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Why do people feel that they should listen to their clergy? There is nothing in the
Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran that says that its adherents must obey
rabbis, priests, and imams. In fact, Judaism didn’t have rabbis until around
the year 70 of the Common Era, after the second temple was destroyed by the
Romans. There were, apparently, religious leaders before that year. These
included prophets who are mentioned in the Torah, who were usually ignored by
the majority of the people, and priests who functioned in the temple until it
was destroyed. Also, Mishnah Pirkei Abbot,
composed around 200 CE, states that during the second temple period, between
516 BCE until 70 CE, there were “men of the great assembly” and “zugot.” However, there are many conflicting
opinions about these men; and although tradition states that they were
religious leaders, scholars say that we really don’t know what their function
was or what the general public thought of them.
There were also several parties during the second half of the second temple period,
including Sadducees, who insisted that the Torah be observed as it is written,
and Pharisees, who advocated that the laws could be interpreted to fit modern
conditions; but we do not know what impact these groups had on the general
population. The rabbis were an outgrowth of the Pharisees in the year 70.
Why did people accept the opinions of rabbis? The answer is simple. These men had
no authority, but enough Jews complied with what they said that their rulings
became the law.
For example, when the temple was destroyed and many Jews wanted to continue the
sacrifices without a temple, the rabbis said that sacrifices should be
discontinued. Why was this ruling accepted? Simply because many people agreed with
The same principle applies today. When a rabbi gives a ruling, it becomes mandatory
only for people who adopt it. When a rabbi’s decision differs with those of
other rabbis, as will occur because rabbis are human, people need to decide
which view they will accept.
Can this lead to religious anarchy? Absolutely. Therefore, wise people will
recognize that different views exist in Judaism and respect each other. They
will accept a decision when they feel it is necessary, even though it is
contrary to their worldview, to help assure Judaism’s survival. Thus, for
example, Orthodox rabbis disallow women from giving divorces, a practice that
has resulted in thousands of women being chained to husbands they loath.
Orthodox Jews who dislike this ruling don’t allow women to initiate divorces
because this would cause children born of a marriage following such a divorce
to be considered illegitimate by a large number of Jews and affect the
children’s ability to marry fellow Jews. They would also not abandon Orthodox
Judaism because of this ruling, but work within the system of Orthodox law to