Do We Really Have to Listen to the Rabbis’? – Reassessing a Torah Edict
The Talmud reveals how rabbis of long ago revered the rabbis of previous generations. They would say, “If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, we are like donkeys.” Talmud Shabbat 112b
I grew up in a world where the teacher was always correct and the rabbi was considered an emissary of God. Their every word was sacred and revered. It wasn’t the stick that we feared, it was the luminance of the imaginary halo. His eyes penetrated the depth of our soul while his muted lips failed to respond to our queries. All thought provoking discussions were taboo, for the fear of being thought of as defiant deterred us. We blindly followed the Torah dictate: According to the laws which they shall teach, so shall you do. Don’t deviate from their rules and regulations. The commentaries explain that even if you think that they (the rabbis) are wrong, you are still required to listen to their rulings.
Yet after reading a report in Breitbart.com that 340 rabbis urged Congress to support the Nuclear Deal with Iran, I pause to reconsider this edicts viability for the 21st century. After reading that Rabbi Willig, a rabbinic leader in Yeshiva University, wants to reevaluate the place of higher Torah learning for women in Jewish day schools, I once again pause to reconsider whether I can heed the rulings of our Rabbis? When I read that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ruled that conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis in diaspora are invalid, I realize that their regressive positions and rulings will never be something I am willing to accept.
My perspective on life began its metamorphosis when as a teenager I sought guidance from the world renowned Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. As I entered his anteroom, I met the stares of hundreds of his Chasidim waiting patiently for a few minutes of his precious time. Looking out of place and overwhelmed, I approached his attendant with the request of immediately seeing the rebbe on an urgent life and death matter. It was as if the Red Sea had split and I was escorted to the head of the line to the probable consternation of those still in the queue. I explained that a young relative was battling leukemia and his doctor prescribed a medicinal cocktail that had to be administered in the next few hours. However they cautioned that the treatment is experimental and there is a 50% chance that the medicine will cause the immediate death of the patient. The Rebbe who was already elderly and very frail indicated that under no circumstances should the medicine be administered.
I immediately called the family and was met with a shirking sound of ‘oy vey’ that still haunts me today. They told me that within the past few minutes they had managed to speak to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading rabbinic authority on Jewish law, who stated unequivocally that they must proceed with administering the medicine. Thus, in addition to the stress of their loved one’s illness, they had to deal with the emotional conflict of contradictory rulings. They once again reached out to Rabbi Feinstein who told them: The Satmar Rebbe gave you advice, I am giving you a psak halachah – a definitive halachic ruling.
Those words transformed my thought process and gave me the assurance of distinguishing legal doctrine from advice that is meted out by professionals. Whereas legal opinion may require adherence, the latter is merely advice that may or may not be heeded. When rabbis of yesteryear (or today) offer opinions, they are often giving sound advice or sometimes sowing the seeds of a political agenda. These may be expressed in a legal jargon and implied as being divinely inspired but they are not halachic rulings, so we are under no obligation to adhere or accept their words of wisdom.
The mandate of blindly following the ruling of our Rabbis’ is limited to the Anshei Kneset Hagedolah- the men of the great assembly when they issued specific halachic rulings. Yet even these highly regarded rabbis’ are never elevated to the status of infallibility. In the opening paragraph of this week’s Torah portion it states: lo tikach shochad, ki hashochad y’aver einei chachamim – do not take a bribe for a bribe blinds the eyes of the chacham – or the wise judge. The Talmud expands on this law by stating that even Moshe himself may not take a bribe because everyone is subject to human frailties and may be tempted to render an incorrect decision.
The Mishnah (Oral Law written in the 200 CE) discusses an argument between the head of the judicial body and the head of the rabbinical academy. The judicial court made a ruling declaring that the new moon was legally seen and thus Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were now set. The head of the academy analyzed the ruling and found it scientifically flawed and tried to get the ruling overturned. Although this analysis was impeccable, the ruling remained in force because overriding the judicial system is unfathomable in a civil society. This serves not to delegitimize the sage or his logic, but rather to strengthen society’s adherence to law and respect of authority. Similarly, accepting and following the majority opinion in the Supreme Court does not delegitimize the dissenting judges.
Thus if I was asked whether halachic rulings may at times be erroneous and wrong, the answer is unashamedly and absolutely yes. Can the Supreme Court at times be wrong? (Since I am a-political I won’t rephrase the question.) Absolutely. But that doesn’t absolve us from keeping the law and maintaining a civilized society. And perhaps we may do well by amending to the age old proverb: A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client but the man that never questions the advice he receives from his lawyer (or rabbi) is an even bigger fool. But the man that imagines that all who call themselves lawyer (or rabbi) are worthy of the title is the greatest fool of all.
Rabbi Jack Engel
PS: Is this really kosher?
Perhaps the Orthodox Union should consider putting the pressure on Ben and Jerry Ice Cream by removing their kosher supervision from its products? Then again perhaps their voice of protest is limited to non-commercial enterprises that won’t hurt their bottom line? Let’s hope the Orthodox Union proves me wrong.