A coup at the rabbinic academy deposes Gamliel and unleashes a torrent of questions
The picture of Gamliel gains an additional shading when we read about his attempt to reconcile with Yehoshua. Chastened by his demotion, he went to visit Yehoshua’s house to ask for his forgiveness. When he arrived, he noticed that “the walls of his house were black,” and he told Yehoshua, “From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a smith.” There must have been something snobbish about the remark, for Yehoshua replied cuttingly: “Woe unto the generation whose leader you are, for you know not the suffering of Torah scholars, how they support themselves and how they are nourished!”
The critique of Gamliel in this whole anecdote is unmistakable. He comes across as rigid, mean, and proud, someone who rejoices in his intellectual and social power and uses it to punish his enemies. He must have been deeply unlikable for the whole academy to take the extraordinary step of deposing him. Yet once he humbled himself and reconciled with Yehoshua, the academy decided to give him his job back, while reducing Elazar ben Azaryah to the No. 2 spot. Clearly, he possessed the necessary qualities for a nasi—wisdom, wealth, and high birth—and these overcame whatever other objections could be raised against him.
I have noticed, in reading the Talmud so far and certainly in writing about it, my own tendency to focus on episodes such as this one—the observations and dicta and legends that seem to capture the worldview, and even the personalities, of the rabbis. These spiritual and ethical insights are invaluable as I try to work my way into the minds of the rabbis. But I recognize that my attraction to what might be called aggadah means I am giving less attention to halakhah, the close legal reasoning that is, after all, the central purpose of the Talmud. This may be inevitable, since my own life is not governed by the laws of the rabbis. In Berachot, for example, there has been much discussion of when exactly prayers have to be said, when they can be interrupted or shortened, and what to do if you make a mistake during prayer; since I don’t pray regularly, all this is necessarily less urgent to me than it is to someone who prays three times a day. Still, as I go on, I hope to gain a fuller sense of the wonderfully complex ways the rabbis think about law.
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I used to love putting on tefillin every day, but as I got older, I lost my faith. Now they sit on my shelf.