Bava Batra 75: Reason to Believe

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
We live in an age of great skepticism—often for good reason. In a time where science-with its demand for rigorous proofs, detailed experimentation and peer review-has contributed so much to the advancement of life in so many areas, asking someone to accept unverifiable claims is almost ludicrous. 

The “scientific” approach has always been the hallmark of Talmudic and halachic discourse[1]. Views must be backed up with evidence and no view is immune to critique and rejection, regardless of the stature of the one proposing it. The traditional method of chavruta study—one going back to Talmudic times—is based on the notion that we need a study partner to question and debate with us[2].

While such is how Talmudic law and halacha must work, when it comes to the fundamentals of our faith, things are quite different. By definition, matters of faith cannot be proven; once they are, they leave the realm of faith to become verifiable science. Whether one should even attempt to “prove” such notions as the existence of G-d or the divinity of Torah is a highly questionable proposition. Not only because they may (or may not) be impossible to prove, but because faith itself is an important part of our lives. We are not robots, devoid of judgment, wound up and acting according to set criteria. Every time we board an airplane, get into a car or cross the street, we do so because of our faith in how others will act. Our entire economic system is based on faith in the integrity of others. We could not even eat if we did not have faith that those involved in the preparation of our food introduced nothing into it that could harm us.

If we had actual proof G-d that gave us the Torah and demands that we follow its laws, doing so would be of little significance. If all who sinned were immediately made to suffer and all who followed the Torah were immediately rewarded, it would deny us free choice and make a mockery of the notion of reward and punishment. Living by faith alone may be foolhardy, but living by reason alone renders life devoid of so much meaning.

Yet where one should draw the line between faith and reason is not clear, and that which for one may be a matter of unshakable and unquestionable faith may be a matter requiring sophisticated analysis for another. And what may work for one generation may be inappropriate for another.

In the midst of a discussion on the end of days, Rav Yochanan taught that, “The Holy One, blessed be He, will in time to come bring precious stones and pearls which are thirty [cubits] by thirty, and will cut out from them [openings] ten [cubits] by twenty, and will set them up in the gates of Jerusalem” (Bava Batra 75a).

One of Rav Yochanan’s students ridiculed this, noting that no jewels of anything close to such size actually existed. Some time later, this student went to sea and “saw malachei hasharet”, ministering angels, working on stones that were 30 by 30 cubits. When he asked the angels what they were doing, they responded that in the future, G-d would place these stones on the gates of Jerusalem.  Clearly impressed, he came to Rav Yochanan saying, “Expound, my teacher, it is beautiful for you to expound!” (Bava Batra 75a). Rather than being impressed with his students’ change of heart and willingness to accept what had seemed implausible, Rav Yochanan responded, “‘Empty one, had you not seen, would you not have believed? You are mocking the words of the Sages!’ He set his eyes on him, and [the student] turned into a heap of bones.” 

Leaving aside the possible meaning of the gateway of stones that will adorn the entrance to Jerusalem, I imagine many feel, as I do, that this was a rather harsh response (even if not understood literally). Is acknowledging the correctness of a statement from a rabbinic sage—and a strange one at that—only after seeing “evidence” an offense worthy of the death penalty? And even if such was well understood in a different epoch—one where faith in G-d was the norm—such a story does not (and dare I say, should not) resonate for most moderns[3]

Perhaps we can explain the story based on the fact that the student saw the angels hewing stones while he was out at sea. In the ancient world—and sadly, even today—travel by sea was fraught with great danger. Stormy seas, rickety ships and pirates did not make for safe and secure travel. One just has to think of the loss of life, almost on a daily basis, seen today by those fleeing parts of the Middle East and Africa to get a sense of the dangers involved. It was not for naught that our rabbis mandated that one who crosses the sea must recite a blessing of thanksgiving. If the student had faith that he could be “maflig beyam”, travel far by sea in safety, then surely, he should have had faith in the words of Rav Yochanan. What empirical evidence did the student have that he would have a safe trip? 

Modernity has taught us that what was deemed impossible only yesterday is most possible today and will likely be taken for granted tomorrow. It may be that jewels of 30 by 30 amot (some 50 feet by 50 feet) were unthinkable in the time of Rav Yochanan. However, Rav Yochanan was not talking about his time, but about the future, where the possibilities are endless. While this student may have found it difficult to believe that such marvels were possible, such seems almost trivial to us. 

Regardless of how we understand the story itself, the underlying message is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. Faith is a key cornerstone to our way of life. Those who expect rigorous proof before they believe in anything run the risk of enslaving themselves to the religion of science. Religion and science have so much to offer the world—and to the Jew of faith, they are both manifestations of a Divine creator. 

Science has helped unlock so many of life’s mysteries. Yet the more we discover, the more we realize how little we really know. While science has been able to change many ideas that were once matters of faith to those of great rationality, it has brought to the fore so many additional mysteries that defy understanding and open the door for a sophisticated system of faith. To deny the need for faith is to deny the essence of faith itself. 

 

[1] Even in the area of Jewish law grey areas abound; as the Ramban explains in his introduction to his commentary on the commentary of the Rif  “anybody who studies Talmud knows that regarding the debates of our commentaries there are no absolute proofs and no irrefutable objections because in this area of wisdom there are no clear demonstrations as there are regarding mathematics”. Nonetheless legal issues are decided based on the strength of the arguments presented.

 

[2] The relatively recent appearance in certain circles of rabbinic pronouncements that are to be accepted based on the authority of the author (da’as torah) and little else stands in direct opposition to this idea and ideal, and reflects a changing historical perspective on the nature of rabbinic authority. 

 

[3] Such need not concern us too much, as no less an authority than the Rambam declared that those who interpret rabbinic midrash literally are fools. Yet at the same time, what I am suggesting is that something that may have made perfect sense, even taken literally, in one era can and should be interpreted figuratively in another. Such “re-interpretation” is in keeping with the modern understanding of literature in which author intent is not decisive in interpreting texts. This idea was famously expressed by Rabbi Soloveitchik who, when asked if he truly believed that his interpretation of the Rambam was what the Rambam actually had in mind, replied simply, “It does not matter”.