“The Primacy of Independent Thinking”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, contains many laws and directives regarding the various sacrifices and ritual offerings brought by the People of Israel in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple that was built by Solomon in Jerusalem.

Among the various sacrifices that were to be brought by the People of Israel was an intriguing sacrifice known as, פַּר הֶעְלֵם דָּבָר שֶׁל צִבּוּר, a bull that was brought when a legal matter was “hidden” from the congregation.

The Torah, in Leviticus 4:13-14, states, וְאִם כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ, וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל, וְעָשׂוּ אַחַת מִכָּל מִצְו‍ֹת השׁם אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵעָשֶׂינָה, וְאָשֵׁמו. וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ, וְהִקְרִיבוּ הַקָּהָל פַּר בֶּן בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת, וְהֵבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵדּ, and if the entire assembly of Israel shall err, and a matter became obscured from the eyes of the congregation; and they commit one from among all the commandments of G-d that may not be done, and they become guilty; when the sin regarding which they committed becomes known, the congregation shall offer a young bull as a sin offering, and they shall bring it before the Tent of Meeting.

The sin offering that is brought in this instance is one of four varied sin offerings recorded in this parashat Vayikra. In addition to the sin offering brought by the leaders of the congregation, there is a sin offering brought by the anointed High Priest, a sin offering brought by the king or a ruler, and a sin offering brought by individual Israelites.

The sin offering brought by the leaders of Israel is offered when a mistaken legal ruling was issued by the sages of the Great Sanhedrin. The Great Sanhedrin, which consisted of 71 scholars and met on the Temple Mount, issued a mistaken ruling in Jewish law, causing the majority of the Jewish people at that time to inadvertently commit a Torah violation. Had an individual or community violated this negative commandment deliberately, the punishment would have been Karet, or excision (TZAV 5767-2007).

Rashi explains that the above understanding of the verse is derived from the Hebrew phrase, כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, the entire assembly of Israel, which means the Sanhedrin. The members of the Sanhedrin issued an incorrect decree, declaring that something prohibited, such as forbidden fat, was permissible. As a result of that incorrect decision, the majority of the people of Israel transgressed.

The Mishna, in Horayot 1:4, teaches that the sin offering brought by the leaders is brought only if the Sanhedrin’s decision had been unanimous, and that not a single member of the Sanhedrin took issue with the decision. If even a single member had acknowledged that a mistake had been made–even if the collective body had refused to acknowledge the mistake, the members of the Sanhedrin would not have had to bring the sacrifice.

The Mishna also states, that the collective Sanhedrin would not bring a sacrifice if the head judge had been absent from the deliberations, or if a single member who voted on the issue in the Sanhedrin had been unqualified, such as a convert, an illegitimate person, one who is too elderly or had no children.  Even if a single sage said, “I do not know…”–in all these instances the members of the Sanhedrin would not bring the sin offering. Rather, all the People of Israel who transgressed as a result of the erroneous decision would have to bring their own personal sin offering.

Even if all the members of the Sanhedrin themselves had sinned, but the majority of the nation had not sinned, the leaders would not bring the sin offerings.

A majority is determined in one of two ways: 1. The majority of the twelve tribes had sinned, even though the number of sinners did not constitute a majority of the population. 2. The majority of the population sinned, even if it was less than half the tribes involved. In each of these instances, the Sanhedrin does not bring a sin offering, but rather the individuals who transgressed bring the sin offering.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, in his erudite studies on the weekly Torah portion, Hegyonah Shel Torah, offers a fascinating insight regarding this ruling. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 17:10, declares: וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, individual Jews are required to follow the rulings and dictates of the religious leaders. Why then should an individual Jew, who trespassed a Jewish law because of an incorrect decision made by the sages, have to bring a sin offering, rather than the leaders who made the error? Furthermore, why should it make a difference whether it was an incorrect decision rendered by every single member of the Sanhedrin, or if the leading sage was missing?

Rabbi Firer notes that the words, כָּל עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, that all of the community of Israel sinned, imply that not only had the decision been unanimous, but also, that every one of the judges was fitting and qualified to serve, and that no one was missing.

Furthermore, Rabbi Firer Rabbi suggests insightfully that if a decision is not unanimous, an individual Jew may have reason to conclude, or at least suspect, that there may be another valid or reasonable opinion or point of view concerning this issue. Even if a single jurist during the deliberations suggested to the court that the Sanhedrin members may be mistaken, and was overruled by all the other judges, it still leaves room for an individual Jew to question the decision that had been made. This is especially true if the Gadol, the leading sage, was absent, even though replacement scholars attended, and there was still a full complement of 71 members.

Rabbi Firer concludes from this that Jewish law rejects excuses based on ignorance. To the contrary, Rabbi Firer insists that Judaism requires of all Jews to strive to be scholars, to be capable of thinking for themselves, and not simply follow the masses, due to ignorance.

The importance of this insight cannot be overemphasized. In contrast to many other faith systems and philosophies, Judaism encourages every person to strive to achieve erudition and to gain mastery of as much of Jewish knowledge and practice as possible.

Because so much of Jewish life is based on the practice of Jewish law and rituals, educating Jews to master that lifestyle is essential. Indeed, it is not considered proper for mature and educated Jews to run to their rabbis or to the internet every time they encounter a religious issue. A Jew must strive to be a thinker, a challenger, a questioner, and if there is any, even the slightest reason, to doubt the decision made by the highest authorities of Jewish law, one should investigate and study, to determine, through one’s own research and erudition, what the proper practice should be.

In contemporary Jewish life today, there is a growing tendency to minimize the emphasis that Jewish tradition places on self reliance. Especially with the rapid rise of the Chassidic and Yeshiva communities, where so much is dependent on the Rebbe and many do not make a move without consulting their Rosh Yeshiva, the independence of the individual Jew has been compromised. To my mind this has resulted in weakened scholarship and impacted negatively on a Jew’s personal relationship with the Al-mighty, Who places trust in us, by allowing us the latitude to study, research and decide on our own.

Surely, every Jew needs to have a religious mentor and guide. But, a true mentor is one who, like a candle, ignites other candles, and helps new candles burn brightly on their own.

Of course, Jews need to heed the words of our sages, and follow the advice of our leaders, but the loss of independent thinking and opinion is truly grave. We must all prepare ourselves to appreciate and master the intricacies of Judaism, to be equipped to make intelligent decisions for our own benefit, so that we can march ahead, on our own, to influence the world and to inspire others.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption, will take place on Friday evening and Saturday, March 20 and 21, 2015.