“The Extent of Rabbinic Authority”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, 41 new Torah laws–14 positive and 27 negative mitzvot–are introduced. Among the laws that are included in this week’s parasha is the regulation affirming the authority of the rabbis.

Known as the law of the Zakein Mamreh, the Rebellious Elder, this statute underscores the importance of heeding the authority of the sages. In fact, it was a capital crime for any judge, even an outstanding judge, to act against the decision of the Great Sanhedrin (the ancient Supreme Court of Israel in Jerusalem).

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:10, warns the people to do what the judges tell them to do, and to abide by everything that they teach. The very next verse, Deuteronomy 17:11, then states: “Ahl pee ha’Torah ah’sher yo’roo’chah, v’ahl ha’mish’paht ah’sher yom’roo l’chah, tah’ah’seh. Lo ta’soor min hah’da’var ah’sher yah’gee’doo l’chah ya’min oo’s’mohl,” according to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, you shall do. You shall not deviate from the word that they tell you, right or left. No matter what the status of the person who willfully rebels against the words of the judges, that person shall die. In this manner, the people of Israel are bidden to eradicate the evil from their midst, and serve as a lesson for all the people to hear and to fear.

Throughout the long and remarkable history of the Jewish people there were always rebellious groups of Jews who rejected the teachings and practices of the Torah. Even the famous rebellion of Korach (Numbers 16), which reputedly originated from a political dispute over authority, is couched in the Midrash as a theological debate over whether a room full of Torah scrolls requires a mezuzah on the doorpost, or whether a tallit entirely of blue threads requires an additional blue thread (t’chailet) on the fringes (tzitzit).

Toward the end of the second temple period, the priesthood became corrupt, and many priests adopted the beliefs of the Sadducees (Tzidukim), who followed the written code (the Scriptures) but rejected the oral code (the oral tradition that was later recorded in the Talmud). During the Gaonic period and in the time of the early Rishonim, the rabbis had to contend with the Karaites, another sect who rejected the oral tradition. Of course, at the turn of the Common Era, many Jews were attracted to a new religion–Christianity, first practicing as Hebrew-Christians, and then becoming full-fledged Christians. The Christians believed that the “Old Testament” had been abrogated, and that there was no longer any reason to follow the rituals of Judaism, such as kashrut, Sabbath observance and circumcision.

The question of Jewish observance, of course, goes much further than only believing in the Bible and the Oral Code. In fact, an essential element of Jewish theology devolves about the acceptance or rejection of the authority of the sages. It is not only the authority of Moses that must be accepted by believers, but the authority of succeeding sages throughout the generations, for denying the rabbinic tradition is tantamount to abrogating the entire Jewish legal system. Consequently, the faithful traditional Jew today is expected to accept contemporary rabbinic authority to be as authoritative as that of Moses and the written law.

Among the medieval commentators there is the dispute concerning what a “Torah-true” Jew must accept as binding. Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) deduces from the verse, Deuteronomy 17:11, you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you right or left, that every Jew must accept the following: 1) that the Masoretic (traditional) text of the Scriptures is the valid bible text, 2) that the laws deduced from the Torah utilizing the 13 Hermeneutic principles of Rabbi Ishmael are valid, and 3) that all decrees (gezairot), ordinances (takanot) and customs (minhagim) instituted by the sages are similarly valid.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) accepts the first two principles of Maimonides, but rejects the third, stating that laws of rabbinical origin are not enforceable, and hence are not a sine qua none for proper belief.

In contemporary times, a related question has arisen regarding the authority of the sages. A difference of opinion has manifested itself between the Modern Orthodox and the Chareidi Orthodox Jews with respect to what is known as “Daat Torah” or “Daas Torah.” Daat Torah is loosely defined as “an ideology which teaches that the advice given by great Torah scholars must be followed by Jews committed to Torah observance” (Rabbi Alfred Cohen, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 2003).

The parameters of this dispute extend from those who fervently believe that the sages of old and of contemporary times not only possess a wisdom and a breath of knowledge that helps them be more insightful than normal people in their decisions regarding Torah and even mundane issues of the day, but also believe that they actually have ruach hakodesh, an inherent power of prophecy (even though there are no longer any official prophets in Israel). On the other hand, there are those who argue, particularly Professor Lawrence Kaplan of McGill University, that there is absolutely no basis for Daat Torah in classical Judaism, and accuses those who promote the notion of Daat Torah of trying to “close and suppress discussion” of viewpoints that the Chareidi community rejects.

In his studious and comprehensive examination of the notion and efficacy of Daat Torah, Rabbi Alfred Cohen raises some questions concerning Daat Torah, including perhaps the gravest question of all, how was it possible for the great rabbinic leaders to advise Jews not to leave Europe before the Holocaust, and in certain instances prohibiting them from leaving. In response, he cites, in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1907-1980 Rosh Yeshiva of Mesivta R’ Chaim Berlin in New York), an intriguing parable of two people who are standing on the roof about to jump off. The crowd below is begging them not to jump. One of the would-be leapers is persuaded by the crowd not to jump, and begins to make his way down a staircase, only to fall and break his neck. The other person leaps from the roof just as a truck carrying mattresses passes by, and he lands unharmed among the mattresses.

Rabbi Hutner asks if the advice given to the would-be leapers is incorrect. Obviously not! The advice was indeed correct for most circumstances. The would-be leaper who listened to them made the right decision to walk down the stairs, but the circumstances changed. “The guidance of our Torah leaders,” Rabbi Hutner concludes “is just that–Torah inspired wisdom, but it is not prophecy, and it is not failsafe. Our rabbis are wise men, not prophets.” (ibid page 30)

Rabbi Cohen musters additional arguments in support of Daat Torah, positing that acceptance of Rabbinic authority is crucial in order to insure strong leadership in the Jewish community, otherwise chaos will prevail. “The Torah has established the principle of majority rule, to promote the unity of Torah observance and preserve the community. Leaders may err,” Rabbi Cohen argues, “but individual Jews who follow their instructions have done no wrong, that is why only the leaders bring the sin offering in the instance of error, and not the community.” (page 34)

Can one disagree with the great sages? Rabbi Cohen responds affirmatively to this questions by citing the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) who rules in the Code of Jewish Law, “It is permitted for him [the student] to disagree with some ruling or teaching of his [the teacher], if he can sustain his position and prove that the law is as he sees it.” (Yoreh Deah 242-3)

Obviously, the concept of the authority of the sages is a statute of very ancient origin. However, the extent to which the authority exists and applies today is a matter of dispute that is far beyond the scope of this analysis. I suggest that those who wish to pursue the question further consult their local rabbis, and argue vigorously with them!

May you be blessed.