Lessons in Mishnaic Moderation from R. Benny Lau

Reviewed Book: Binyamin Lau, The Sages, Vol. III: The Galilean Period (Jerusalem, Israel: Maggid Books, 2013)

The Sages: Part III is the third installment of Binyamin Lau’s fascinating attempt to paint the lives and deeds of Hazal through descriptions found in the oral tradition. The first mistake one may be tempted to make while reading The Sages is to search for a historically verified narrative of the lives of the Tannaim and Amoraim. No, The Sages does not present us with pure historical facts about the hakhamim and their lives. Lau does not try to prove or disprove the stories he presents from the sources. Instead, as Lau makes clear, the purpose of the book is to explain to the reader the way in which the hakhamim were presented by our mesorah. The book aims to understand the mark these remarkable intellectual giants left on the oral tradition, historically verifiable or not.

The Sages is a book with much more depth than a purely historical text would usually have. Indeed, my experience as a history major has taught me that the true importance of an event cannot always be discerned purely based on the facts, but must also be measured by how events were perceived (think of the incident of the USS Maine and its role in causing the Spanish American war[i]). Lau masterfully reconstructs for the reader the way in which each member of a given generation, in this case the Usha generation, was portrayed by the succeeding generations of the oral tradition, as encapsulated in the Talmudic cannon.

The Sages: Part III deals specifically with the establishment of the Beit Midrash at Usha and its subsequent move to Tiberias. Undoubtedly, R. Meir is one of the major actors through this pivotal period in the oral tradition. R. Meir begins as an unassuming disciple of R. Akiva, but eventually touches the entire foundational generation of Tannaim. R. Meir carries forth the halakhic philosophy of R. Akiva as a torch through all the travails of his life, as well as the halakhic teachings of R. Elisha b. Abuya, fiercely defending his teachers from those he sees as destructive to the mesorah, to the point of being expelled from R. Shimon b. Gamliel’s Beit Midrash at Usha.

R. Meir’s trait of obstinacy in the face of the majority eventually plays a role in his ultimate expulsion from the Beit Midrash at Usha. His planned insurrection with R. Natan against the special privileges given to the patriarch, in particular the order of honors given to the patriarch over the rabbis, ultimately leads to his exclusion. The patriarch R. Shimon b. Gamliel (Rashbag) controversially instituted a precedence of how students were to stand for each of the leaders of the Beit Midrash, in an attempt to increase the patriarch’s prestige and in turn gain influence over the hearts of the future hakhamim. This did not sit well with R. Meir and R. Natan who felt snubbed, and embarked upon a mission to discredit, and thus de facto overthrow Rashbag.

In the aftermath of this episode, Rashbag instituted the tradition of referring to R. Meir as “Aherim”, or “others”,[ii] a fitting reference for the student of Elisha b. Abuya, who was similarly referred to as Aher. The Gemara[iii] tells us that most sages did not rely on the opinions of R. Meir, as the other authorities of his generation could not understand the depths of his reasoning. We can learn from these stories how R. Meir was unwilling to abandon or compromise on what he felt to be correct. It seems that R. Meir has a perspective in which his own thoughts trump those of anyone else and overlooked dissenting views in determining halakhic norms.

As Lau points out, R. Meir connects to some of the more fascinating personalities of the Mishnaic period, such as Rashbag, the reestablished patriarch, Elisha b. Abuya, the heretical sage, and R. Meir’s own wife, Beruriah. R. Lau deals first with Elisha b. Abuya, who is involved with some of the most interesting philosophical problems in the Talmud. Elisha is the teacher R. Meir learns most of his Torah from, and R. Meir tries unceasingly and unsuccessfully to bring him back from the abyss. Although the majority of the hakhamim reject Elisha, R. Meir still finds value in his rebbe’s Torah. Until the very end R. Meir defends his teacher, not only from those who would seek to ignore his part in the mesorah, but also from God Himself.[iv]

Indeed, R. Meir seems to attract outliers throughout the period. Lau himself says, “Everything about Rabbi Meir bespeaks otherness.”[v]  R. Meir’s associations with the fringes of the halakhic world force us to confront the halakhic challenges of his time; his conflicts with his peers make us recognize the practical political challenges faced by the institution of the patriarch, who was required by political reality to be decisive and lenient in certain aspects of halakha. R. Meir, however, rejects leniency in favor of his own ideology and is rejected as a result.

