Friday 17 June 2011

A story about the argumentative attitude

"In addition to the rules and the arguments, the Talmud also contains stories. One famous story from the Tractate Baba Metzia (59b) shows that the sages knew full well the importance of earthly dispute for discovering the divinely correct rules of conduct. The sages were discussing whether or not a particular oven infringed the rules of ritual cleanliness. Surprisingly on this occasion the opinion of the great Rabbi Eliezer was rejected. Rabbi Eliezer, convinced of the correctness of his view, decided to enlist the help of the Almighty to prove his point. He declared: "Let this carob-tree prove that things are as I state". Whereupon the carobs were miraculously thrown a great distance off the tree. The other rabbis remained unimpressed and merely replied: "The carobs prove nothing". Rabbi Eliezer then said: "Let the walls of the college then prove I am right". The walls of the building, in which they were all gathered, began to shake and totter. The other rabbis shouted angrily to the walls: "If scholars are discussing the Law, what right have you to interfere!". The walls stopped their shaking. Finally, in desperation Rabbi Eliezer called out: "Let it be announced in the heavens that my statement was correct". And a heavenly voice was heard by all to say: "Why do you quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer, who is always right in his decisions?" That was not the end of the matter. Rabbi Joshua answered the heavenly voice back by quoting from the Bible: "The Law is not in the heavens". The Law, indeed all laws, lay now in earthly discussions. If heavenly voices wished to join in the debates, then they must do better than to shake walls or send carobs flying: they must present good arguments. Even a heavenly voice would have to conform to the dictum that "a legal decision depends not on the teacher's age, but on the force of his argument" (Talmud, Baba Bathra, 142b).

[From M. Billig, Arguing and Thinking: A Rhetorical Approach to Social Psychology, Cambridge University Press, 1996.]