sages retorted: 'No proof can be brought from a carob tree.'

Again, Rabbi Eliezer: 'If the oven is kosher, then let the stream of water prove it.'

And the stream of water flowed backwards. 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' the rabbis answered.

More frustrated than ever, Rabbi Eliezer cried out: 'If the oven is kosher, as I say it is, let the walls of this house of study prove it!'

And the walls began to fall inward. But Rabbi Joshua wasn't impressed by the collapsing walls, saying to them: 'When scholars are engaged in a disagreement over a point of Jewish law, what right do you have to interfere?'

And so the walls did not fall in honour of Rabbi Joshua, but neither did they resume their upright position in honour of Rabbi Eliezer. Again, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, 'If the law agrees with me regarding the fact that Achnai's oven is kosher, then let heaven prove it.'

And a voice from heaven cried out: 'Why do you rabbis argue with Eliezer? He's always right in his interpretation of the law!'

But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed to the sky: '\It is not in Heaven." [Quoting Deuteronomy 30:12.] One must follow the majority!'

At that moment, the sages say, God laughed, saying, 'My children have defeated me! My children have overruled me!'

 

Authority requires interpretation

 

This story is brought time and again to demonstrate the importance of human authority over even the texts that many believe God has given us. Indeed it is often felt that the Torah cannot be understood without interpretation, and this is why we have such a strong tradition of legal discussion and interpretation – without it, it is argued, we would not be able to execute or understand the laws fully.

 

Informed decision-making

 

As a Progressive Jew, freedom and authority are key concepts in my own belief in how Judaism has functioned and can function for today. I am a firm advocate of the Progressive ideal of informed decision-making. This means that we each have the freedom to decide how our Judaism works best for us, but that this means we have to take on the responsibility of informing ourselves! This can make for a challenging, but very interesting life! For all sectors of the community, educating ourselves enough to stay informed and thus exercise our freedom and authority responsibly, whether within Jewish Law, or using it as a guidance system along with other factors, is an ongoing challenge. Thus freedom always, within Judaism, involves (and is perhaps limited by) responsibility; whether that is responsibility to educate oneself, or to act justly – a major injunction, or to keep within certain agreed boundaries. These boundaries may vary from community to community, and vary from strict and clear laws to values and morals, but exist for all.

 

The authority of Torah

 

For the Orthodox community, authority will rest in part with the written legal tradition (drawn from Torah but not only found in Torah), and this will be interpreted by each community's rabbi, who would be knowledgeable in the law and custom of their particular community (which will differ somewhat depending on where in the Jewish world the community is from). For Progressive Jews, the law and Torah have a vote which carries some authority, but they do not have a veto, and an individual may make decisions drawing on knowledge from various parts of their life. This means you can find a huge variety of practices within Judaism, whether because of a community's customs, or an individual's engagement and choices within their community. Freedom exists within Jewish law and interpretation, and Torah is for us to interpret, but authority is given to the sages of old, and, to a degree, modern rabbis and heads of communities. But rabbis do not have any special powers and are no more special than any other person; they may receive respect for their knowledge and authority, but many Jews are very learned, and can lead services and can teach and read from Torah, without the help and authority of a rabbi.

 

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