Commentary

The First Yeshiva Exile

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The story begins, as so many stories do, with a disagreement that cannot be resolved. On one side stands the consensus view. On the other side stands the expert, alone. He draws on his vast store of knowledge to explain his logic over and over again, but his interlocutors do not budge. Frustrated, he turns his anger on the environment, raging so strongly that he would have destroyed the room had he not been stopped. Nothing he does makes a difference. His peers value their process of consensus over inquiry into the truth. But he cannot. He goes home that day, not knowing that it would be his last day sitting among scholars and arguing Jewish law with them. He does not know that he will die alone, still ostracized from his intellectual home. Perhaps, though, he is beginning to understand that there is no space for him in the beit midrash.

His name is R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and he is, depending on how you read it, either the protagonist or antagonist of the Oven of Akhnai. “The Oven of Akhnai,” found in Bava Metzia (59a-b), proceeds much as outlined above; R. Eliezer and the other sages disagree over the purity status of an oven constructed out of segments called The Oven of Akhnai. R. Eliezer provides proof for his position, but the rest of the sages refuse to accept it. He then turns to proof from miracle, calling even on the walls of the beit midrash to attest that he is correct by caving inward until one of the other rabbis, R. Yehoshua, commands that they stop. Finally, R. Eliezer calls upon heaven, and a heavenly voice emerges to proclaim that there is no reason to argue with R. Eliezer as Halakhah always follows his opinion. R. Yehoshua responds, famously, “[The Torah] is not in the heavens.” R. Eliezer remains recalcitrant, all his legal rulings on matters of purity are revoked, and he is excommunicated over his refusal to follow the majority’s conclusions.

The story of the Oven of Akhnai is a Jewish Rorschach test: we read our own experiences and narratives into it just as much as we interpret and extrapolate meaning from it. Sometimes the story is about the power of Jewish authority to set Halakhah, and it is told triumphantly, ending with heaven’s concession to the rabbis of the study hall. In Rabbinic Stories, Jeffrey Rubenstein uses it as one of his examples of the need to read Talmudic stories in their larger context. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, in her article “When the Rabbi Weeps: On Reading Gender in Talmudic Aggadah,” opens with an analysis of this specific story to lead into her larger point about how gender is figured in the Talmud. Miriam Gedweiser expands the reading even further than Rubenstein to look at the figure of R. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom, and the relationships portrayed in the text. Each of these approaches offers a nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the Oven of Akhnai and, at the same time, the Oven of Akhnai is a story that turns up whenever we look for Talmudic narratives that speak to our concerns and interests. This story invites us in and asks us to read it anew.

When I answer the call of that invitation, I take R. Eliezer’s side every time. I do not understand how, after hearing proof after proof for his position, R. Eliezer’s colleagues hold their ground. The failure to accept the truth strikes me as not merely an intellectual failure, but a moral one. More to the point, it feels like every argument I have at the Shabbat table when the rest of the room prioritizes keeping the temperature of the discourse low while I just want to continue the conversation until the argument is done. It feels like being seen as the rigid one because other people are tired of listening to me. It turns out that I am often the R. Eliezer in the room.

Which is why I choose to read him as a person who we would call autistic. This is different from trying to diagnose him through the fuzzy lens of history, something that is both impossible and inappropriate when it comes to historical figures in narrative texts. Reading him through an autistic lens, however, is an invitation to imagine a world where autistic Jews have always been a part of our halakhic process and historical narratives. It opens a door for autistic rabbis to see themselves in the text and to recognize their traits in our leaders. The goal of offering an autistic reading of historical figures is not to set them apart, but to create a doorway into community. I encountered this read of R. Eliezer in a Facebook comment by Isaac G. Mayer in a thread that was asking whether any of the Talmudic rabbis might be autistic. This was before I had gotten my own diagnosis, but after I had realized that I likely was autistic. R. Eliezer is deeply committed to the truth, is unswayed by peer pressure, has—as we know from Pirkei Avot—an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law, and remains tenacious even in the face of failure. To describe those traits in pathological terms: he is argumentative, obstinate, obsessed with his own interests to the exclusion of everything else, and destructive in his anger. To return to the story of the Oven of Akhnai, he calls down the walls of the beit midrash in his frustrated efforts to be understood. But it is in the next part of the story where his fury truly seems to burst forth. 

