Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Law is Not in Heaven. "Lo Bashamayim Hi"

Not in Heaven

Lo Bashamayim Hi
"The Law is Not in Heaven." Seems simple, right? God gave us the Torah and now we can do whatever we want with it. 

If you only read the first half of the story of Achnai's oven, that's exactly what you might think, but it's a little more complicated than that. Given the events that unfold after the initial debate is over, "Lo Bashamayim Hi" becomes more of a question than a statement—it's even unclear what side God's on. We decided to capture this uncertainty by telling the entire story with all its difficulties, and not giving away any easy answers. The length and wordiness of the text lent itself to a ballad, weaving narration and dialogue through one voice with a medieval- traveling minstrel feel. The characters engage with the story through a full range of emotions, expressing the passion and exasperation that arise because of this debate. The music itself dips and swells, becoming the argument, the mourning rabbis, and the turbulent sea. There is so much action and so many questions in this story that it is a microcosm of the Talmud itself; loud, messy, without a clear end or beginning, and raising more questions than answers. We hope our film does the same.

There is an halakhic expression: hatora lo' bashamayim hi (התורה לא בשמים היא) - the Tora is not in heaven. It comes from the following passage of the Talmud. (Since the quote is much too long for my usual triplicate format, I will just quote the translation from here. I have highlighted some key words to help those who want to go back and forth.)

השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו אמר להם אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה ואמרי לה ארבע מאות אמה אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של רבי אליעזר ועדיין מטין ועומדין חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר לא בשמים היא מאי לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה אחרי רבים להטות
אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו אמר ליה מאי עביד קודשא בריך הוא בההיא שעתא אמר ליה קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they retorted. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. Again he urged: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?' Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'

In other words, no miracle or sign from heaven, even to the extent of a heavenly voice calling out "the halakha is according to so-and-so" is considered proof of your interpretation of God's word. The only valid authority is tradition, i.e. the majority opinion of the previous generation. The Tora (now that it has been given) is not made in heaven, it is made right here on earth, by mortal men.
As an aside, I have always loved that last line: nishuni banay (ניצחוני בני) - my sons have defeated me. (Or, more precisely, 'my sons are victorious over me'. Nisahon [ניצחון] means victory, it is related to nesah [נצח] - eternity.) It is an example of the playfulness often found in the Talmudic text. Remember, the Talmud is a record of actual discussions between real people. Nishuni banay doesn't really make literal sense (if God is saying it), but it effectively conveys the message that Man's fate is in his own hands, and God approves. SOURCE:

Deu 30:12-14  It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'  Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. 

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