There are various views about mistaken rabbinical decisions. Maimonides answers “no.” Here is what I wrote in my book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.”
Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaqi (1040–1105), better known as Rashi, the acronym of his name, makes a rather remarkable and, in the mind of many, counterintuitive statement in his commentary to Deuteronomy 17:11. In the commentary, he states that a Jew is not permitted to deviate from a rabbi’s decision “even if he [the rabbi] tells you regarding the right [hand] that it is left, or regarding the left that it is right, and certainly so [you must obey the rabbi] if he tells you regarding the right [that it is] right, and regarding the left [that it is] left.”
Put in different words, the words of Jonah of Gerona (known as Ran, thirteenth century), “even if it is crystal clear to you that what the court [or rabbi] tells you is wrong, nevertheless obey them, for this is how God, may He be blessed, commanded that we should behave towards the Torah and its commands: do as they decide for us, whether it is true or false.”
- Do all rabbis agree with Rashi and Jonah of Gerona that Jews must accept all rabbinic decisions, however unreasonable?
- What biblical passage addresses this issue?
- Do the early sources – biblical, midrashic, talmudic and post-talmudic rabbinical views – share the same understanding of the scriptural proof text?
- Is it possible that the Midrash addressing this matter contains an error and that its intent was to state the opposite?
- Is it possible that Rashi gleaned his opinion from an erroneous text?
- Could Rashi’s text as we have it today be wrong?
- Can Judaism subsist whilst contrary views about listening to rabbis who are mistaken exist?
Deuteronomy 17: The Literal Meaning
Deuteronomy 17:8–13 focuses on the authority of the levites, priests and judges. It states that when a person encounters a “baffling matter” and is unable to reach a decision, he should travel to the levites, priests or judges and present the problem for resolution. One or more of these people then consider and decide the matter and the individual is instructed: “you shall carry out the verdict … observing scrupulously all of their instruction to you…. You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.”
This verse does not refer to erroneous rabbinical decisions; rather, it addresses judicial judgments, requiring litigants to accept judicial verdicts. The classical application of this verse is the story found in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9 which tells of the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel, the leader of Israel Jewry and the head of its court in the latter third of the first century, and his colleague, the renowned sage Rabbi Joshua. The two calculated the date of the holiday of Yom Kippur differently. Rabban Gamaliel, insisting on the prerogatives of his office, ordered Rabbi Joshua to appear before him on the day Rabbi Joshua considered Yom Kippur carrying items that one is not allowed to bear on the holiday. Rabbi Joshua obeyed the judicial order because of the mandate of Deuteronomy 17.
Joseph Albo, a Spanish rabbi, philosopher and author of Ikkarim (c. 1380–1444) interprets Deuteronomy 17 in the same fashion. According to Albo, the biblical rule to accept the majority judicial decision was instituted to forestall divisiveness in Judaism. Thus, even if one of the judges is smarter and more knowledgeable than the court majority, and knows that they are deciding a case incorrectly, he must accept the majority’s decision.
Obeying Mistaken Rabbinical Decisions
While this rule is logical in judicial matters, does it require a Jew to obey the mandate of a rabbi, who is neither a judge nor a majority, even when the questioner is sure that the rabbi is wrong?
Deuteronomy 17 could not address the issue of rabbis teaching Torah law, as rabbis as an institution did not exist until approximately 70 C.E., long after the writing of the Torah. Nevertheless, as we will see, the rabbis used the passage as a basis for the discussion regarding a Jew’s obligation to accept rabbinical decisions concerning Torah law and rabbinical enactments even when the person is certain that the rabbi is mistaken.
Midrash and Jerusalem Talmud: Conflicting Answers
Rashi drew his statement on the obligation to accept and obey even irrational rabbinical decisions from the Midrash Sifrei, whose final version was edited around 400 C.E. Sifrei states, “even if they [the rabbis] teach you clearly” – the following Sifrei words are not clear and Rashi paraphrases them – “concerning right that it is left and concerning left that it is right obey them.” The Midrash apparently rules that one must obey a rabbinical decision on Torah law even if it is clearly wrong.
The Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 1,1, uses virtually the same words as the Midrash, but phrases them differently and comes to a contrary conclusion. “You would think that if they [the rabbis] said to you concerning right that it is left and concerning left that it is right you should obey them, therefore the Torah tells you to go right and left: if they tell you concerning right that it is right and concerning left that it is left [then you obey them, but not if they tell you that right is left].”
Does the Midrash Contain a Mistake?
