In the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, Rabban Gamaliel the Patriarch rose up to be the leader of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, recognized by the Romans with the power to appoint. The Mishnah portrays him as an aristocrat who felt free to disagree with the majority legal rulings of the sages, and, more importantly, imposed his own view upon others, often in an authoritarian and demeaning manner. A well-known and timely narrative describes the time when the sages got fed up with him and decided to depose Gamaliel from his seat of power. The story is recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi, completed two centuries after his life, and the Talmud Bavli, completed in Babylonia at least two more centuries still later. This makes these stories less reliable as history but accurate indicators of the worldviews of their authors.
The Yerushalmi story charts a simple arc of an overbearing leader, his removal, his apology, finally coming full circle to his restoration to power. The Bavli inherits a parallel narrative but adds some key scenes that direct the moral of the story towards the value of free debate to arrive at truth and the danger of excluding the voices of those on the margins of power.
The trigger of this story is a controversy between Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Yehoshua concerning whether the arvit prayer is mandatory or optional. A student asks both sages for their halakhic opinions about this matter and informs Rabban Gamaliel that R. Yehoshua disagrees with him. Rabban Gamaliel thereupon challenges R. Yehoshua in a public session. R. Yehoshua lies about his own opinion but is unsuccessful at hiding his dissent, and Rabban Gamaliel forces R. Yehoshua to stand during his lecture, causing him great embarrassment. The crowd cannot tolerate Rabban Gamaliel’s heavy-handed leadership and decides to depose him. They see this incident as the last straw in a pattern of behavior.
The two Talmuds describe this pattern in slightly different terms. The Yerushalmi quotes the crowd’s complaint: “All the people stood on their feet and said to him [Rabban Gamaliel], ‘Who has not suffered from your constant malice (Nahum 3:19, which refers to the evils committed by Assyria)?’” In the Yerushalmi, Rabban Gamaliel is accused of mistreating all the rabbis, and indeed he is only restored after he apologizes to all of them. The Bavli, on the other hand, specifies three specific instances of dispute over halakhic practice in which Rabban Gamaliel caused distress to Rabbi Yehoshua by abusing his power as patriarch to quash dissent and force his view.
The sages decide to remove Rabban Gamaliel from his office and instead appoint their colleague Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. While the Yerushalmi mentions only Rabbi Eleazar’s aristocratic lineage as the reason for his appointment, the Bavli adds his dialectical skill in being able to parry any question posed to him. The Bavli’s emphasis on the importance of open debate manifests clearly in the next scene:
It was taught: That day they removed the guard of the gate and gave students permission to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had decreed, “Any student whose inside is not like his outside may not enter the academy.” On that day many benches were added. R. Yohanan said, “Abba Yosef b. Dostenai and the sages disagree: one said, ‘400 benches were added,’ and one said, ‘700 benches.’” … There was not a single law pending in the academy that they did not resolve.
The Yerushalmi parallel describes the number of benches as a side point to explain why the academy was referred to as a vineyard of Yavneh on account of the rows of students set up like vines. The Bavli, however, makes this tangent essential to the lesson of the story. Rabban Gamaliel had excluded students whom he deemed unworthy from the study sessions and the discussion of the furniture describes not the benches always there but rather those added. Rabban Gamaliel’s exclusionary policy not only harmed those students but also deprived the study session of their insights; once allowed entrance, their contribution helped resolve every difficult issue that came up. Rabban Gamaliel obviously misjudged those students while all this time his purported goal of maintaining high standards only masked his own inner motivations of gaining control and power.
Perhaps the most important difference between the two versions of this narrative is the process by which Rabban Gamaliel regains his position. In the Yerushalmi, Rabban Gamaliel “immediately” goes to each and every sage’s house to apologize, including R. Yehoshua who castigates him for not being aware of the hardships faced by his adherents. The sages forgive him and fully restore his position, demoting R. Eleazar ben Azariah to a secondary position.
In the Bavli, by contrast, Rabban Gamaliel must go through a complete transformation of character to become more accepting of others and to better appreciate the value of debate. First, Rabban Gamaliel himself is said to regret his exclusionary policy upon seeing the added participation in the study house.
Next comes the real test of Rabban Gamaliel’s repentance. An Ammonite proselyte asks the sages whether he may marry into the Jewish nation; Rabban Gamaliel says no but R. Yehoshua says yes. So far, this situation is similar to that which triggered the deposition in the first place. Rabban Gamaliel, however, is no longer able to wield his authority to silence R. Yehoshua but is now forced to engage in an honest debate. R. Yehoshua wins out and the Ammonite is permitted to marry.
It is only at this point that Rabban Gamaliel recognizes his error and proceeds to apologize to R. Yehoshua. Paradoxically, and perhaps this is the point of this entire narrative, Rabban Gamaliel’s heavy-handed demand for uniformity and stifling of debate in the opening scene ends up causing great conflict while tolerance for free debate results in solving problems and coming to an agreement.
Unlike in the Yerushalmi, where R. Eleazar is demoted in order for Rabban Gamaliel to regain his position, in the Bavli, Rabban Gamaliel is forced to share his seat of power with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. Devora Steinmetz explains: “The conclusion of the Babylonian narrative ensures that multiple voices will be heard in this beth midrash; the division of teaching duties institutionalizes the values of the new leadership, assuring that never again will R. Gamaliel’s voice silence other scholars from voicing their halakhic positions or their Torah interpretations.”
In sum, the Yerushalmi story addresses political power and the relationship between the patriarch and the rabbis. While it is a halakhic debate that sparks the deposition, the primary problem is Rabban Gamaliel’s heavy-handed leadership and mistreatment of others. The Bavli build on this storyline but focuses the narrative on the value of debate, inclusiveness of multiple opinions, and the right of an individual rabbi to dissent. The Bavli storytellers hit home the message for all time that abusing power to force uniformity only cases more unrest, while sincere substantive debate brings opposing parties towards mutual understanding.