A highlight of the week, for me, was the opportunity to engage with my colleague, friend and mentor, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg over one of our favourite Talmudic passages. At the heart of our discussion about the text – the story of the Oven of Achnai – was a disagreement about how the text valued debate, difference, edginess and the voice of the individual.
The story is an argument between the massed ranks of the Rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer over a matter regarding ritual impurity. Eliezer is convinced he is right and calls on various miracles and even God to witness to his correctness, but the Rabbis insist on the power of the majority and carry the day. In the middle of the story God laughs seemingly delighted that ‘my children have defeated me.’ The Rabbis then seek to rub out any of Eliezer’s previous declarations and even to excommunicate their defeated foe, an act that results in mass destruction of harvests and, ultimately, the death of the senior Rabbi who watched the disagreement unfold.
Like all good Talmudic stories this tale evades simple explanations but one element is clear. No-one likes a smart-alec. No-one likes a person so convinced of their own rectitude that they embarrass the comfortable majority. I see Rabbi Eliezer as this kind of person. And the response of a majority to this kind of discomforting voice is often to attack not the argument, but the individual. In increasingly totalitarian societies the threat to the provoking individual increases to the point of danger. In many ways, of course, this is what happened to our founding Rabbi (who I am certainly not considering a smart-alec, perish the thought). He confronted a comfortable majority with an uncomfortable truth and was shunned. It is also what happens, in this week’s parasha, to Moses who turns to Pharaoh with the undeniable demand for individual liberty and freedom, which results in ever greater oppression being placed upon the shoulders of the Children of Israel.
Throughout history the Jew has often served as provocateur, smashing idols of deceit and holding up uncomfortable message before power. We have picked up Nobel Prizes and suffered pogroms aplenty because of it. Truth will do that but ultimately truth will win out. As a community and as individuals I would want us to value ever more carefully the dis-comforting voices that challenge our cosy view of the world. We need to create spaces for solitary provocateurs, truth-telling outsiders and we need to recognise that truth rarely comes comfortably packaged. It didn’t for Moses, it didn’t for Rabbi Eliezer and it doesn’t today.