And God Laughed
Zoe approached me with a funny look on her face. “Rabbi,” she said, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The setting was Magic Camp last summer, on the beautiful campus of Bryn Mawr college. My boy, Emmett, was in his first year at camp. (My first year was 39 years ago, in 1979.)
I am the Dean of Instruction – which means that part of what I do every day is visit every morning class to see how I can help. (Camp is a pretty well-oiled machine, so it’s not that big of a job.) I had avoided Emmett’s class Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. I wanted him to get a feel for being there as a camper, not my child.
I was standing in the back of the room, opposite the door, near the windows.
Zoe was explaining a number of the subtleties it takes to handle two cards as one. (Nerd magic stuff.)
Zoe used to be a camper of mine. (Real magic stuff.)
Emmett was a student in her class. (Even more magic.)
Zoe paired the students so they could show their moves and critique each other, and then approached me to say, “Rabbi, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I knew what was going on. Emmett wasn’t able to just be a camper while I was in the room.
I had suspected that he might act differently around me. But how could I know? When I see him, he is with me. When I don’t see him, however he acts then, I don’t see him.
Promptly, as requested, I crossed the room and exited.
I was so proud of Zoe. So proud of her for kicking me out. I mean, who kicks me out of a room? I am a big deal. Ask anyone at magic camp.
The next scheduled group activity was lunch, and I am usually the first staff member there–to make certain the kitchen is ready for us. I was biting into a horribly salty, greasy but delicious grilled cheese when I looked up to see Zoe standing there.
“Rabbi, I’m so sorry,” she began. A bit nervous. She assessed the few campers and staff members seated with me.
I had considered that she thought I left in a huff. I looked up with a big smile while she, not looking at me, continued, defending herself, “It’s just that Emmett acts so differently when you are in the room, and I figured that…”
When she looked at me, she saw me smiling ear to ear.
My face interrupted her. (This is a phrase I like.)
I said aloud, “I am so proud of you. You were right. It is your classroom. You had a job to do. I needed to be out of the class so he could learn. Thank you for kicking me out.”
Reed, a counselor I’m close to, seated at the table, cocked his head, laughed, and asked, “Did you just thank her for kicking you out? I want to make sure I heard this correctly.”
“Yes, that’s right.” I said.
“Thanks, Rabbi,” said Zoe, as she went off to get herself a tray of food.
“The grilled cheese is tasty,” I told her as I turned to relate the following story to Reed.
The Ovens of Ankai – It is Not in Heaven
The time is a hundred years or so after Jesus. The ancient rabbis have an “Ankai oven” before them. They are voting on whether or not this oven is suitable (kosher) for use.
All of the rabbis except Rabbi Eliezer vote the oven to be not kosher. He alone champions the oven as permissible.
Gamaliel, the chief rabbi, reminds everyone that the majority rules.
Eliezer simply says, “No.”
He further proclaims, “I am certain that the law agrees with me. And if I am right that the law is with me, let this carob tree prove it.”
The tree uproots itself and walks/moves 100 paces away. But, the Talmud adds, “some say 400 paces.”
I love that detail in the story. I love, love, love that in the story it says “the tree moved 100, though some say 400,” as though that should corroborate that it actually happened there.
The majority rebuff, “There is no proving the law by a carob tree.”
Eliezer says, “If the law’s with me, let this stream prove it.”
And, this stream–which had been flowing in one direction–changed to flow in the other direction. Obviously, God’s will was being made quite clearly known.
The rabbis again say, “No, no, no, no. The law’s with us. The stream proves nothing.”
Eliezer cries out, “If the law is in accordance with my opinion, let the heavens prove it.”
And, a voice from Heaven is heard, saying, “Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is in accordance with his opinion.”
You’d think that might settle the argument, but Rabbi Joshua quips a verse from the Bible, “The laws are not in heaven.” (Deuteronomy 30:12).
Checkmate. The law is not up to God. It is up to how it is interpreted. Joshua quotes the Bible as prooftext that the Bible isn’t authoritative.
The rabbis used the Bible to kick God out of day-to-day religion.
Note: maintaining hegemony over the discernment of God’s will is in the best interest of those in power.
I like to point out the context of the quote, “it is not in heaven,” from Deuteronomy. Joshua is taking the quote out of context to say that God does not vote. The text itself is 160 degrees the opposite. (It’s not quite 180.)
The context of the story is that Moses–who quite literally had just climbed a mountain to get the laws–told the Israelites that God’s laws are “not in heaven.”
What we need to do in this world, he continues, is neither across the sea that we should send someone across the sea to get the laws for us. (This is a reference to the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh’s Enkidu, who does just that.)
Moses explains that what we need to know about God’s law is neither in heaven nor across the sea but close at hand. The commandments of God are very near.
And God Laughed
Back to Zoe and something that I never quite understood until getting kicked out of class by my former camper.
To make sense of this, you need to know that according to 2 Kings 2, Elijah never died. Instead, the legend is that the prophet Elisha witnessed a chariot of fire lifting Elijah to the heavens. Accordingly, he is welcomed as an ambassador of God at important Jewish events to this very day. Elijah never dying also allows him to recur in rabbinic stories to deliver otherwise-unknowable news–like God’s mood when the rabbis officially removed God from having a vote.
The text of Bava Metzia 59b, after reporting that the rabbis have kicked God out of voting, continues:
Years later, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be, do at that time, when Rabbi Joshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be, smiled and said, My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.
Isn’t that beautiful?
I love that.
That God laughed.
When God saw that God was bested at the law game, the rabbis–the ones who wrote this story –report that God laughed and said, “My children have defeated me. My children have defeated me.”
And so when Zoe said to me at Magic Camp, “Rabbi, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” I laughed.
Zoe, you did the right thing.
You stood up to me, the rabbi, your counselor, the Dean of Instruction at Magic Camp. I’m so proud. So proud, I laughed. So proud, I laughed.