This week’s parsha poses a challenging theology and ideology. After nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert, all of the Israelites – men, women, young, strangers – stand before God and are told that in an effort to create transparency and accessibility, all of the commandments will be recorded for them: “Lo ba’shamayim hi” — It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it? (Deut. 30:12-13).
Indeed, the text doubles down and says that this compilation of laws is “close” to us – meaning that it is ours to interpret and apply.
The story of the “Oven of Akhnai” that appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) tests and reinforces this hypothesis. In this story, the rabbis debate whether a certain style of oven was acceptable for use because of its possible susceptibility to impurities. Rabbi Eliezer argued that the oven was fine for use and provided a number of proof texts to support his contention while Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabban Gamliel maintain that the oven is impure rendering it unusable. Unable to concede the argument, Rabbi Eliezer calls a carob tree to prove his argument, at which point the carob tree moves some feet away. The rabbis deny this as valid proof to support Rabbi Eliezer’s argument. Next, Rabbi Eliezer calls on the stream to support his position at which point it flows in the opposite direction. And again, the rabbis point out that one doesn’t cite a stream as a proof to support a legal matter. Rabbi Eliezer then says that if he is right, the walls of the Beit Midrash will prove it. As the walls begin to cave in, Rabbi Yehoshua chastises the walls for interfering in the dispute. The text describes that the walls did not continue to fall out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua, but neither do they resume their upright position out of deference for Rabbi Eliezer. Finally Rabbi Eliezer calls on the shamayim – the Heavens, and from the Heavens a voice calls back “Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?”
After this heavenly announcement, Rabbi Yehoshua says: lo bashamayim hi – these legal matters aren’t adjudicated in the Heavens, rather the law is to follow the majority’s rule.
The text in the Baba Metzia shares the conclusion of this saga. Years later, Rabbi Natan encounters Elijah the prophet and asks him how God reacted to Rabbi Yehoshua’s declaration of “lo bashamyim hi.” Elijah shares, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said, ‘My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.’”
At JOFA we have provided a number of leadership development opportunities for people of all generations, but I want to focus on the youth of our day. Thanks to online platforms, the diversity of options have been plentiful. They include the “Gen Z” led Megillat Ruth reading in the lead-up to Shavuot, and the Torah reading during our Rosh Chodesh services where a dozen or so youth inspired countless more. The participants of our High School Leadership program had a chance to learn with and from one another as well as from dozens of women holding senior leadership roles. The JOFA Blog has also provided ample opportunities for these young women to find their voices in the written word on issues ranging from feminist commentary on the portrayal of women in the Bible, to participating in Black Lives Matter protests and advocating for women in sports. Few had been asked to lead before. Most embraced the opportunity.
All will remember being a part of an effort that gave them the ability to step into leadership roles.
There is no end to the pride I have for each of these rising stars who so willingly and easily demonstrate their leadership skills and abilities. Everyone who has mentored them — their families, schools, camps and synagogues — should equally hold them in high esteem.
While we have seen tremendous changes in girls’ and women’s participation in Orthodox life, there are still inroads that have yet to be made, and paved. I’m counting on the next generation to carry the mantle.
If I’m ever asked, I’ll also be found smiling and rejoicing in the triumphs of the new generations.But don’t be surprised if instead of laughing, I shed (more than) a few tears of joy.
Daphne Lazar-Price is the executive director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
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