R. Eliezer is not present for his excommunication, and it falls to one of his students to let him know that he has been banished. R. Akiva volunteers for the job out of concern that the wrong person might say the wrong thing and that R. Eliezer would destroy the entire world in his fury. This is not an unreasonable concern; although R. Akiva is careful in how he communicates the ban of excommunication, R. Eliezer still weeps and rends his clothes, and the entire world is afflicted from his grief. He is caught up in a maelstrom that one might consider disproportionate to the matter of the oven. One might. God, however, does not. It is not clear in the text that R. Eliezer intended to cause destruction or even realized what was happening as he sobbed. According to the Talmud, one third of the world’s produce was spoiled on that day. There is no indication that R. Eliezer prayed for such desolation; the text implies that this is the obvious consequence of R. Eliezer’s grief. It reflects God’s distress at the distress of a beloved child. When a child—or a rabbi—is thus banished, their pain is not localized but calls the entire world to account.

The rabbis of the Talmud further describe the day R. Eliezer was excommunicated as a day of great anger, explaining that every place upon which R. Eliezer rested his eyes subsequently burst into flames. Interestingly, the text does not specify the source of that great anger. One could read it as R. Eliezer’s fury, but one could also read it as God’s. Or, and the ambiguity of the text points to this read, it is the combination of the two. Perhaps the rage here is the melding of emotion between R. Eliezer and his heavenly Parent. Parents often talk about the unpredictable and frighteningly big anger they see in their autistic kids. The sense of explosion is no less frightening on the inside; I almost wish my eyes could shoot lasers if it would disperse the all-consuming anger I feel at the world not being as it ought to be. The Talmud suggests that God-as-parent relates to R. Eliezer’s emotions, joining in his outburst and supporting him in his pain. Divine sympathy invites us to also sympathize with R. Eliezer’s rage and overwhelming desire to lash out. And I do. After all, he lost the foundation of his world. And though he might be the first Jew to have been kicked out of yeshiva for being unmanageably autistic, he was not the last.

Let us, however, imagine a world where such exile was not the inevitable fate of a student like R. Eliezer. R. Eliezer becomes known as shamuti, the excommunicated one, and his teachings are rejected on those grounds. The commentators on that sugya disagree over the correct translation of the word shamuti. While Rashi (ad loc.) translates it as excommunicated, Tosafot disagree and suggest that shamuti means a follower of Shammai. In this respect, Tosafot merely argue that R. Eliezer rules according to Shammai’s tendencies, but shamuti could also refer to the ways in which R. Eliezer is like Shammai. After all, they are both known for their rigidity as well as their anger, and they are both positioned as minority figures within a halakhic system that rules according to the majority. These parallels of personality suggest that there is value in reading Shammai through the same autistic lens with which I looked at his intellectual successor, R. Eliezer.

In this turn to Shammai, one must first disentangle him from his usual role as the foil for Hillel. In some of the most famous Hillel and Shammai stories, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells us of three prospective converts who come first to Shammai and then to Hillel in order to convert. They each have different requirements: one will only convert if he can be taught the entire Torah on one foot, one insists that he will only convert if he can be the high priest, and a third is willing to accept only the Written Torah. In each case, Shammai chases them off with his yardstick and Hillel gently accepts them as converts, guiding them away from their misguided ultimatums and toward a true devotion to Judaism. This is why, as the Gemara emphasizes at the beginning of the sugya, one ought to be humble like Hillel and not hot-headed like Shammai. Shammai, who would drive away potential converts rather than welcome them, is the example of what not to do: the opposite of the meek Hillel. The text spends no time on Shammai’s frustration at having the thing that matters most to him in the world become a mockery. This, as I know full well, makes reading this section a bit difficult for us shamutim, the outcasts and the odd ones who are regularly filled with righteous rage when our interests are profaned. Finding oneself the object lesson rather than the subject of praise, we turn to a different story.

