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The Rabbinic Tradition and Interpretive Freedom

July 16, 2014

During Tikvah’s advanced institute on “Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Jews”, Hoover Institution scholar Peter Berkowitz discussed Michael Walzer’s account of the Talmudic parable of the oven of Akhnai. Is the oven pure? The rabbis say it is, but Rabbi Eliezer dissents, first appealing to logic but then appealing to miracles. “If the law is as I say, let the carob tree prove it!” Rabbi Eliezer exclaims, and the carob tree lifts in the air. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” contend the rabbis. After several more miracles seeming to prove God has taken Rabbi Eliezer’s side, the rabbis hold fast. For Walzer, the parable strengthens the case for interpretive freedom and the impermanence of traditions. But Berkowitz wonders: Is not interpretive freedom embedded in and therefore constrained by tradition?


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