Kollot Haftarah Dvar Torah: What the Oven of Akhnai really teaches us

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 8 September 2018

Our haftarah for this morning is one of the most familiar of all Talmudic stories. Who could fail to be captivated by the story of a dispute over a portable stove!

Superficially, that is what we are about to read – a conversation about whether an oven that is dismantled and packed with sand has ritual purity or not.  An apparently minor, and in the absence of a Temple, hypothetical, dispute.
Yet it is actually a defining moment in the development of Judaism.

This is not just a dispute between minor figures.  The two named protagonists, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah are two of the greats: the second generation of tannaim; these are from among the Avot of Pirkei Avot; these two men together, one each side, carried Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem, pretending he was dead to get past the zealots, so that he could speak with Vespasian and request the continued survival of the rabbinic exercise.  Together with Yochanan, these two men would set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh; together they would inspire the next generation, including their student Rabbi Akiva.

And this is not an argument about an oven, but about the very nature of that rabbinic Judaism.  About the very exercise the survival of which they had secured and how it should now be carried out; about the Judaism in which future generations should be schooled.

In our story, Rabbi Eliezer rules this ‘Oven of Akhnai’ as ritually pure while the other Sages rule it impure.  And he is right.  Or, at least, God thinks he is.  Eliezer brings the tradition as it should be, as it was back in the day.
And this should be no surprise.  For Rabbi Eliezer represents a model of religious life in which the preservation of the traditions of the past is the priority, in which memory is the most important thing.  Search for Eliezer in our texts and you find him described as “a plastered cistern that never loses a drop”.  If he didn’t know, he didn’t answer, and when he answered, he reported only that which he had learned from those before.  For Eliezer, Judaism was about the passing of tradition.

In our story, he presents that tradition, and brings support for his position in the form of miracles and the explicit approval of God.  “Look”, he says, “this tradition that I bring reflects that which God taught, passed down through generations”. But he – and God – are overruled by the others, by the majority.  The majority led by Rabbi Yehoshua.

Yehoshua represents an independent, intellectual tradition, hiddush – innovation.  Not only Torah passed from generation to generation, but the possibility of finding new traditions, ideas and meanings.  In Masechet Hagigah, Rabbi Yehoshua is described as asking two of his finest students, “What hiddush was there in the Beit Midrash today?” When they replied, “We are your students and we only drink your water” he says “That may be so, but it is impossible for the Beit Midrash to exist without innovation”.  That is his model.

In the ultimate of subversions, Yehoshua quotes the words of our Torah portion – lo bashamayim hi.  In Deuteronomy these actually constitute an Eliezer-type admonition: mitzvah is not so far away, not in the heavens, that you cannot reach it – “it’s in your heart and your mouth” so just keep it, already.  Yehoshua flips it to mean something very different – that post Sinai the work of understanding, of knowing what we should do “lo bashamayim hi” – that exercise no longer belongs to the heavens, but is the domain of human intellect.  And thus it is no longer a matter of keeping, or not keeping, divine command, but of human innovation.

In the Bavli’s imagining of this story – this is not in the Yerushalmi – this transformation is given the divine seal of approval when God laughs and declares “My children have defeated me”.

Familiar as it is, we should never understate the radical nature of this story.  It represents the victory of one form of rabbinic exercise over another – of hiddush over mesorah – of innovation over repeated tradition.  And it comes at a fundamental time and layer of Jewish life.

Now this is not straightforward by any means.  How can the validity of new ideas be judged, who gets to innovate, what are the limits?  What is the status of tradition, the balance between mesorah and hiddush? This is the continuing battleground of Jewish life.
It is the heart of so many of the tensions between the differing Judaisms of our day – and within our Judaisms too.  It is no exaggeration to say that each claims this story as their model.

And the story itself – radical as it definitely is – knows that this is not so straightforward.  Perhaps it even predicts the conflict that will follow.

Most of the hundreds upon hundreds of treatments – academic and homiletic – of the story deal only with the first scene, not with what comes next.   But the story is also about what happens next – indeed, it is brought in a discussion of ona’at d’varim, wronging with words.  For having adopted their view, the majority then treat Rabbi Eliezer shamefully.  He has already lost, yet in the Yerushalmi version they burn his tahor food in front of his to say it is actually impure.  They cause him to be hurt and embarrassed; they excommunicate and shun him.  And, according to the story, this brings genuine damage not just to him but to the world.  In the Bavli version of the story, as his tears hit the floor, a third of the world’s olives, wheat and barley became spoiled.

This minor dispute runs out of control, it leads to death and suffering – all over a portable oven.

So what is the teaching of this haftarah?

It tells us that in the tension between received tradition and the intellect, we must privilege the latter.  The message of this story is, unequivocally, that models change, that we must be willing to experiment and try new things.  We should not be held back by those who represent received tradition, old ways of doing and being.

Yet it also is aware that such change is not straightforward.  Preservation and innovation are in tension.  This is true of our Judaism and our institutions.  So the story continues with a reminder – that wherever we are in the hiddush-mesorah spectrum, what really defines us is not where we end up, but the way in which we treat and speak to one another in the face of that tension.