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The 48 Ways: 22(a)

Are the Sages Infallible? Part I

Chapter 6, Mishna 6

By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (22) trust in the Sages..."

We are continuing to cover the famous 48 Ways of Pirkei Avos, listing the means of acquiring Torah.

This week's quality, "emunas chachamim," means trusting or having faith in the Sages. There are a number of implications to this term, all of them significant. In fact, this quality might be considered one of the truest signs of the true believer as opposed to the religious skeptic.

On its simplest level, trust in the Sages implies believing in their teachings and the traditions upon which they are based. We accept that the laws, discussions and homilies of the Sages are authentic and a part of our Torah.

This immediately raises a few issues. How *do* we know that the Talmud and Midrash are sacred and divinely inspired? Weren't they authored by scholars who lived a millennium or more after the Revelation at Sinai? We have no doubt they were great men -- just look at their words and advice -- but are their words on par with the Torah itself? And if not, what does "trust in the Sages" exactly mean? Trust that what? That they are infallible, that everything they say is in line with G-d's will? Again, they were certainly great men, but doesn't everyone make mistakes? Didn't Moses himself makes mistakes -- as well as virtually all the great men of Scripture? "Trust" implies almost a degree of blind faith -- of submitting ourselves before the Sages even beyond what makes sense to us. Is that what is required of the true believer? Do we have no right to challenge or question the scholars before us but must blindly "trust" whoever preceded us?

We're opening an important issue. Let us back up slightly and review some of our past discussions relating to this issue. After the review, we will hopefully gain a better understanding of the subject matter at hand. (You can find a related discussion on 3:17 (start with www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/archapter3.html and follow the links). Below I present a somewhat condensed version of the discussion.)

As we know, the Torah was given to us at Sinai in two sections -- the Scripture or the Written Law, and the Oral Law -- a set of laws not recorded in writing but memorized and passed down orally from generation to generation. The Written Law on its own is filled with pleasant but meaningless generalities ("Do no manner of servile labor on the Sabbath," "It shall be for a sign between your eyes," etc.) charging us with all sorts of dramatic and inspiring commandments, but telling us very little about what it actually means to be a Jew. The Oral Law fills in the gaps left by the Written. It provides structure and detail for the general concepts of the Written. It takes religion from the level of empty inspiration -- where many other religions leave their adherents -- to an organized and well-thought-out guide for life.

This arrangement did not last forever. The Oral Law was afterwards recorded and committed to writing. The scholars of later generations recognized that the burden of memorizing the entire Torah was becoming too great -- especially after the destruction of the Second Temple as the Jews began their long history of exile and persecution. Thus, earlier the Mishna (circa 200 C.E.) and later the Talmud (c. 420) were committed to writing.

It might be observed, however, that even in its recorded form the Oral Law is hardly a closed book, set in stone and preserved in amber. The Talmud is filled with the lively debates and discussions of our Sages. The student, in studying the Talmud, sees not only the conclusions our Sages reached but their debates and thought processes as well, understanding the analysis and give-and-take the Sages underwent to reach their conclusions. Thus, students who study Talmud are not studying a closed book, but are reliving, reenacting -- and even further developing -- the same discussions our Sages had when our tradition was oral. Thus, even in written form, the Oral Law has for centuries remained a vibrant and living document.

There is something both intriguing and bothersome about the Torah's division into a Written and Oral Law. Why did G-d intend it originally that a great part of our tradition be memorized? We know how extensive the Talmud and Midrash are. Why not write it all down as Scripture? Why leave it in the hands of imperfect human beings, who for all their noble deeds and aspirations, are all too human and can easily forget, misinterpret or even willfully corrupt and distort? What was the benefit of entrusting man with so precious and delicate a heritage?

Now we arrive at the first critical point in our discussion -- and this is something we've discussed in the past. The Torah cannot possibly write down everything we need to know to live as Jews. This is simply because the world is far too vast. There are too many people and too many situations. Times change, people change, and societies change. The Torah cannot possibly tell every person how to act in every possible situation from the Revelation till the End of Days. How do we remain as Jews in different eras and societies? How do we deal with advances in technology? How do we adapt to new social trends or political realities? How does one deal with his parents, his kid sister, or his mother-in-law? No two people and no two situations are alike. The Torah teaches us eternal and timeless principles -- ones always true and relevant -- but how to apply them to each individual and in every age requires knowledge that no finite work of wisdom, no matter how large and penetrating, could ever record.

For this reason, the Torah was not given to us in written form alone. It would have to contain two sections -- one concrete and unchanging, and the other dynamic and living. The Written Law reflects the eternal and unchanging realities of the Torah, the parts which -- as the Ten Commandments -- were set in stone. It contains absolute and permanent truths, those which never change or alter in any way regardless of society, social mores, or personal situation. The Sabbath, holidays, forbidden relationships, dietary laws: they are here to stay regardless of where fate leads us or the changing whims of society.

In truth, the great majority of the Oral Law too consists of definite and factual knowledge. So much of it is legal code which, despite the often vigorous debates of the Talmud, provides us with a fairly rigorous and demanding set of instructions for living. But the Oral Law is much more than that. It is not set in stone the same way the Written is. It cannot be. It is in a more dynamic and oral -- or semi-oral -- state. People would have to study it and *apply* it, fathoming how its eternal principles apply to new and ever-changing realities in the world -- as well as to their own lives.

The Oral Law thus provides the bridge between the Written Law and the physical, relativistic world in which we live. It spans the distance from the Written Law, representing the absolutes of the spiritual world, to the ordinary and commonplace of everyday life. It takes absolute and uncompromising truths and recognizes how to apply them -- judiciously -- to the relativity of the human condition.

The key to this bridge -- as we shall see -- is mankind. It requires human beings to bridge the gap between the spiritual and physical, to understand this world and how the Torah must be applied to it. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. G-d willing, next time we will begin to understand the importance and necessity of placing the Oral Law in the hands of man, into the hands of great but human sages. We will then begin to appreciate the centrality of "trust in the Sages" to Judaism.


Text Copyright 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.


 






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