“Infallibility in Judaism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we are told of the many types of offerings that were brought in the ancient Tabernacle. In Leviticus 4:27, we learn specifically about the “chatat“–the sin offering.

A sin offering was generally brought for a type of trespass, such as drinking blood or eating forbidden fats, which, if violated purposely, would be punishable with “kareit,” excision. However, if done unintentionally, then atonement may be achieved by bringing the chatat sacrifice.

In Leviticus 5:1-4, we are told of others who bring sin offerings: a witness who fails to give testimony, one who contracts impurity and a person who fails to fulfill a vow.

Of all the sin offerings that are mentioned, however, perhaps the most remarkable are the sin offerings that are brought by the leaders of Israel. In Leviticus 4:3, we are told, “Im ha’koh’hayn ha’mah’shee’ach yeh’cheh’tah l’ash’maht hah’am,” if the anointed priest (the High Priest) shall sin and bring guilt on the people, then let him offer for his sin which he has sinned a young bullock without blemish unto the L-rd for a sin offering.

Since an error on the part of the High Priest could easily result in the entire community going astray, the High Priest’s sin offering is immediately followed by the sin offering of the community. The Torah, in Leviticus 4:13, instructs that if the entire Congregation of Israel errs, “V’neh’elam dah’var may’ay’nay ha’kah’hal,” and the thing be hidden from the eyes of its leaders and as a result the entire community sins, the community must bring a young bullock for a sin offering and the elders must place their hands on the young bullock before G-d.

These two sin offerings are followed by the sin offering of the “ruler.” In Leviticus 4:22 we read, “Ah’sher nah’see yeh’cheh’tah,” and when a ruler sins and violates one of the trespasses unintentionally, he too is required to bring a Chatat offering. Our rabbis interpret the word “nah’see,” ruler, as referring to the King of Israel

The remarkable requirement for both the High Priest of Israel and the King of Israel to bring sin offerings virtually defies credulity. These verses actually imply that leaders of Israel, like Moses and Aaron, and prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and kings like David and Solomon, could, and would, sin. This assumption is especially remarkable since these statements were made at a time when the concept of the “Divine Right of Kings” prevailed widely among other nations. No one would dare challenge the authority of Alexander the Great, the legitimacy of the Caesar of Rome or the omniscience of the Pope in the Vatican, and yet, our Torah not only suggests, but implies that our leaders will be fallible and sinful and must atone for their violations.

The commentators suggest a unique interpretation for the word “asher” that appears in Leviticus 4:22, regarding the ruler who sins. Rather than using the usual word “v’eem“–”if” that appears in the three other passages, the verse reads, “Ah’sher nah’see yeh’cheh’tah,” meaning, when a ruler sins, implying that sin is inevitable for the ruler.

Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) suggests that powerful and wealthy people are more likely to sin than others. Therefore, states the Soforno, the verse concludes with the word “v’ah’shaym,” and become guilty, because it is essential that powerful people acknowledge and feel remorse for their sin, lest they continue to sin.

In Judaism, only G-d is regarded as infallible.

Unfortunately, contemporary attempts to ascribe infallibility to Jewish leaders, past and present, have become popular and have gotten completely out of hand. Today it is possible to find various groups ascribing infallibility to the patriarchs and other biblical figures, to the Talmudic sages or the medieval commentators, and even to contemporary chassidic rabbis as well as members of the Moetzes Gedolai Yisrael, contemporary sages of various Jewish groups in Israel and the diaspora. This practice strays from mainstream Judaism and has already wreaked havoc with the common people, especially when some present-day leaders and so-called “sages” are charged with unseemly public behavior, such as financial shenanigans and allegations of sexual impropriety.

It is to this end that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Leviticus 4:22 interprets the word “Ah’sher” in the verse “Ah’sher nah’see yeh’cheh’tah,” when a ruler sins, as an allusion to the word “ash’ray,” meaning good fortune: How fortunate is the generation whose prince publically confesses a sin committed by him in error, for how much more would he do so in the case of a deliberate sin.

Judaism recognizes mortal fallibility as one of the challenges of life. That is why even the great Moses sinned and was punished. That is why Judah, who was a sinner, was chosen to lead the twelve tribes of Israel, rather than Joseph who displayed superhuman character to withstand the constant temptations of Mrs. Potiphar. Judaism believes in realistic leaders, leaders who sometimes sin, but who are able to rise above their sins and repent. Such leaders, although fallible, can serve as realistic role models and convey the importance of personal growth and self-improvement as fundamental principles of Jewish life.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Parashat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion about remembering Amalek is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. It is considered by most authorities to be a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading recited in the synagogue.