Not long ago, Rabbi Sacks z”l, made the point that classical Judaism’s approach to the tragic was very different from that of Ancient Greece: The Greeks not only accepted tragedy, they famously made it into an art form; whereas Biblical Hebrew did not even have a word for it.
Yet while it is true that Judaism does not celebrate tragedy, the notion that there are forces greater than ourselves that may bring an undesirable ending is nevertheless found in many a Jewish story. But with a uniquely Jewish twist. And that twist is that these undesirable endings are desired by God; and that no matter how real the tragedy is on the human plane, it ultimately ends up being only like a play – tragic while the actors are on the stage, but readily put into a larger context when they step off.
One such narrative is the death scene of Rabbi Eliezer. The first part of the story is well known (Bava Metzia 59): After a powerful debate in which he is outnumbered by the other sages, Rabbi Eliezer takes desperate measures to win the day, ending with a Heavenly call to follow his opinion. Amazingly – and yet correctly – his opponents not only continued to reject his position, they even banned him for not conceding and playing by the rules of Talmudic debate, in which Heavenly voices have no place.
Less well known is the aftermath of that story (Sanhedrin 67-68). As Rabbi Eliezer is about to die, the ban is finally lifted. Extremely bitter about all the years he was denied the possibility of teaching all the Torah he possessed, he tells the other rabbis that they will not die naturally. When approached by Rabbi Akiva, his closest former student – who would not only become the leader of the next generation but a major force in the future of Torah – Rabbi Eliezer was particularly harsh. In response to the question, “What about me,” Rabbi Eliezer answers, “Yours will be worst of all!”
Many have had difficulty understanding this scene. Why did the other rabbis wait so long to lift the ban? And how could the great Rabbi Eliezer be so vindictive?
In fact, I believe that they all played out the tragic roles that their situation required. The disagreement they had in the first scene was fundamental, and had to be fully played out. For either side to compromise would have problematically minimized the values they each represented. And let us not forget that both sides were determining the contours of Torah.
On his side, Rabbi Eliezer was defending the role of truth and tradition. True – as his opponents were quick to remind him – the Torah instructs us to follow the majority even when they veer from the truth. Yet this itself is tragic. It is a necessary compromise to the human condition. Man is fallible and he will make mistakes. To have a Heavenly voice correct him each time that happens would remove human agency from the world. But for the Torah to be incorrectly understood and applied is no small matter either. Rabbi Eliezer felt that it was so disastrous that everything else must be subordinated to avoiding it. Since – as the Heavenly voice demonstrated – his position was the objective truth, he simply could not give in to the other rabbis. Doing so would be to devalue the word of God. (To drive this home, think of a surgeon who knows a patient will die because his opinion is overruled by his colleagues.)
However if the human distortion of Torah is a matter of the first order, the alternative would seem to be even worse. God created man to be man – to make choices to the best of his ability and with the Torah is his guide. That necessarily means that the Torah would become an admixture of the Divine word and its human understanding and interpretation. Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents knew that for the Torah to meet its purpose, it could not be protected like some sort of museum exhibit.
For his part, Rabbi Akiva had the future of the Torah in his hands. Significantly, he had been a student of both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, the sage who had boldly led the opposition against Rabbi Eliezer. Since the paths of his two teachers could not be combined, Rabbi Akiva had to make a choice. And there is no choice that comes without a cost.
Yet as tragic as it was for these players, they did us all a tremendous service by demonstrating how great the values they fought for actually were. They also showed us that when great values collide, a decision still has to be made. For even if such a decision will likely have some tragic consequences, not making a decision is beyond tragic. It is stepping off the stage altogether.