The story continues (see yesterday’s post). . .
Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria, at 18 years old, accepts the position of President of the Assembly. His wife had tried to dissuade him: just as his predecessor, Rabban Gamliel, had been deposed, “Maybe later they will depose you!” she says. He responds with the aphorism: “Let a man use a cup of honor for one day, even if it be broken the next.” His wife also worries that, being so young he will not be taken seriously. A miracle happens and the 18 year old suddenly has 18 rows of hair on his beard turn white. (Which is why, we are told, he is quoted as saying “Behold, I am like a man 70 years old” – a statement which shows up in our Passover Haggadah!)
Gamliel’s high handed, autocratic principles are overturned, including one which excluded any disciple from entering the House of Study, whose “inside is not as is outside” – a test of integrity, perhaps. But who is to judge their worth? The doorkeeper is removed and the study becomes full, with maybe 700 new seats added. Gamliel has a private crisis of confidence, fearing that he may have denied true teachers of Torah, but in dream he is told that he did not – although the rumor is that the dream was just meant to make him feel better!
Gamliel, rather than hiding away, continues to come to the Assembly, even in his disgrace. There he witnesses the case of an Ammonite convert who wants to marry a Jewish woman, even though the Torah forbids it. The ruling is that this law no longer applies because the ancient Ammonite kingdom has been mixed up and even the exiled of Israel are returned. Gamliel publicly argues the case with his nemesis, Rabbi Joshua – and loses. Gamliel, defeated and humliated, decides to privately apologize to Joshua. He goes to Joshua’s home and manages to insult him by proving how out of touch he is with the realities of those who are poorer than himself. None-the-less Rabbi Joshua forgives him and they are reconciled.
Rabbi Joshua becomes Rabban Gamliel’s champion and argues with the rabbis to restore Gamliel to the Presidency. Seeing their reconciliation, the rabbis agree in principle, but worry about the practical: how do we deal with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria who was elevated, seeing as he did nothing worthy of being degraded. They agree to a power-sharing compromise: Gamliel will preach 3 Shabbats a month and Eleazar once a month.
The disciple who started this whole thing off by asking the question about the evening prayer is at last identified: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai – who later in life finds himself hidden from the Romans in a cave for 13 years! By tradition (though not through scholarship) he is credited with writing – there in that cave - the core book of Jewish mysticism: the Zohar.
Isn’t this story worthy of an opera? Someone get to it!