by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – August 12, 2010
We read in the Torah section of Shoftim (Devarim 17:8-11): “If a matter of judgment is hidden from you, between blood and blood, between verdict and verdict, between plague and plague, matters of dispute in your cities … You shall come to the priests, the levites and to the judge who will be in those days; you shall inquire and they will tell you the word of judgment. You shall do according to the word that they will tell you … and you shall be careful to do according to everything that they will teach you. According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you right or left.”
In the medieval work describing and explaining the Torah’s commandments, Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the aforementioned verses are summed up as a negative prohibition, namely: “We are forbidden from arguing with the transmitters of tradition (ba’alei ha-kabbalah) or from changing their instructions or deviating from their guidance in all Torah matters.” The Sefer Ha-Chinukh then continues to amplify upon this prohibition.
The nature of the human race, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh points out, is that people tend to be argumentative and disagreements abound. If every single individual were allowed to interpret the Torah according to his own understanding of the verses, anarchy would reign in the Jewish nation. This approach would be a recipe for disaster and the Torah would thereby quickly disintegrate into a tremendous multitude of legal codes. A central authority to which all are bound, such as the Jewish High Court, is mandatory.
This authority, however, is not only limited to the Sanhedrin that sat in the Hewn Chamber on the premises of the Holy Temple, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh notes, as per the Tannaitic work, Sifrei: “And thus it is to be in each and every generation that the masses must listen to the Sages [of that generation] who received their tradition with much diligence and effort from the Sages of previous generations. And concerning this matter, the Scriptures enjoin us not to deviate from the words of our teachers ‘to the right or to the left’. Our rabbis have interpreted this to mean that even if they tell us that what we think is our right hand is our left hand and what we think is our left hand is our right hand, we should accept their teaching.”
The Sefer Ha-Chinukh continues, “Even if they are in error about a certain matter, it is inappropriate for us to dispute them and we should go along with their error. It is better to suffer with their single mistake [rather than undermine their authority], so that in general their good advice will remain sovereign and the masses will always be bound by their wise authority.” In other words, even if they may be wrong on occasion, it is better for the general structure of law and order in the society that they not be contradicted. If all would see sanction to argue with the Sages, the entire infrastructure of Rabbinic authority will crumble and chaos would ensue. G-d saw it better to accept a mistake, than allow the entire structure of law and order to collapse.
The Sefer Ha-Chinukh goes on to explain accordingly the Talmudic anecdote (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b) concerning “the oven of Achinai” in which R. Eliezer had a disagreement with his fellow Sages about a matter relating to the laws of ritual impurity. R. Eliezer invoked all sorts of supernatural signs to prove the veracity of his position. Nevertheless, a Heavenly Voice announced, “It is not in Heaven” – i.e. Torah laws cannot be decided by miraculous signs. The policy “majority [opinion of Torah Sages] rules” must be adhered to. Consequently, notwithstanding all the heavenly signs in support of R. Eliezer’s position, the law was established like the other Sages and not like R. Eliezer,.
As an addendum to the prior anecdote, the Talmud reports that Rav Natan found the prophet Elijah and inquired of him what G-d was doing at the time that the heavenly proofs were rejected and the law was established according to the majority opinion. Eliyahu responded that G-d – so to speak – smiled and said: “My children have defeated me.” To explain this exchange, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh states that, strictly speaking, R. Eliezer was correct and the Sages were wrong, but sometimes there is a principle that is even more important than the absolute truth. “Following the majority” is such a principle. To avoid the breakdown of law and order and the spread of chaos, we must follow the majority – right or wrong.
As is the case concerning following the majority, so it is regarding the injunction of following the Sages “even if they tell you right is left and left is right.” Even if the Sages are making a mistake, there must be a strong infrastructure for the Torah to flourish; and a strong infrastructure must include a firm authority. It is simply a matter of order. With order, our society can progress. Without order, society crumbles. Consequently, we need to maintain the overall order, even if in some cases certain individual matters must give way.
Often people tend to think subjectively or from a narrow perspective. G-d, Who sees things from the greatest perspective possible, sees the big picture, and teaches us to forego sometimes the small imperfection on the canvas in order to preserve the big picture. Only so can G-d’s Torah flourish. Only so can our society flourish. Only so can each and every one of us flourish.