INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman
"Hubble telescope proves Biblical account of creation!"
"Hubble telescope proves Biblical account of creation!"
How ecstatic we would be to read that headline. At long last, we would have the proof that would allow us to set aside our doubts and fully believe in the Torah. Wouldn't we also be surprised to learn that our new-found belief may be considered heresy by the Talmud? I'm referring to an Aggada found in the Tractate Sanhedrin 100a (also Tractate Baba Batra 75a) where our sages use one of the students of the great Rabbi Yochanan as an example of a heretic:
Rabbi Yochanan was once sitting and lecturing: "The Holy One, Blessed is He, will one day bring precious stones and pearls the size of 30 X 30 cubits (about fifty feet), and He will cut out from them openings of 20 X 10 cubits, and will place them at the gates of Jerusalem." A certain disciple mocked him: "We do not even find a jewel as large as the egg of a small dove, and you say we shall find jewels of such immense size?"
Soon after, it happened that the same disciple was on a boat on the high sea, and he saw ministering angels sitting and sawing precious stones and pearls the size of 30 X 30 cubits, and cutting openings in them of 20 X 10 cubits. The student asked them, "For whom are these?" and they answered: "The Holy One, Blessed is He, will one day place them at the gates of Jerusalem." When the disciple returned, he said to Rabbi Yochanan: "My Master! Continue to lecture! You are fit to lecture, for everything that you said I have seen myself." Rabbi Yochanan responded to him: "Ignoramus! If you had not seen it yourself, would you not have believed it? You are a scoffer at the words of the sages." Rabbi Yochanan cast his eyes on the disciple, and he became a heap of bones.
The implications of this story are troubling. Does the Talmud suggest that anyone who doesn't accept every insight their rabbi expounds is a heretic? Furthermore, why didn't Rabbi Yochanan react when the student first laughed? Why did he wait until the student returned to corroborate his master's teaching? Lastly, we might wonder how a believer can be deemed a heretic?
Let us review the story. Isaiah the prophet states that in the Messianic era, the walls of Jerusalem will be built of precious stones. Rabbi Yochanan elaborated on this by saying that the walls would be built of stones 30 X 30 cubits. Into these stones would be hewn gates of 20 X 10 cubits corresponding to the dimensions of the gates of the second Temple. The student did what most people do when hearing an unbelievable story. He laughed.
After some time, the student journeyed to sea. The Maharal of Prague, a leading Torah scholar of the 16th century, and other classic commentators understand this allegorically to mean that the student submersed himself in the sea of Talmud. His journey into Torah took him so far that he actually experienced angels preparing the very gates that Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher, had described. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the famous Mir Yeshiva in the past generation, points out that the student's initial reaction did not bother Rabbi Yochanan. He understood that it was quite possible that at the student's level of understanding, the image of the gates was unbelievable. However, when the student returned with the new insights gained from his Torah study, his heresy was exposed. Instead of being humbled and submitting himself to Rabbi Yochanan's superior insight, he proclaimed, "You expound well because I have seen what you expounded." The student expressed a heresy we are all too familiar with: "I only believe that which has been proven." As soon as Rabbi Yochanan recognized this, the student was as worthless in his eyes as a bag of bones. The student after seeing angels was certainly a believer, but the way he had arrived at his belief also exposed him to be a heretic.
This does not mean that we should not question the teachings of our rabbis. Questioning beliefs deepens our understanding of them. The Torah asks that we accept the fact that the truth exists independent of our limited ability to prove it. At the same time, we are commanded to attempt to confirm and understand the Torah. As we are able to confirm the teachings that we once considered unbelievable, we are filled with awe and humility of that which is infinitely greater. We are also filled with joy in the gift of the Torah that has been bestowed upon us.
Contemporary Man struggles with this challenge. The scientist who "proves" the Torah generates pride in himself for having proven the Torah. The scientist who confirms the Torah generates awe and joy in Hashem, the Creator. In light of this Aggada, perhaps a less heretical headline would read: "Scientists in awe - Hubble confirms Biblical account of creation!"
Editor's note: One of the ways which our rabbis transmitted deep philosophical and moral lessons was through stories and parables. In Hebrew, this is called Midrash or Aggada. Often these accounts seem exotic, esoteric, and sometimes even fantastic to the untrained eye. But with the explanation of the classical commentaries, the depth and breadth of the story is revealed. In this second installment (the first appeared in Parshat Bo) and in future columns, Rabbi Binyomin Friedman, who has done extensive research and teaching in this area, will attempt to expose some of the deeper meanings in Aggada as explained by our classic commentators.
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman is rabbi of Congregation Ariel of Dunwoody. His popular Aggada class for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel is currently in its tenth year.
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