This is a presentation I offered based on part of my 2019 book, The Forgotten Sage: Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah and the Birth of Judaism as We Know It. It starts with a translation (or to be more accurate, a translation that I’ve modified and enhanced a bit for clarity) of a well-known story in the Babylonian Talmud describing the final days of Jerusalem before the Roman invasion in 70 CE.
I’m closing in on finishing up my third book. It’s working title is The (Book) of Joshua, and the publisher is Cascade Books, the same folks who published my previous two books. The book focuses in on the story of an ancient rabbi who played a key role in giving us the kind of Judaism we recognize today. Below are descriptions of 3 different kinds of programs I’m available to offer at synagogues, JCCs, or in interfaith learning settings.
D’var Torah (Sermon): Introducing Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah – the First Century Sage Who Gave Us the Judaism We Know
How did Judaism get its love of debate? Its openness to multiple viewpoints and its questioning nature, including questioning God? There were many ancient rabbis who wanted Judaism to be more doctrinal and less open to debate, more intolerant of other faiths, more internally hierarchical, and more focused on the afterlife than on this life. What caused Judaism to take the shape it took?
There were many rabbis who helped shape these attributes of Judaism. And yet, about 1900 years ago, there was one rabbi in particular whose decisions and teachings may very well have created the “tipping point” that set Judaism on its course to become the decentralized, multi-opinionated, exile-surviving, other-religion-respecting, pragmatic-yet-altruistic, wounded-yet-hopeful religion that we recognize in our time. Strangely, the vast majority of Jews today have never heard of him. And outside the Jewish world he is utterly unknown. His name was Joshua ben Hananiah, and this talk is about him.
Text study with discussion: Birthing the Judaism of Debate and Sacred Doubt: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
One of the best known stories in the Talmud depicts a debate pitting Rabbi Joshua and a
bunch of his colleagues taking sides against the most brilliant rabbi of their era, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. The story is sometimes referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” because the dispute centered on a question regarding whether or not a particular communal oven was ritually “pure.” Eliezer musters every conceivable argument but fails to persuade his colleagues, who vote him down on the ruling. In the frustration known only to geniuses who clearly see what everyone else can’t, Eliezer loses his cool and summons divine miracles to demonstrate that God thinks he is right. The miracles all manifest, but one by one Rabbi Joshua leads the rabbinic majority in refusing to consider the miracles as valid arguments. In the end, a divine voice from the heavens announces to all of them that Eliezer is right, but in a classic act of Jewish chutzpah directed towards God, Joshua rejects God’s attempt to intervene in the rabbinic process of debate and majority rule.
We’ll work through a new translation of this classic rabbinic text in order to gain an understanding of how this story has shaped Judaism’s embrace of sacred debate and even sacred doubt. We’ll also look at the tensions and ambivalences the narrative expresses about its own conclusions. Even though this story appears to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s absolutism, certainty, and authoritarian impulses, it also critiques the way Joshua and the other rabbis treat Eliezer in the aftermath of the debate. “Akhnai’s Oven” offer us a distant mirror as we grapple with our own social struggles over questions of authority, democracy, multiple perspectives on truth, and the legitimate or illegitimate sources of power.
A text will be provided in English: Rabbi Harris’ new translation of Bava Metzia 58a – 59b
Workshop: Illness, Trauma, and the “Wounded Storyteller”: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
Rabbi Joshua and his contemporaries survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and in the years immediately following that national catastrophe they struggled to make sense of their situation and the purpose of their lives. Rabbi Joshua emerged as a crucial voice encouraging the other survivors to develop what we, in modern times, might call a healthy, honest, and adaptive process of grieving and meaning-making.
During this workshop we’ll look at an ancient text describing how Rabbi Joshua advises a group of young rabbis who are coping with the aftermath of the Roman devastation by turning to a life of severe asceticism. Instead of asceticism, Rabbi Joshua urges that they embrace the possibility of becoming what the contemporary writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes as wounded storytellers. We’ll bring the text and its ideas into a conversation with Frank’s ideas and our own personal thoughts and feelings about the challenges of integrating loss, illness, and woundedness in our lives.
Texts will be provided in English: Tosefta Sotah 15: 11 – 15 and excerpts from Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
If you think these sound like fun adult ed programs that people at your congregation would enjoy, contact me! I’m at mauricedharris (at) gmail (dot) com. Even if you’re located far from me in Eugene, Oregon, I do travel to different parts of the country from time to time for various reasons, and I’m always interested in finding ways to do some teaching when I’m out of town.
This is a guest sermon I was invited to give at a Presbyterian church in September 2013.
“In Praise of Doubt” By Rabbi Maurice Harris
University Sunday – September 29, 2013
Central Presbyterian Church (Eugene, OR)
Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you during University Sunday. Rev. Bostwick told me that one of the purposes of University Sunday is to explore the connections between church and academic disciplines, and to demonstrate this church’s commitment to creating the kind of spiritual community that welcomes all questions and invites critical thinking skills into religious life. Actually, what he said was more like, “Maurice – your job is to convince the university crowd that they can feel at home here. You must accomplish this task in one sermon. No pressure though.” . . . It’s possible that I’m remembering our conversation a little wrong.
The point here is that clergy like Rev. Bostwick and me – who welcome the questioning mind, who regard doubt as a healthy part of spiritual seeking – we sometimes struggle to get the word out that there is such a thing as non-dogmatic, intellectually honest, open-minded religious life. That there are places where people can come for prayer, song, community, social action, and yes, tradition too, and together explore how to form a plausible faith in a desperately uncertain world. That is the kind of religious life that synagogues like the one I served for eight years, Temple Beth Israel, and churches like this one seek to cultivate.
This talk is called “In Praise of Doubt,” so let me get to the heart of it. The Reverend Val Webb is an Australian Christian theologian and writer who writes about the spiritual value of doubt. She’s the author of one of my favorite books, In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure. Webb describes a healthy religious community as one that turns to its sacred texts, traditions, and customs for deep guidance, but that also allows room for the open expression of doubt and the possibility of change, especially in response to new knowledge about the world or the insights of human experience. She writes, “…questions of human experience cannot be silenced by the loudness of authoritative doctrinal interpretation.”
Webb describes two kinds of congregations – those that are inhospitable to doubt, and those that welcome doubt as part of the spiritual adventure. She describes doubt as not only spiritually necessary, but also as inevitable. She critiques religious communities that treat doubt as a demonic influence, and she argues that there’s a falseness to responding to healthy doubt by telling worshippers to repeatedly affirm the officially sanctioned set of beliefs until the doubts are driven out. Continue reading “In Praise of Doubt – Guest Sermon at Central Presbyterian Church – Eugene, OR”