This commandment that I set before you today is neither remote nor inaccessable from you. It is not in heaven, so that you should say, “Why shall ascend to the heavens and bring it down to us so that we can understand it and keep it?” It is not beyond the sea, so that you should ask, “Who will cross the sea and bring it back for us so that we can understand and keep it?” Indeed, it is very close to you — it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.
One of the most enigmatic episodes in the Talmud is based on these verses. The following explication is excerpted from the forthcoming history (G-d willing), In a Single Glance.
During the era that shaped the form and structure of the Talmud, the ideological differences between two great Torah academies, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, never diminished the respect and affection the scholars of either house felt for the scholars of the other. Despite the Talmud’s description of their debates as battles fought “with swords and spears,” neither school ever resorted to any means other than sound Talmudic reasoning to advance its position.
Among members of the Sanhedrin, however, differences of opinion did not limit themselves to simple halachic interpretation. Disputes between the sages reflected the core of Talmudic philosophy, upon which the preservation of the Oral Law depended. To what extent will halachic leniency erode respect for Torah? To what degree must individual sages submit to the majority opinion by relaxing their own personal standards of Torah observance? Concerns such as these influenced not only isolated halachic rulings, but the very fabric of the Torah nation. The sages understood that their decisions would shape the attitudes of entire generations of Jewish society.
Given the need to set standards for future generations, individual sages would sometimes perceive the determination of a seemingly inconsequential halachic debate as if the future of halachic integrity depended solely upon its outcome.
One such dispute arose between the members of the Sanhedrin and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus, a sage so revered that his colleagues referred to him as “Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol — the Great.” Rabbi Eliezer asserted that a certain type of oven could not acquire tumah, ritual impurity, but even with his superior scholarship he failed to convince any of his colleagues. Frustrated by the failure of his arguments, Rabbi Eliezer proceeded to invoke a series of miracles: he made a carob tree uproot itself and walk across the garden; he made water in a stream run uphill; and he made the walls of the Lishkas HaGazis (the chamber in which the sages convened) tilt inward over the heads of the sages.
The sages remained unmoved and resolute in their collective opinion. Finally, at Rabbi Eliezer’s command, a heavenly voice rang out in the chamber declaring that the halacha followed the ruling of Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Yehoshua, the Av Beis Din, arose in his place. Seemingly unimpressed, he declared: “Torah lo baShomayim hi — the Torah is not in heaven.”
In other words, it was irrelevant whether Rabbi Eliezer possessed greater insight into the divine will or whether he had attained such a high spiritual level that G-d Himself testified on his behalf. The Torah itself mandates that responsibility for its interpretation and application rests in the hands of the sages of each generation and depends upon their judgment. They, through consensus, both assess and determine the spiritual level of the era in which they live. Consequently, it is the majority opinion of sages that determines halachic reality and nothing else. An individual scholar may be “right” in an absolute, metaphysical sense, but if he cannot convince the majority of his colleagues through logical and textual proofs, then his own opinion is inconsistent with the spiritual potential of his generation. The system handed down from G-d to Moshe at Sinai may never be overruled — not even by the G-d who gave it.
Indeed, although any sage may debate halacha as far as his reason allows and his conscience demands, every sage must ultimately accept the majority decision once the Sanhedrin has ruled. By invoking miracles, Rabbi Eliezer demonstrated a contempt for the halachic process that his colleagues could not sanction. Rabbi Eliezer’s refusal to accept majority rule left the Sanhedrin no alternative other than the painful decision to place their revered colleague in cherem, imposing upon him the ban of excommunication.
As a result, none of the sages had any contact with Rabbi Eliezer for the rest of his life. Only as Rabbi Eliezer lay on his deathbed did the sages relax the cherem to visit him before he died. All of the Torah knowledge he possessed but had not yet taught went with him to the grave, and his bitterness over the verdict of the sages contributed to the early death of Rabbi Yehoshua — his own brother-in-law. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Sanhedrin these tragedies were the lesser evil; nothing warranted the risk of irreparably compromising the integrity of Torah should the Jewish people learn from Rabbi Eliezer’s example that halachic decision is ever negotiable.
However, so exceptional was Rabbi Eliezer in his scholarship and righteousness that one of the sages, Rabbi Nosson, doubted whether the harsh response of Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sanhedrin had been justified. Rabbi Nosson sought out Elyahu HaNovi (the prophet Elijah) and asked how the Almighty had reacted when the sages overruled Rabbi Eliezer and the heavenly voice. Elyahu told him that G-d had declared: “nitzchuni bonai — My children have defeated Me.”
Far from being angry, the Creator rejoiced at the sages’ demonstration of the immutability of the system of Torah law G-d Himself had established. Once that system had been entrusted to Moshe as representative of the Jewish people, no force in the universe could alter it. By proclaiming that the Torah is not in heaven, Rabbi Yehoshua had shown future generations the extent and power of rabbinic authority.
But that was not all. The word netzach can be translated not only as “victory” but as “eternity.” Interpreted this way, nitzchuni bonai would mean, “My children have made Me eternal.” The Oral Torah allows for Jewish law to adapt itself to a constantly changing world while the Written Torah keeps Jewish law anchored with unalterable moral and legal axioms. Without concrete limits, Jewish practice would continually change until it retained no resemblance to the Divine Word given at Sinai. Without flexibility, Jewish law would calcify, losing all relevance to the present.
By overruling Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua demonstrated not only the immutability of the Torah but its eternal relevance. Because the sages interpret the Torah according to the spiritual level of each generation, the Torah never becomes outdated, never becomes inapplicable, never requires editing or revision. The law is the law, forever and without exception. And it is the eternity of the law that keeps the Jewish people eternal.