On Rabbinic Authority

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I’ve heard way too many people, in and out of the blogosphere, rant about the annoyance of computers erasing unsaved files. So I’m not going to rant about it, just politely mention that I wrote out possibly one of my best works, and it got erased. I don’t know how, it just did. Therefore, what you are reading is actually the concise outline version.

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Actually, I wrote this when I was in seminary. Back in the day, I didn’t know from such things as saving copies of work you turned it. I wrote it, gave it to the teacher, and was done with it. Oops, didn’t know I’d actually want to look back at it.

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We had to write an honors thesis on a topic of out choice, and I wrote about emunat chachamim. It’s a topic that many people talk about, but not too much has been written on*, probably because of the lack of halachic basis.

When people asked me what my thesis was, I responded, “The concept of emunat chamim, as defined as the requirement to obey the word of one’s personal rabbi, is in actuality a falsity propagated by some self-righteous so-called rabbis for the purposes of creating their own congregational flock, and has no halachic backing” Of course, I couldn’t actually write that, so I toned it down a bit, but that was the general idea.

The words “emunat chachamim” are found in the mishnah, Avot 6:6. The mishnah lists ways to achieve greatness in torah, one of which is “emunat chachamim”. Other ways listed are study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, debating with students, and minimizing sleep.

None of the classical commentators say that the presence of “faith in the sages” in this mishnah means that followers should follow every single thing their rabbi says. Instead, they offer explanations such as “faith that their ways are just”. Meaning, when one has the mindset that their teacher is coming from a misguided or wrong perspective, they can not truly internalize the message that the teacher is trying to give over. Therefore, the mishnah warns not to second guess teachers’ intentions, but to be faithful that they are honestly trying to convey something of life altering significance. There are other interpretations, but I liked that one the best. No other interpretation called for sheep-like diligence to the command of the rabbi-sage.

What sort of halachic proof do people like to use to prove that rabbis do indeed have divine authority? Well, the most famous source is a verse in devarim which says “Do not turn from the thing [that they have told you] right or left.] Rashi on that verse adds that “even if they tell you that left is right and right is left, do not deviate from it” Rashi’s reasoning is that it is more important for the Jewish people to be unified than to actually be following the ‘more correct’ halacha.

The first thing, which for some reason is very often overlooked (selective Bible-quoting, if you will) is that this verse is not referring to individual rabbis at all, but rather to the
Sanhedrin. It’s part of a list of laws delineating how the Sanhedrin operates. Rashi’s notes here are now easily understandable. When the entire Jewish population follows the ruling of one central governing body, the community is more closely bound together and united as one cohesive group. K’ish Echad B’lev Echad.

Today’s society has turned “don’t deviate left or right” completely on it’s head. We’ve deviated so far from the original intention of the verse that the exact opposite is happening. By pretending that congregational rabbis have the same status as Sanhedrin, we have actually created many more division and separation within the Jewish community. When parents choose to send their kids to public school, rather than a Jewish school of a different “mehalikh’, when young people refuse to date someone based on what hat they wear, when friendships are lost forever because of synagogue feuding, you know that it just has to be a perversion of torah ethics.

Perhaps this is why Jewish prayer emphasizes the re-establishment of Sanhedrin. “Restore the judges to the way they were at first, and the advisors like in the beginning.” This yearing for an earlier time is important not simply because it signifies the Messianic era, but also because it signifies the end of the era of machloket, and the beginning of the era of unity.

**I’m referring to classical Jewish works.

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