Revelation and Law: Elijah and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi

Haim Watzman

When do religions based on text and revelation turn fundamentalist and extreme? When their adherents take their holy books and divine messages to be sources of infallible wisdom that needs no human mediation. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other creeds can all inspire their adherents to take individual responsibility for weighing competing moral values, but this requires that the community of believers understand that the practical application of religious values “is not in heaven.” In other words, they must realize that revelation and holy texts cannot be understood and used without placing them in dialogue with the real world that we confront in our everyday experience.

At his weekly Shabbat afternoon lecture last Saturday, Rabbi Binyamin Lau cited an aggadah—a rabbinic homily—from the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 8, page 5d). (The following thoughts are my own, not Rabbi Lau’s.)

A man named Ula Bar Kushav was sought by the Roman authorities for some unnamed crime. He fled to Lod, then (the early third century CE) an important city in Judea with a large Jewish population. The Romans surrounded the city and demanded that the Jewish community turn over Bar Kushav. If he were not turned over, the Romans would raze the entire city.

The leading rabbinic authority in the city at the time was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi , known both as a halachic expert and as a mystic. In accordance with the injunctions laid down by his predecessors for dealing with such situations (there were, of course, conflicting opinions), he sought out Bar Kushav, “placated him, and turned him in,” thereby saving his city and its thousands of Jewish inhabitants.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had been accustomed to receive regular visits from the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah), but in the wake of this incident the visits ceased. Rabbi Yehoshua imposed upon himself several fasts in order to induce Eliyahu to reappear to him. Eliyahu reappeared, but just to say: “You expect me to reveal myself to an informer?” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi replied that he had acted in accordance with a rabbinic law. Eliyahu replies “But is that the law of a hasid?” And there the story ends.

In this context, a hasid is not a member of the modern ultra-Orthodox movement by that name, but a person who by virtue of great piety and mystical inclination experiences personal revelations.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was such a man, but unlike some other hasidim, he was also a legal authority. He was both a hasid and a rabbi. As the leading religious authority in a city in danger, he had to decide how to act in a complicated real-world situation. He chose to act according to rabbinic law, not according to directly revealed law. Divine justice states that an individual’s life is sacred and inviolable, no matter what, but rabbinic law concerns itself with balance, costs and benefits, and political and social imperatives. Divine justice has certainty; rabbis know they constantly operate in a state of imperfect knowledge.

Rabbinic law is not the word of heaven directly applied to earth. Rather, it is made by human beings. These human beings, the rabbis, are inspired by holy texts and revelation, and reach their rulings through careful study and debate about those texts and revelations. But in the end their law is human law—to the extent that in some exceptional cases even runs counter to divine law.

The implications of this aggadah are that a leader, when facing a crisis, must turn to human law, not revelation. The absolute justice and morality of revelation and mystical experience may not fit the specific circumstances of a real-world point of decision. We need the hasidim to remind us of ideal justice and morality, but a person who is a hasid cannot be a leader who has to make decisions in a world that is not ideal.

Christians, Muslims, and, yes, Jews, have all during their history succumbed to leaders who claimed to be the direct representatives of God, assigned by him to impose a regime of divine justice and morality on the world. These regimes have invariably been murderous, destructive, and imperialist—rather than bringing heaven to earth, they have turned earth into hell. Only when these faiths’ leaders have understood the imperative of the human mediation of revelation in its application to politics and society has religion been a positive force in progress towards a better world.

In Islam today the hasidim are in the ascendant. Despite appearances, as Tzvi Bar’el noted in Ha’aretz earlier this week, they are not the only Islam—many Muslims understand the need for human mediation of revealed truth. But certainly Islam faces a challenge today. To save their religion, Muslims must reject those leaders who reject the need to make divine law human.

But the danger is not one that Islam alone faces. Christianity and Judaism face constant challenge from leaders who are willing to sacrifice thousands, even millions, of human lives on the altar of divine justice. We rightfully criticize Islamic extremism, but we also need to make sure that our own religions have leaders of the caliber of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.


See my post on another of Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s talks, Telling the Story and Doubting It Too

5 thoughts on “Revelation and Law: Elijah and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi”

  1. It is important to notice that it is Elijah who rebukes R. Yehoshua ben Levi. He represents an extreme view in the Bible which supports upholding “pure” justice exclusice of humanity’s needs. In I Kings 19 He is contrasted to Moses, our greatest leader, who always put the needs of the community first. Ultimitely, God disagrees with Elijah’s approach.

  2. Haim has argued that independent human moral judgment must be exercised in the interpretation even of divinely-given texts. Of course, many traditionally religious people would vehemently disagree with this (they would say that humans have the task of trying to figure out what God means, not to second-guess him). But my question to Haim is this: why not pitch the divine stuff altogether and just go with independent human moral judgment? That is, why not just say that “smite them down to the last woman and child” or “sacrifice your son to me” are hideous monstrosities, instead of saying that they come from God, kissing the book they’re written in, but then coming up with some post-hoc justification for why your liberal intuitions are right after all? Because of the nice things in the texts? There are some, but not many, and anyway that’s no reason to hang on to the other stuff.

