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By Irma Geldiashvili
August 7, 2015
On Thursday, August 6, Rabbi Frederick Reeves joined Niagara Foundation for a roundtable discussion on the Jewish approach to Biblical prophets. Reeves talked about Jewish scripture, the Bible, the Talmud and shared some curious stories through which audience learned about Jewish perspective on prophets. The Talmud, a body of literature, which counts as Jewish scripture, is much bigger than Bible and is very complex. Rabbinic tradition states that there are two bodies of knowledge that were given to Moses: a written Torah that refers to the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy); and an oral Torah (traditions that are passed down person to person to generations).
One particular Rabbi, Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince), was worried about contemporary children being different from previous generations that put the oral tradition into danger of getting lost. Therefore, he wrote down the oral tradition that he had received from his teacher, which became the first stratum of the Talmud. By doing so, he revolutionized the study of the oral Torah because people no longer receive an entire body of tradition from their teachers orally: they find it easier to read the written text.
Afterwards, as Rabbi Frederick Reeves began to talk about prophecy he told a traditional story: a group of rabbis are together in a study hall arguing about a particular oven in which someone has found a dead snake in it. Since there has been a dead snake in the oven, it is no longer a kosher oven; so, they cannot cook food in it anymore. Therefore, Rabbi Eliezer breaks the oven, repairs it, and says, “Since it was broken and we have remade it, now it is a new oven and therefore it can be considered a kosher oven.” The rest of the rabbis disagreed: since it was the same oven, it was in the same place, and it was made out of the same parts, it was not kosher. Therefore, the argument goes on back and forth.
Eliezer becomes frustrated and says, “If Jewish law follows my opinion, may this tree prove it!” The tree lifts up its roots, walks across the courtyard, and resettles its roots. Then, Rabbi Joshua replies, “Proof in Jewish law cannot be brought from a tree.” Eliezer then utters, “If the Jewish law is the way I say it is may this river prove it!” Then the river next to the synagogue reversed course and flowed to the opposite direction. Rabbi Joshua retorts, “Jewish legal proof cannot be brought from a river.” Eliezer then says, “If the Jewish law is the way I say it is, may this study hall itself prove it!” The walls in the building that they were in started to shake. Suddenly, Rabbi Joshua stands up, wags his finger to the walls, and says, “Who are you to intervene when students of Jewish law are studying?!” The walls did not collapse, but they did not return to their original positions. Finally, Eliezer could not take it anymore and he declares, “If the law is the way I say it is, may God himself prove it!” A voice calls out from the heaven: “Why are you arguing with my son rabbi Eliezer, don’t you know that Jewish law always follows his opinion?” “It is not in heaven,” Rabbi Joshua says, “The Torah has been given to us, we have the Torah, and we pay no attention to a voice from heaven. Eliezer was left on his own in this argument and was excommunicated as the majority usually wins in Jewish law. Then, Eliezer meets the Prophet Elijah and asks, “What did God do with that moment?” The Prophet Elijah says, “God laughed.”
When Rabbi Frederick Reeves was asked if he thought the oven was kosher, he responded, “The rules of the system say that you follow the majority, and the majority said it was not kosher. However, that being said, there are situations when you are dealing with vessels that you can break them and remake them and they are a new vessel; that also exists within a system; it is very complex.” Consequently, the perspective of the story is that the Torah is not in heaven and there is no more prophecy from a Jewish perspective. “What we do, how we do, the way is shown in Torah, we can read, learn and follow it,” says Reeves. “All of the Bible in this respect contains an element of what we might call prophecy, only the Bible. From the Rabbinic Jewish perspective, the destruction of the first temple is when prophecy seizes. After the temple is destroyed, God’s presence leaves the temple, and prophecy ceases. No longer are there prophetic messages coming from God, because we have an ultimate prophecy in the book of Moses, and we don’t need anymore prophecy. We know what we are supposed to do; we just have to read that book. That, long story short, is the Jewish view of prophecy.”
We at Niagara Foundation want to thank Rabbi Frederick Reeves for dedicating time to an intimate roundtable discussion about Jewish perspective on prophets and for sharing his knowledge about the topic.