Selections from Babylonian Talmud

Tractate Baba Metzi’a 59b

The rabbis were discussing the ritual cleanness of a certain oven. Everyone agreed that it was not ritually clean except for Rabbi Eliezer who kept insisting it was clean.

Rabbi Eliezer presented all manner of arguments to prove his point but the other Sages would not accept them. So Rabbi Eliezer appealed to heaven itself. “God,” he said, “if the law is according to my interpretation, let this carob tree prove it.” And carob tree which stood outside the House of Study moved one hundred cubits away.

But the Sages said,”The carob tree may move but that doesn’t prove anything.”

Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the law is as I say it is, let’s this stream prove it,” and the stream which ran by the House of Study reversed direction and flowed backwards.

The Sages said, ”The stream may begin to flow backward, upward, or any other direction, but that doesn’t prove anything.”

Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I am right, let the walls of this House of Study prove it.” And the walls of the House of Study began to fall inward. Rabbi Joshua, one of the Sages, said to the walls, “If scholars are debating, what business is it of the walls of this House of Study?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua’s wisdom the walls stopped falling. But out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer’s scholarship, they continued to lean.

Then Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the law is according to my interpretation, let the heavens prove it.”

A Divine Voice was heard from Heaven and it said, ”Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The Law is as he says it is.”

Whereupon Rabbi Joshua stood up and quoted from Deuteronomy [30:12], ”The law is not in heaven.”

Rabbi Jeremiah explained the meaning of the verse, ”The law is not in heaven.” The Torah was given to humanity once and for all and without qualification on Mount Sinai. From that time onward, we do not listen to voices from heaven to interpret law, because the Torah has already been given to human beings and belongs in their domain to interpret. And the interpretations of the Torah, and the laws that flow from these interpretations as described in the Mishnah [Sanhendrin 4:1], are made by majority decision

Rabbi Nathan, who witnessed the entire debate, once met Elijah the prophet and asked him what God was doing while this discussion was taking place. Elijah said, ”God laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!’”

In ordering the festival of Sukkot, the Torah says: You shall take the fruit of goodly trees, boughs of palm trees, branches of thick trees, and willows of the brook…” [Leviticus 23:40].

“The fruit of goodly trees” is the etrog, which represents certain people in Israel. Just as the etrog has a sweet smell and is good to eat, so are there people in Israel who have knowledge of Torah and also do good deeds.

“Boughs of palm trees” represent certain other people in Israel. Just as the palm tree has edible fruit but no sweet aroma, so are there people in Israel who know Torah but do not perform any good deeds.

“Branches of thick trees” [Myrtle trees] represent another group of people in Israel. Just as the Myrtle has a sweet smell does not have edible fruit, so other people in Israel have no knowledge of Torah but still do good deeds.

“Willows of the brook” stands for still another group of people in Israel. Just as the willow has neither a sweet smell nor edible fruit, so are there people who have neither knowledge of Torah nor the merit of good deeds.

The Holy One says: In order to make it impossible for the community of Israel to be destroyed, all these different kinds of people must be bound together into one cluster (as we do with the four kinds of plants on Sukkot). The righteous among them, because of their knowledge of Torah and their good deeds, will influence and strengthen the others so that the entire community with come to merit redemption.

Midrash Rabbah
Ecclesiastes 7:13