The 48 Ways: 22(b)
Are the Sages Infallible? Part II
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..."
In the previous class we began to discuss the importance of "trusting" the Sages. As we explained, "trust" implies a degree of blind faith -- believing in the words of the Sages beyond what we understand or necessarily agree with. In fact, this seems to be precisely what the Sages(!) ask of us. When Deuteronomy 17:11 tells us not to veer from the decisions of the high court "right or left," the Sages comment, "Even if they tell you your right is your left and your left is your right" (Rashi, quoting Sifri).
The question we asked on this -- and we are taking one of the Judaism's biggest issues head on -- is what grounds does the Torah have to require us to accept the infallibility of the Sages. Let's face it: we are certainly willing to accept that the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud were great men. They were not the sort to invent laws based on personal prejudice or in order to safeguard their own authority. But nobody's perfect. Couldn't the scholars have made a few mistakes? And if they did, should I (who somehow knows better) be bound by their decisions? And further, do all the writings of the Sages assume the status of "Torah"? We consider the Talmud and later writings until this day a part of our Oral Tradition. But if the Sages were and are not perfect -- and who is? -- why are their words "Torah", and are they really on par with Scripture itself -- the direct word of G-d?
Let us quickly recap the first part of our discussion. We have much more intellectual ground to cover. We observed that much of our tradition -- basically everything other than Scripture -- is considered a part of the Oral Law. This is the part of our tradition which was not originally committed to writing, but was for centuries taught and preserved orally. Later, the bulk of it was recorded in the Mishna and Talmud -- as well as in the many other midrashic works from that period. Yet the initial intent was that our tradition be discussed and memorized rather than written down. (And as we noted, the Talmud, even in written form, captures much of this oral nature with its often vigorous and animated discussions.)
We explained that G-d recognized the necessity that a part of our Torah be in oral form. It could not all be written down. The world is a changing and dynamic place. It contains an infinite number of people and situations. No written work could ever tell man how every person should act in every possible religious and personal situation from the Revelation till the End of Days. Thus, the Torah did not attempt to write everything down. Instead, G-d gave us a law -- or a part of it -- which would be living and dynamic. It would not be -- *could* not be -- set in stone. It would have to be discussed, reviewed and applied by the Sages of every generation -- and its eternal and timeless messages would assume new relevance and timeliness in every age and every society. (Based in part on thoughts from my teacher R. Yaakov Weinberg of blessed memory.)
We may thus say that the Oral Law forms the bridge between the Written Torah and the physical world. The Written Law represents the absoluteness of the spiritual realm, a world of unchanging and unchangeable truth. The laws recorded in Scripture, such as Sabbath, holidays and dietary laws, are permanent and unalterable: they apply as absolutes regardless of age, society or personal preference. As the Ten Commandments, the words of Scriptures are set in stone. They represent a level of truth almost untouchable to man, almost more "real" than the physical world itself. Thus, we may recite and study the verses of Scripture, and we see their enormous depth and beauty. But we can never add to them. The Scriptures are complete and perfect as they are. Humans can understand and admire, but can do little else.
The Oral Law is different. Its principles are equally eternal, but they are not in a frozen and unalterable state. They are meant to be discussed, analyzed and applied. We do not just recite the Oral Law verbatim. We understand it, put it in our own words, internalize it, and apply it to our lives. It was meant to be studied and applied -- using the principles and methods of study handed down to us from Sinai -- so that the Torah's eternal truths would find new meaning and relevance to each succeeding generation. Oral Law does not just consist of G-d's words; it consists of *our* words, intrinsically bound and intertwined with G-d's infinite knowledge.
We now bring this discussion to its critical point. The key to this bridge -- to spanning this great distance from the spiritual to the physical -- is human involvement. Human beings are the only creatures who live in the physical realm yet aspire to such great spiritual heights. It takes human beings -- perhaps the human touch -- to bring the Torah down, to understand both spirituality and the physical world in which it must be applied. Thus, G-d placed the Torah in the hands of man. It would be we -- the greatest and most sincere among us -- who would be entrusted with understanding the Torah, interpreting it, and applying it to the vastness and relativity of the physical world.
But if G-d entrusted us with understanding the Torah, He would have to *give* it to us as well. The Torah would be ours to understand and sometimes even to misunderstand. Could G-d really hold us responsible for the Torah's interpretation yet fault us if -- in spite of our greatest efforts -- we do not always understand perfectly? If we bear the burden of understanding the Torah, if we must live and die by its word, we would have the privilege -- and the gift -- of its possession as well. Scripture describes the Torah as "the possession of the Congregation of Jacob" (Deuteronomy 33:4). We own the Torah -- to understand and even, rarely, to misunderstand. But this was simply the risk G-d had to take, so to speak, if He would challenge us to be people of spirit and soul.
But there is an even deeper insight here. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 59) records a fantastic debate between the scholars. R. Eliezer, in spite of his great scholarship, stood alone against the Rabbis in their debate about a certain complex issue. After they refused to accept his position, he demanded: "If the law is like me, let this carob tree bear witness." The tree uprooted itself and moved a distance. The Rabbis were not swayed, saying that one cannot prove anything from a carob tree. He continued, "If the law is like me let this aqueduct prove it." The water reversed its course. The Rabbis were still not swayed. Finally, R. Eliezer cried out, "If the law is like me, let the Heavens bear witness." A voice then emanated from the Heavens, stating: "What do you have with R. Eliezer? The law is like him everywhere!" R. Yehoshua stood up and proclaimed: "It [the Torah] is not in the Heavens" (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Talmud explains: The Torah was already given to man at Sinai. It is no longer G-d's to decide. Rather, we adhere to the general principle of following the majority opinion (Exodus 23:2).
Well, the question is so obvious as to be glaring. How could the Rabbis argue with G-d?! So what -- standard protocol is to follow the majority? G-d Himself told the Sages they were wrong! The Torah may be ours to understand -- and perhaps even our mistakes are forgiven -- but here the Rabbis *knew* they were wrong -- they were understanding Torah not as G-d originally intended. On what grounds could our "possession" of the Torah justify going against the direct word of G-d?!
Well, we're opening up yet another can of worms... er, deep philosophical question. I'm afraid I'll have to break this up again to explain this properly (if even then). As always, pardon the lengthiness, but these issues require serious thought and explanation. If Judaism really could be understood in a few paragraphs a week, it couldn't possibly be very profound. Till then!
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.