The Bearers of Tradition

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'Because,' he replied, 'they did not come and attend upon me.'

Then he said to Akiba ben Joseph, 'Akiba, why did you not come and attend upon me?'

'Rabbi,' Akiba replied, 'I did not have the time.'

Said Rabbi Eliezer to him: 'I doubt if thou wilt die a natural death.'. Rabbi Akiba came forward and sat down before him and said to him, 'Rabbi, if so, teach me now.'

He began and taught him 300 laws about [leprosy]. It was then that Rabbi Eliezer raised his two arms and laid them across his chest and cried: 'Woe unto me for my two arms! They are like two Torah scrolls and they are departing from the world! For if all the seas were ink, and all the reeds pens, and all men scribes, they could not write down all the Scripture and Mishnah I studied, nor the traditions that I heard from the Sages in the academy, yet I carried away from my teachers no more than does a man who dips his finger in the sea'" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan 25:3).

How tragic an end. Is this deathbed scene an acknowledgement by R. Eliezer that the traditionalist approach itself is flawed?

In hindsight, we look upon the conflict of the traditionalists and those who recognized the need for a model of learning that allowed for innovation and adaptation, and we may see reactionaries stubbornly rejecting a forward thinking approach. Indeed, among the stories of the next generation of sages is a telling interaction of R. Akiba and R. Tarfon. R. Akiba uses a midrashic model of interpretation to state a piece of law about the kohanim (priests). R. Tarfon, himself a kohen, ridicules R. Akiba for dragging different words together to come up with the law, and claims that he himself knows a tradition, but that he cannot remember the details. When R. Akiba correctly derives the details, R. Tarfon exclaims:

By the Temple worship! You have not deviated to the right or to the left. I heard it, yet could not explain it, while you do midrash and agree with my tradition. In these words he addressed him: Akiba, whoever departs from you is as though he has departed from life (Sifra Dibbura Denedava 4).

R. Tarfon's final comment is not mere praise; the traditionalist model would have spelled death for Rabbinic Judaism, for even a great sage like Rabbi Tarfon could not remember or explain the traditions he had heard.

Nevertheless, the traditionalist approach continued throughout Jewish history and continues today. Many Jews continue to learn and transmit the tradition without learning how to interpret and apply Jewish law. Yet the traditionalist serves a crucial role in rabbinic culture. Without the traditionalist, there is no control on the forces of innovation. The traditionalist serves not only as a repository of past practice and learning, but also as an anchor against trends and fashions. Alone, the traditionalist, like R. Eliezer, would die with his learning, but in creative tension with the forces of innovation and creativity, the traditionalist ties our practice back through the generations, to the halakhah given to Moses on Sinai.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.