So I’m chatting with a friend of mine here at Drew. She’s a nice, fairly traditional, Muslim girl. I make an offhand comment about God, which I find slightly humorous, so I chuckle to myself.
“You shouldn’t make jokes about God!” she declares. “Why not?” I ask. “You don’t think God has a sense of humor? Have you ever seen a platypus? Or the pit of an avocado?”
This conversation went on for some time.
My point was that God is generally portrayed these days as a kind, loving, righteous personality. God is, essentially, the nicest, best person you could ever meet. And I just refuse to believe that this incredible individual does not have a good sense of humor.
Eventually, she conceded that maybe he does have a sense of humor, but not about himself. “Why not?” I ask her. “God demands respect!” she tells me. I tell her that it’s all well and good to demand respect, but that doesn’t mean you have no sense of humor about yourself.
I could see that this conversation was going nowhere, so I told her this story, which comes to us from the Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b:
If he cut it [the oven] into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of Aknai. Why [the oven of] Aknai? Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean.
It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it! Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place others affirm, four hundred cubits. No proof can be brought from a carob-tree, they retorted.
Again he said to them: If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it! Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards No proof can be brought from a stream of water, they rejoined. Again he urged: If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it, whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere? Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.
Again he said to them: If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven! Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him! But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: It is not in heaven. What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.
R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.