2 Systems of Reality
Moshe Ben-Chaim
A story is recorded in Talmud Baba Metzia 59b, where Rabbi Eliezer responded to all the questions in the world, but he was not received. He stated, "if the law is like me, let this carob tree be uprooted from its place 100 cubits", and it was so. But they responded to him that we derive no proof from the carob. Rabbi Eliezer then said "if the law is like me, let this river turn backwards", and it did. They responded to him, "we don't take proof from a river". Rabbi Eliezer then said "if the law is like me, let the walls of the house of study prove so". At that point, the walls leaned to fall, where Rabbi Joshua said, "if these students make each other successful in learning, what is the gain?" The walls ceased from falling in deference to Rabbi Joshua, but didn't incline back up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer, and they remained in between. Rabbi Eliezer then said one last time, "if the law is like me, let heaven prove me right". At that point, a heavenly voice said, "what complaint have you against Rabbi Eliezer?".
Rabbi Joshua then stood on his feet, and claimed, "it s not in heaven". Meaning, that since the law has been given at Sinai, and the law instructs therein that "after the majority should be the ruling", Rabbi Eliezer's position is not something in the hands of heaven once the Torah is now given.
Rabbi Nathan upon hearing this approached Elija the prophet and asked him what God was doing at that specific moment. Elijah said He was smiling and saying "you have succeeded Me my children, you have succeeded Me."
The questions are many:
1) Did Rabbi Eliezer actually perform these feats? If not, what do they mean?
2) What is meant that he answered all the questions in the world?
3) What is the order of these, meaning, Rabbi Eliezer must have brought more powerful arguments with each miracle. How is each a better demonstration of Rabbi Eliezer's position?
4) How can the heavens declare Rabbi Eliezer as correct and yet Rabbi Joshua would oppose heaven? What is Rabbi Joshua's argument in support of not following heaven, and how are both he and Rabbi Eliezer seemingly in opposition, yet correct?
5) What was the concern of Rabbi Nathan, and what is meant that he approached Elija?
6) How do we interpret God's response that man has "succeeded" Him?


We must admit that man has no powers, as all the laws of nature were in place prior to man's entrance onto the stage of Earth. Actually, man has no choice but to abide by laws of nature, and he certainly has no control over that which the Supreme One has established, "a law has been established for them so they should not alter their course..." (Taken from the New Moon blessing).
I believe the statement that Rabbi Eliezer answered all of the questions in the world is actually a clue to the central idea of this section of Talmud. It is hinting that the matter deals with that type of knowledge which can answer all questions. That is, "absolute knowledge". Keep this in mind as you read. I will elaborate.
What then is meant by the miracles? I believe they are to indicate just how perfectly in line with objective reality Rabbi Eliezer's position really was. So as to say, Rabbi Eliezer was so knowledgeable of objective reality, that he knew all about natural objects - illustrated by the metaphor of uprooting a tree. But Rabbi Eliezer's knowledge also extended to how nature operates - illustrated by the second metaphor of a river turning backwards. This second "miracle" is different than the first, in that it deals with behavior of objects, and not simply the object per se. Therefore, it was second, as it was more inclusive of Rabbi Eliezer's knowledge, and therefore a stronger argument.
This was not heeded to, so Rabbi Eliezer displayed how accurate his knowledge was - not only of the physical - but even of Jewish law, as demonstrated by metaphorically effecting the study hall's walls. (We'll come back to Rabbi Joshua's reply later.)
Rabbi Eliezer's final argument was the most airtight, that even heaven (the final word) is in line with his views.
This now explains the different arguments, and their order of presentation. Rabbi Eliezer's actual words (not recorded herein) are of no consequence, as the Talmud merely desired to teach that Rabbi Eliezer displayed his grasp of objective reality to such an extent - and in succession - spanning the lowest matters to the highest.
Let's take Rabbi Joshua's argument, he said, "if the students are strengthening one another in law, what is the gain if the walls fall on them?" Meaning, the goal is that students follow a path of study, engaging each other in analytical debate in Jewish law. Mankind's goal is being achieved by these students, and although you Rabbi Eliezer desire to rid them, (you feel pure objective reality is the goal), I, Rabbi Joshua disagree.
By the walls ceasing from from falling down, we are taught that Rabbi Joshua's opinion was correct, as it was the cause of the walls coming to a halt.
Rabbi Joshua's opinion was that the goal of learning is not to determine what God knows, but that man should follow the system given at Sinai, which is to use his mind as far as possible to determine the law. That is why Rabbi Joshua stated, "it is not in heaven". Man's goal is limited to the sphere of mortal intelligence. But Rabbi Eliezer was also shown to be correct, as the walls also did not return upwards.
How are both views correct?
The presence in this story of a the heavenly voice declaring Rabbi Eliezer correct, as well as Rabbi Joshua's effecting Rabbi Eliezer's command to fall the wall, teach us a very essential idea - there are in fact two systems of reality:
1) God's objectively true Knowledge, and
2) man's continually revising system of halacha - a closed system, separate from God's objective knowledge.
Which is more correct? That is exactly the debate in this section of Talmud. It would seem it would have to be as Rabbi Eliezer professed, i.e., God's knowledge. But this is a different question than what Rabbi Joshua was answering. Rabbi Joshua' was stating that as far as man must live a life limited to his own intelligence, he has no choice other than to follow the system determined by God for man. This system is the system of halacha handed to man at Sinai.
Rabbi Nathan however was perplexed at seeing Rabbi Eliezer argue so profoundly and without flaw - illustrated by the metaphor of a heavenly voice affirming Rabbi Eliezer's position. Rabbi Nathan's talking with Elija as opposed to anyone else - in my opinion - means that somehow Rabbi Nathan discovered a basic truth, perhaps via study in the Written law, alluded to by reference to a prophet (Elija). Elija was the one man to "ascend to heaven". This could mean that Elija was the only man who combined heaven's knowledge with mortal existence, so he alone could settle the question. Through the study of Elija, Rabbi Nathan discovered that the Written Law bears out Rabbi Joshua's position. More of a proof than Rabbi Joshua's reasoning alone.
"Elija's response" - meaning Rabbi Nathan's findings in Scripture, means that although God knows absolute knowledge, and this would seem to be more "real", God is saying that man has succeeded. That is, although man hasn't the highest understanding of reality, his adherence to halacha is his only system, and in a manner, supersedes God's system, when viewed from man's encapsulated existence. Thus, God's response.
We should also note that when we say that Rabbi Eliezer had knowledge of what was absolute truth, it doers not mean that he approached God's knowledge in any fashion. It means that he didn't have doubts. He was on par with those students of Moses who received the law 100% clearly, prior to the era where laws were lost, and uncertainties arose.
We leave this area of the Talmud with new insight into how essential it is for man to use his mind, and make his decisions about the Torah based on the Law from Sinai. Too much deviation from the original Torah rulings and text exist today, and the one resolve is to trace all of our thoughts, ideas and actions back to some source in the Talmud, Rishonim, and the text of the Torah, Prophets and Writings. Only when we find sources in these texts can we be sure that our actions are those outlined by the Torah.

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