Thus, we see that in the end R. Meir’s tale becomes a lesson in the dangers of being unwilling to listen to others, in that even while the hakhamim acknowledged his intellectual prowess, they had to reject his teachings. Lau uses this point to brilliantly contrast R. Meir with other more democratic sages, such as R. Yose b. Halafta. R.Yose, who lived in Tsippori, a highly cosmopolitan and Romanized city, similarly dealt with changes and challenges to the old mesorah. Rather than rejecting the majority like R. Meir, however, R. Yose creates his own majority by consensus.[vi] According to the Gemara in Berakhot, the navi Eliyahu teaches R. Yose that one may not pray alone in a ruin[vii], which Lau understands as a message to R. Yose that he must find religious life amidst the secular world, not in spite of it[viii]. So it seems that while room exists for disagreement in halakha, unbending extremisim is confined to the “Aher”, with no place in the conventional halakhic realm symbolized by Rashbag.

Perhaps Lau’s greatest gift is how his reading of the Talmudic and Mishnaic sources, albeit sometimes a little broad in its interpretation, gives so much context to these giants of our mesorah. Understanding the context of the world these great sages were living in and looking more closely at the Talmudic sources themselves paints a picture of characters whose struggles are all too human, and more importantly so relatable to our own times. Lau at times goes out of his way to describe Hazals stormy disagreements, tensions and revolutions, such as the repudiation of R. Shimon b. Yochai’s rebellious views against Rome by his own son Elazar, who becomes an official for Rome.[ix] This highlighting of the arguments amongst the sages pervades the book, as if only to make sure we are not tempted to think his book a hagiography. Ironically, this acknowledgment of the Tannaim’s furious disagreement[x] seems only to increase their greatness.

At times we might be tempted to picture the hakhamim all sitting in one Beit Midrash and discussing a rigid Torah. I have certainly fallen into this trap. However, this mischaracterization does not give enough credit to the ideological differences between the sages, and ignores the tremendous tensions that sometimes pervaded Hazal’s interactions, at times reminiscent of our own hyperpolarized world. I believe it is incumbent upon us to learn from our mesorah the destructive consequences of polarization, so as not to repeat mistakes made (and recorded) by our great (but human) rabbis.

Josh Fitterman is a junior at YC, majoring in History

[i]    The description of this in William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper gave the impression of Spanish attack, when eyewitnesses had no such perception. However, the public outrage stemming from the mass understanding was so powerful as to spark the U.S. to ignite war with Spain.

[ii]    Lau, p.263.

[iii]   Eruvin 53a.

[iv]    The Yerushalmi Hagiga 77a recounts that after Elisha b. Abuya’s death, fire burnt on his grave as a sign of God’s displeasure. R. Meir threw down his cloak on the grave and demanded “If He redeems you, good’- this refers to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, who is good… ‘But if he does not want to redeem you, I will redeem you for myself, as God lives!”

[v]    Lau, p. 157.

[vi]   R. Yose’s personality is discussed more fully in the book.

[vii]    Berakhot 3a.

[viii]   Lau, p. 97.

[ix]   Lau, p. 318. Elazar’s position was an apprehender of Jewish criminals. This is a highly intriguing, because aside from halakhic problems involved with being moser Jews to the secular authorities, these positions were historically corrupt. Lau explains that we must delve into other branches of philosophy to understand this complex figure, outside the scope of the present article.

[x]     See Yerushalmi Shabbat 10:,5 where R. Elazar’s widow derides a proposed marriage between herself and Rebbe by saying “A vessel used for the sacred should be used for the secular?”