In today’s daf, we begin one of the most dramatic stories in the Talmud, in which the rabbis come together in mutiny to depose Rabban Gamliel as nasi (נשיא), or chief, of the rabbinic court.
Gamliel’s offense is the use of intimidation tactics to strengthen his own interpretations of Torah in the face of disagreement. He actually has a history of acting in this way, particularly toward Rabbi Yehoshua, the second-highest ranking figure in the court and (perhaps) someone Gamliel saw as a threat to his own authority.
The case that finally gave the rabbis cause to remove Gamliel arises from a dispute over whether one has to recite the evening prayer, known as maariv. Rabbi Yehoshua says maariv is optional and Rabban Gamliel says it’s mandatory. When Gamliel confronts Yehoshua in the study hall over this point, Yehoshua doesn’t try to argue back. He even denies that he disagrees with Gamliel at all. Perhaps he has been so pained in the past by Gamliel that he prefers to avoid confrontation.
But Gamliel won’t let it go. He singles out Yehoshua and humiliates him anyway, compelling him to publicly acknowledge his differing opinion and forcing him to stand in shame as Gamliel continues to lecture.
The spirit of argumentation is core to Jewish identity. It deepens and expands our understanding of Torah and teaches openness to many possible interpretations. But in this story, those values are on the chopping block. Imagine what might have happened to the Talmud if the rabbis had yielded to Gamliel’s culture of authority, devoid of argument and protest.
So the rabbis act to protect those values. First they take away Gamliel’s microphone, instructing Hutzpit the translator, tasked with repeating and amplifying Gamliel’s words, to stop his repetition. Then they remove him from his post. Their goal isn’t to silence Gamliel, but to break his grip on the debate. The beauty of the Talmud is its many voices — reflecting the conflicting and complex views we hold as individuals and encouraging minority voices that may have fallen silent. Acting to protect that must have required considerable bravery on the part of the rabbis. But their actions were essential to preserving the multivocal, multilayered text we have today.
As it happens, deposing Gamliel has the effect not only of removing a teacher who had abused his authority, but of changing the entire culture of the study hall. But that’s a story for tomorrow.