  3. David — This is an important challenge to my position and I intend to respond to it. It’s going to take a little time for me to organize my thoughts, though, so be patient!

  4. Haim, Your reply to David will be a labor of both divine and human guidance but necessity, wil it not? We are creatures of a creator, thus we see our creator as both mentor and , in a way, father, allbeit a divine father of spiritually perfect countenounce that we , as humans do not share.

    God as perfect is a right and faithfull belief, Prophet or huamn leader as perfect is a matter of conjecture and certain to fall as an acceptable religious paradigm. We are not perfect, but as our faith calls us, we understand that all are short of perfection,so we depend on debate between imperfect Rabinnical voices to “find” the nearest logical truth to God’s perfect solutions to our human problems.

    Hasid as mystical and Rabinnical as human we have a dichotomy which presents two paradigms of one faith, thus setting pragmatism and current circumstances against traditional biblical or Talmudic assertions of both rabbinical and Hasidic origin, a marriage of two perceptions one divine and one human which defines not only Judaeism, but every faith and certainly Islam and Christianity as being always subjective to human error , but blessed by God’s Hasidic representatives,not to look back to the past, but be touching God’s light in this hour and in this world’s cultures, which is only a truthful showing that God is alive in every age, new and freshly represented not in antiquaited dogma, but in real time interaction with creation.

    Love must be the light of God, and love shows all of creation as loved, not only Judaeic children , but all children. If God is creator of all, lover of all and the force of preservation which is always found in love, we know a few things about the laws that should always be our guide in interpreting them, do we not?

    Love is paramount then and exceptionalism must take the back seat as we are flawed in seeking exception for Jews . God sees all children as equals, Jews do not in general ,they prefer to think of themselves as chosen which is natural but selfish and God is not partial to one child over another and cannot be if God is perfectly loveing and preserving all of creation, all of the time.

    Prophecy is always in part, Haim, scripture is in part as well, but God is full and Godliness, in the Hasidic sense, is a very sensitive love for all of creation, seeking to avoid partiality towards Jews, which the Talmud promotes from an antiquaited, nationalistic/religious platform, not a perfect ,full spectrum vision of humankind from the pers[ective of our infallible God.

    David takes an unpopular outlook at the need to abandon the old in favor of a more Godly and loving way of seeing all humans as equal and all as under the same laws, not a Talmudic, human and flawed law, but the divine and inspired law of God. So which law do we follow and when?

    If we see every Jew as the brother or sister, by Godly connection, of every human being, this is the true countenance of God’s law, with a very pervasive love,without bias toward traditional Talmudic law which serves the Jew and not the gentile. This is to say that the Jewish culture serves the Jew first then the non Jew as a lessor, which is ridiculous if we see that Jews are of a very diverse bloodline which is derived from Kazar, Ethipian, Semitic Arab, and mixed blood converts from a plethora of eastern European origin, hence Jew is not blood, but spirit and spirit is supposed to spread it’s heart and soul without distinction to blood in this time, which is different than in the Talmud’s time of origin with respect to the Talud’s preservation of the Jews as a blood line, which is over in a very real sense and we need to preserve the light bareing countenance of the New faces of Jewry with a perspective towards spirit, not blood.

    Spirit, Hain is God, and grows with the love which carries it. God hates not, humans hate and herein lies the other side of the law…

    The spirit must set aside, as with Hasidic mystical interpretation, any traditional affront to current circumstances and be judge, with God’s eyes and law, without bias to bloodlines or famility traditions, but recieve every soul as the tithe we give not to our culture, but to God in defference to God who;le love for all of creation.

    Islam, Christainity are the fruit of Judaeism, Haim, and this fruit needs love to grow properly. Love is wise, compassionate and careful concern for the fruits of Judaeism, all of them, even agnostic”fruit” which rejects the Talmud’s exceptionalist viewpoints but sees every huamn as equal.

    Let God use Judaeism’s spirit to grow with it’s Christian Fruit and Islamic Fruit, a tre of life which God loves always and equally. This is the God perspective of Judaeism which looks from every angle, not just the Jewish angle. We are to be one people, Haim, with Judaeism growing together the seams between religions, not tearing asunder the fabrics of God’s creation with exceptioanlist ideals from another time.

    Prophecy is new and fresh with every minute and shows God to be vibrant, alive and engaged in perfection with creation. We need big eyes and loving ears to hear and see the will of God with God’s eyes, not our own. One people is the way of God, can we follow this path with love or do we choose to be narrow minded and reserve God as the servant of our narrow visions? Think about this, and see that David is thinking about the new with abeg heart for real changes in prophecy’s role in every new day to relegate the old to history and create, as God does, new guidance from Jewry to be the light of the world, Christian, Islamic or agnostic, a full light, loving, inclusive, guiding and unbiased as Jews toward Gentiles.

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