As a scholar of Talmudic stories, I am constantly amazed at the relevance of these ancient tales to contemporary events. As a resident of Englewood, in light of the community’s reactions to certain deeds committed almost two decades ago, I have been thinking of three stories in particular.
The first, from Bava Mesia 59b, is the famous story commonly known as the “Oven of Akhnai” but should really be titled “The Tragic Shaming of R. Eliezer.” The Talmud relates that R. Eliezer and the rabbis disputed over the purity of a certain type of oven, but the rabbis refused to accept either R. Eliezer’s arguments or the miracles he performed to prove his claim. They even went so far as to reject God’s heavenly voice, declaring “The law accords with R. Eliezer” on the grounds that “It is not in heaven,” meaning that the Torah has been given to humans to interpret and adjudicate. Most modern retellings of the story end here, and completely neglect the continuation, where events take a tragic turn. The rabbis ban R. Eliezer, ostracizing him from their synagogues and houses of study. When he weeps at hearing this news, God punishes the world with fiery destruction and the devastation of one third of all its crops. Subsequently R. Eliezer falls on his face in prayer, pouring out to God his pain at this humiliating treatment, and Rabban Gamaliel, the Nasi and head of the rabbis, dies immediately. The story’s lesson is therefore less about the fascinating paradox of rabbinic interpretive authority that so interests modern readers, and more about the sin of shaming another person. God accepts the rabbis’ right to interpret the law against His own opinion, but punishes them severely for excluding and humiliating R. Eliezer. And we know this is the main message because the story appears in connection with a mishnah that mentions “verbal wronging” (ona’at devarim), the prohibition against hurting others with words, and follows various traditions about the severity of the sin of causing shame and humiliation.
The second story I think about is the famous story of “Qamtsa and Bar Qamtsa,” which more aptly could be titled “The tragic shaming of Bar Qamtsa” (Gittin 55b). The Talmud tells of an unnamed host who meant to invite his friend Qamtsa to a dinner party, but his messenger mistakenly invited his enemy “Bar Qamtsa.” The host threw Bar Qamtsa out on the street, even though Bar Qamtsa offered to pay for the entire dinner party if only he would be allowed to stay and not be humiliated publicly. We also learn that “the rabbis” were present at the banquet and yet did nothing to protest this action: they neither objected to the treatment of Bar Qamtsa nor left with him in protest. Because the rabbis “were sitting there and did not intervene,” Bar Qamtsa concluded that they condoned the host’s action and slandered the rabbis to the Roman authorities. Events snowballed until the Romans attacked the Jews and destroyed the temple. The Talmud’s conclusion makes the lesson unambiguously clear: “Come and see how serious it is to shame another person. For God took the side of Bar Qamtsa, and destroyed his house and burnt down his temple.”
The third story is that of Eleazar b. Dordaya (Avodah Zarah 17a). We are told of this Eleazar that “he never left out even one prostitute in the world without consorting with her.” Once he traveled to a distant land in order to visit a famous and expensive prostitute, but in the middle of their liaison he despaired at the greatness of his sins. He then placed his head on his knees and wept in sincere repentance. The Talmud reports that a heavenly voice proclaimed “Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordaya is invited to life in the world to come.” That God accepted his repentance and bestowed on him the honorific title “rabbi” prompted R. Judah the Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah and among the most famous rabbis, to observe :”Penitents are not only accepted, but they are even called ‘rabbi.'”
The reaction of the community, members and leaders alike, to the aforementioned incidents of long ago makes me wonder whether we have learned the lessons of these stories. Have we stood together with those who have been shamed? Certainly the community has a legitimate concern to protect itself, much as the Talmudic rabbis had a legitimate concern for the integrity of the legal system that R. Eliezer threatened. Yet God punished the rabbis for how they grappled with that problem. For all the distinctions that could be made between these Talmudic sources and contemporary situations, might the response of our community bear some resemblance to the banning of R. Eliezer? Or to the failure of the rabbis at the banquet to protest the shaming of Bar Qamtsa? In the coming weeks we would do well to remember the importance of teshuva, of repentance, not only as a lofty ideal, but as a lived reality in our hearts and minds and deeds.