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Gershon Hepner

Dissent in Moses’ Supreme Court and the Talmud

Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, explained that Moses provided all Jews with the freedom to make their own individual choice whether to choose or to reject the Torah’s laws, which he placed before them, as if offering doses whose delivery depended on what Jews themselves decided was correct, which also is perhaps the very reason why Moses was glad to share his spirit with some seventy prophetic elders, even if they dared to separate themselves from other prophets, like Eldad and Medad, who to dissent with other justices in Moses’ court were presumptuously prepared.

Moses’ willingness to welcome these dissenters was opposed by Joshua, which may be why dissent became the paradigm the Babylonian Talmud’s editors applied when they composed a text they thought was based on Moses’ rules regarding holiness and crime.

Numbers seems to validate Joshua’s opinion. After Eldad and Medad’s dissent, Miriam and Aaron both criticize their brother, and Korah, Dathan and Abiram become infected by rebellious delirium, but whereas the Sinai theophany concludes with Israelites declaring, “We’ll obey all of the words we hear,” the Talmud records dissenting opinions regarding many of the laws which in its texts appear.

Deut. 4:44 states:

וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

The following is the Torah-teaching which Moses placed before the Children of Israel.

Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in his book Tiferet Yisrael, pointed out that this verse does not say that Moses wrote the Torah, but that he placed it in front of the Children of Israel, implying that he allowed each of them to choose whether or not to accept what he was giving to them, but merely placing it before them, allowing every Jew to decide whether to accept or reject  the Torah.

In Numbers 11 we are told how God provided Moses with a special group of seventy elders who would serve as his assistants in his dealings with the tumultuous people.

Num. 11:26 states:

וַיִּשָּׁאֲר֣וּ שְׁנֵֽי־אֲנָשִׁ֣ים ׀ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֡ה שֵׁ֣ם הָאֶחָ֣ד ׀ אֶלְדָּ֡ד וְשֵׁם֩ הַשֵּׁנִ֨י מֵידָ֜ד וַתָּ֧נַח עֲלֵהֶ֣ם הָר֗וּחַ וְהֵ֙מָּה֙ בַּכְּתֻבִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָצְא֖וּ הָאֹ֑הֱלָה וַיִּֽתְנַבְּא֖וּ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃

And two of the participants, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them—they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent—and they spoke in ecstasy in the camp.

When Moses is informed of this, Joshua attempts to intervene, zealously pressing for the incarceration of Eldad and Medad,saying “Lock ‘em up!”

Num, 11:28-29 states:

יא:כח וַיַּ֜עַן יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ בִּן־נ֗וּן מְשָׁרֵ֥ת מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִבְּחֻרָ֖יו וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנִ֥י מֹשֶׁ֖ה כְּלָאֵֽם: יא:כטוַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה הַֽמְקַנֵּ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לִ֑י וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל עַ֤ם י־הוה נְבִיאִ֔ים כִּי־יִתֵּ֧ן י־הוה אֶת רוּח֖וֹ עֲלֵיהֶֽם: 11:28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, lock m’em up!” But Moses said to him, Are you being zealous for me? “I wish that the entire people of the Lord were prophets and that the Lord would confer his spirit on them all!”

In “Eldad and Medad Successfully Challenge Moses’ Control over Prophecy,” thetorah.com, Rabbi David Frankel explains Moses’ dissent to Joshua’s rejection of Eldad and Medad; I think that Eldad and Medad refused to go out. They did this in conscious defiance of Moses who chose them to be among his seventy “yes-men.”

There was no place in this arrangement for individual spiritual voices that might speak independently of the figure of Moses and bring a diversity of opinions into the public domain. Eldad and Medad challenged not only the centralized and exclusive authority of Moses but also, at least implicitly, the attempt to wield political control over the divine spirit.

The suggestion that God decided to share Moses’ spirit with Eldad and Medad, not in spite of the fact that they seemed to wish to be able to express independent opinions rather than be Moses’ “yes-men,” but because He approved of this goal, supports Maharal’s explanation of Deut. 4:44 that is quoted in the first verse of this poem.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at gershonhepner@gmail.com.
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