The Talmud (Ketubot 16b-17a) asks the question: “How does one celebrate before the bride?” Beit Hillel answers that we say, “The bride is pleasant and gracious,” regardless of her actual qualities. Beit Shammai says that we praise her as she is. Insisting on truthfulness over social politeness is familiar to many autistic people, but I also think that Beit Shammai’s commitment to praising people for who they actually are is extremely powerful. To validate the person before you, not the person they are pretending to be, and to celebrate them is glorious. It is the sort of thing that so many autistic people dream of experiencing; we would love to be celebrated for our autistic traits and not mask them to meet someone else’s standards of pleasantness and graciousness. The term masking is used by autistic people to mean suppressing the markers of one’s neurodivergence so that one does not show one’s true self, but a mask. Masking is exhausting when done for any extended period of time, but many of us dare not stop, lest we lose the respect and friendship of others. I doubt that Shammai’s students anticipated twenty-first-century autistic masking, and yet I am comforted by reading their words as an exhortation directed toward others to praise us for who we are.

Shammai, of course, is more complex than “to thine own self be true.” In Pirkei Avot 1:15, Shammai says, “Make your Torah a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.” I have seen that last line interpreted as Shammai’s regret for his angry response to the aforementioned converts and as his acknowledgement that perhaps he is not the most pleasant person to be around. Reading his advice through an autistic lens, however, one might translate it as: “Make Torah a part of the regular routine that grounds you, dispense with shallow chit-chat, and remember to smile and have expressions.” Shammai’s advice, especially if you read it as self-directed, is a mix of validating and moderating his own experiences. His focus on the need for routine reflects the structure that gives him strength. And while many people read “say little and do much” as “under-promise and over-perform,” I understand it instead as the familiar desire to skip past boring social niceties and focus instead on deep interests and true concerns. Shammai’s final reminder―that a pleasant countenance will help others even if he himself does not instinctively contort his face into such expressions―makes a lot of sense. And it hurts a little that even Shammai was told to smile more. To offer myself a more gracious read, perhaps it is precisely Shammai’s power and privilege that inspires that comment; he knows that a glare from him could incinerate the courage of a student. He knows the strength of his rage.

Shammai’s story is not precisely a triumph, although it is a success. It is the story I look to when I wonder about my place in this grand tradition as someone who is relentlessly loud and occasionally argumentative to the point of appearing disrespectful. I hope I am Shammai. I worry that I am R. Eliezer. And I wonder about all the other shamutim who are never invited into the beit midrash. We do not—we cannot—answer the question of whether these historical people had a neurotype that matches the one we call autism today. We cannot even know how well the stories we tell about them in the Talmud match the complex humans they were. And yet, in defense of gesturing toward diagnosing historical figures through narrative texts, I cannot overstate how much it means to find people like me in the beit midrash. To believe that there have always been Torah scholars who think the way I think and argue the way that I argue. To know that we have always been here.

And to know that we have always been thrown out. To find ourselves in Shammai is to find ourselves outcasts with R. Eliezer. There is a saying attributed to R. Isaac Luria—the sixteenth-century rabbi and Kabbalist known as the Ari—by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his book Likkutei Torah: that when Mashiach comes, Halakhah will shift from following the house or ideology of Hillel to that of Shammai. The dream of a redeemed world is one where the shamutim come back to the beit midrash. What are we waiting for?

Rabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne loves old books in new forms, studies how Halakhah and technology work together, and is a teacher committed to the idea that studying Torah can and must be for everyone. Currently, she serves as the Director of Academic Affairs at Maharat and puts her doctorate in literature to good use designing interactive shiurim. She has been the recipient of multiple fellowships, as well as an autism diagnosis, and dreams of building a space for autistic Jews to gather and share how their autism informs and deepens their relationship with Judaism. She lives in Riverdale with her husband and two kids and can be reached at RabbanitLiz@gmail.com.