Korah: “It is not in Heaven”

The stories in this week’s parsha settle the question of leadership by an appeal to miraculous signs.  While the Rabbis of old certainly respected the narrative of the Torah, they were adamant that miracles did not settle such questions in their own day.  To paraphrase the Monty Python boys, impromptu earthquakes and efflorescent insignia are no basis for a system of government.  A well known story from the Talmud illustrates the Rabbinic reliance on discourse, even when it flies in the face of “miracles.”*  Rabbi Eliezer is disputing the other Sages about the purity status of a disassembled stove.

“On that day R. Eliezer brought all the proof in the world , but they did not accept it.  He said, “If the law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!” Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — some say, four hundred.  They said to him, “No proof can be brought from a carob-tree.”

Then he said to them, “If the law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!”  Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they replied.

Then he said, “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it!” and the walls leaned over as though they were about to fall.   But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: “What business is it of yours when scholars engage in a halachic dispute?” Hence they did not fall, in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of R. Eliezer; but are leaning to this day.

Then  he said, “If the law agrees with me, let Heaven itself prove it!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer?  The law agrees with him in every case!”  But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: “It is not in heaven.”**

What did he mean “not in heaven.”? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; the voice from heaven does not concern us, for it was written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline.”***

(Later, Rabbi Nathan has a vision of the prophet Elijah, and asks him “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do at that time when Rabbi Joshua refused to heed the heavenly voice?” Elijah said to Rabbi Nathan: “God smiled and said: `My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!”)

*Personally, I don’t have a problem with miracles, since they happen all the time, and my own existence is a wonder I can’t explain.  But I do have a problem with miracles on demand, miracles as intermittent tinkering, with God sporadically fixing our social and religious disputes by extraordinary signs that tell us unmistakably who is right and who is wrong.

**R. Joshua is quoting the Torah,  “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you . . .  is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it . . . .  No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deut. 31:11-14)

***This is a common rabbinic interpretation of Ex. 23:2, which says practically the opposite.   I wonder if the rabbinic interpretation was first created in the Hellenistic era to justify courts which operated on the basis of majority rule.


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