The remarkably similar language between the two divergent writings can lead one to conclude that the Talmud holds the original rabbinic opinion on the subject and that the midrashic language contains a scribal error. The Midrash omits the words “You would think” and the last part of the statement after “you should listen to them.” Thus, Rashi, in paraphrasing the midrashic words, may have been making an erroneous statement.
However it is also possible that Rashi knew the talmudic view, understood that different positions on the subject existed, and determined that the midrashic pronouncement reflected his own outlook – that Jews should always accept the rabbis’ interpretation of Torah, right or wrong – and therefore included the midrashic view in his commentary.
Although Rashi’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 17:11 may seem illogical to many, the stance of Nachmanides is even more perplexing. Nachmanides quotes Rashi and Sifrei and agrees with them. However, he goes further, explaining that one may not even say, how can I “execute this innocent [a person I know is innocent]” because the Torah “commanded that I perform all His [God’s] commandments in accordance with all that they who stand before Him [the rabbis] … teach me to do. He gave me the Torah as taught by them, even if they were to err.”
Nachmanides writes that Jews must obey the rabbis; for if they do not, not one but many Torahs would exist. Nachmanides continues, making a remarkable statement: God is involved in everything that occurs on earth, including every decision that people make. He controls the thoughts of the rabbis and makes sure that they do not ever err. “God’s spirit is upon the ministers of His Sanctuary, and He forsakes not His saints; they are preserved forever from error and stumbling.” Thus, according to Nachmanides, Jews must not question the rabbis; obedience is imperative because God placed the rabbis’ words in their mouths. The super-commentaries on Rashi, Elijah Mizrachi (1450–1526) and Shabbetai Bass, the author of Siftei hakhamim (1641–1718), write that this was Rashi’s intention as well.
Attempting to Harmonize Sifrei and the Talmud
Oftentimes, Jewish thinkers find the notion that rabbis could disagree on a subject uncomfortable. Thus, in our situation, they argue that the Midrash and Talmud actually agree. They only appear to disagree because they relate to different cases.
Yisachar Eilenberg, the author of Tzedah laderech (seventeenth century), for example, contends that Sifrei and Rashi are focusing on a circumstance in which a person hears a rabbinical verdict but is unsure whether the rabbi is correct. When this occurs, he states, Sifrei and Rashi interpret Deuteronomy 17 to require one to accept the rabbinical decision and not rely on his or her own thought, since he or she is unsure about the matter. The Talmud, according to Eilenberg, is focusing on a circumstance in which a person knows with certainty that the rabbi is wrong. In that case, he says, the person should not accept the rabbinical judgment. This is also the opinion of Jacob Makelberg, author of Hakhatav v’hakabala (nineteenth century).
Maklenberg, to whom this conclusion is obvious, states that Rashi must certainly have understood this as well, and therefore the text of Rashi must have been garbled and should be corrected. Although Maklenberg is certain that Rashi’s wording is faulty, Rashi’s super-commenators – such as Nachalat Yaakov and Maskhil l’David – accept Rashi’s words as they are written, and agree with Rashi’s view that rabbis must be obeyed even if one is certain they are mistaken.
In his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 1:2, Maimonides states that Deuteronomy 17 requires Jews to accept rabbinical decisions on Torah and rabbinical laws. He ignores the issue of “right and left” in the Mishneh Torah, but clarifies his opinion on the issue in his introduction to the second book of his Guide of the Perplexed, where he criticizes those who passively accept the views of earlier scholars without using their own reasoning ability: “A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in the back.” Thus, Maimonides clearly reflects the view expressed in the Jerusalem Talmud.
A variety of opinions exist in Jewish thought on the question of a Jew’s obligation to accept a rabbinical decision if he or she knows it to be wrong. Generally speaking, three broad approaches can be seen in rabbinical writings.
Some scholars insist that one must accept what a rabbi says on any subject at all times. For some, this rule ensures that only a “single Torah” will exist in Judaism; for others, this is due to a belief that rabbis are infallible and do not err, as God guarantees that their words are true.
A second approach includes a spectrum of ideas in between the two extremes, requiring obedience only under certain circumstances. Proponents of this approach say that when people are uncertain they should obey the rabbi; however if people are certain that a rabbi is mistaken, in a case so extreme that he seems to be saying that black is white or left is right, they should ignore the rabbinical pronouncement.
Maimonides, for whom reason is always key, holds the third view, which touts human logic, maintaining that one is obligated to employ rational thought and not blindly accept that which is told to him or her by the rabbis.