Sago Boulevard

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Lo Bashamayim Hi

The famous story of the oven of achnai (Bava Metsia 59b) is one of the important sources demonstrating the significance and theological implications of halakhic deliberations in Judaism. As Rav Soloveitchik writes:
The strange Aggadic stories... about R. Joshua b. Chanania's rejecting a Divine decision which favored a minority opinion over that of the majority [is] characteristic of the intimate Halakhic-covenantal relationship prevailing between man and God. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

The biblical verse used to justify R. Joshua's rejection of the bat kol is similarly famous: "Lo Bashamayim Hi" - It is not in heaven. The context of the verse is also important, though:
This commandment that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven [for you] to say "Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us..." Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say "Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us..." Rather the matter is very near to you. (Deut. 30:11-14)

Richard Silverstein understands this gemara as saying:
The Talmudic rabbis do not view Jewish law as divine per se. It is not fixed in its meaning as revealed at Sinai. It is alive. Jews may even interpret the law wrongly and God has no power to correct them because the sole interpretive responsibility is theirs.

In his comment to Nephtuli's post, he writes:
I do not believe that the rabbis in the Talmud story "ignored" God's "intent." I believe they prob. took that into acct. in their deliberations & decided against Him nevertheless. After all, doesn't God make pretty crystal clear that his original intent sides with R. Eliezer?

I think the suggestion that the rabbis somehow overruled divine authority by invoking "lo bashamayim hi" is seriously misguided. On theological grounds, the rabbis' job is to apply divine law to situations not explicit in the Torah and to make additional provisions to uphold its spirit. The entire corpus of halakhic literature is devoted to identifying and explaining God's intention in giving the Torah.

On texual grounds, that's simply not what the gemara is saying. The reason the bat kol is rejected is clear. The rabbis "give no credence to a bat kol". The heavenly voice is not permitted in the discussion because "lo bashamayim hi". We don't rely on prophetic means to interpret the Torah; we use only our faculties of reason.

But this is an epistemological point. The goal of deciding Halakhah is still to identify God's intention. The rabbis don't ignore God's will; they ignore the bat kol because they are called upon to identify God's will on their own. If we rely on a bat kol, then we indeed require someone to "ascend to the heaven for us". The Torah tells us that no, "lo bashamayim hi" - it is not in heaven. The bat kol has no weight in the halakhic discussion. We have to figure out what God would say on our own.