Letters July 2008 II
How do I know?
Reader: My question is about the Baalei Mesora (eg. Rishonim). Through what methodology am I able to go about validating the authenticity of the transmission of Torah they passed down in their books? How is one able to know that since we accept them "now" as the trusted transmitters, that this is in fact true?
How was it established that they were the holders of the Mesora: by the masses; by the other Rabbis at the time?
So too with the Rabbis in today's world. Is it simply the fact that a Rabbi has smicha or is accepted by masses of people as a great Rabbi that means he holds information that was passed down through the Mesora?
I have often found many Rabbis that fall into this category and still have a very hard time accepting the Mesora they claim to have because a lot of their views contradict logic and understanding. If a Rabbi of today's society is generally accepted as a great Rabbi but his haskafa is in much contradiction to the way a rational person thinks, how do we know that this also didn't happen with the Baalei Mesora in the times of the Rishonim, or any time after Moshe rabbeinu?
Also with the books of Prophets, how can I validate the information that is contained there?
Thanks for your time,
Mesora: Sam, your question is fundamental in nature, and therefore vital that it be shared.
On page one of his Mishne Torah, Maimonides lists the 40 successive generations, from Rav Ashi back to Moses, who received the Torah, one Rabbi from the previous Rabbi. There was no break in the chain. That Torah – identical to what Moses received – was disseminated throughout the population and taught publicly. The names of those who wrote the Mishna and the Talmud are also cited there.
The Rishonim – of whom Maimonides is one of the greatest – have no dispute concerning whether their received Torah was authentic. Furthermore, God promises that the Torah will never be lost from our nation. (Isaiah 59:21)
Regarding current day Rabbis, smicha (Rabbinic ordination) or mass acceptance, in no way validates his views as authentic Torah. I too have heard illogic from Rabbis. That which is contrary to reason cannot be part of Torah. Torah is synonymous with "truth". If anyone says a matter which contradicts reason, they are in error. Rabbi or not. But this in no way rejects the truth that we today possess the Torah that Moses received.
You also ask whether earlier Rabbis could have erred as today's Rabbis do. The answer is yes, anyone can err. But their errors would have been detected, as all was taught publicly. No errors would escape the scrutiny of so many learned minds. Today however, no one matches the level of those earlier Rabbis whose days and nights were dedicated to learning, not fortune and fame. Today, the Jewish mindset is diseased by a primary cancer: "reputation and numbers makes right". What's worse, is that today, many educators are being taught by a previous generation whose ideas are flawed. So a new crop of teachers arise that proliferate the falsehood they inherited.
Today, if a "Rabbi" says something, he is blindly accepted. Whereas Chullin 124a teaches that no one is infallible. So too King Solomon teaches. Reason also demands this be so. God alone is perfect. What happens is that enough people follow that Rabbi's error, and now all others view this new mass of ignorant Jews as validation for the erroneous notions they maintain. This cycle continues, and larger numbers accept these false ideas.
Thank God we have the writings of the clear-thinking Rabbis of old. God has kept His promise that the Torah has not left the nation. Rather, today's educators don't study Torah, but repeat their teachers instead.
We are fortunate to have a Maimonides, who taught us to make certain an idea makes sense, and Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda who taught not to accept even a Rabbi on his authority alone, lest we sin against God in doing so. For we have the capacity to verify if that Rabbi is correct. Being lazy and relying on anyone else is a sin. We have a King Solomon and a Abraham ben-Rambam who taught that the Rabbis speak in metaphor. These lessons steer clear the intelligent student from accepting demons cited in Talmud as literal. Those who study Ibn Ezra read that the Torah prohibits what is false, not what is true. Therefore, all superstitions and amulets are lies. Red bendels, checking mezuzas and chamsas are stupid, as the Shulchan Aruch states openly. But those who arrogantly say Ibn Ezra and Maimonides were minority opinions, and are wrong, unveil their inability to think. For it is ludicrous to say the masses who serve idols today are right, and the minority of Torah Jews are wrong.
We were each granted intelligence, as God wants us "each" to use intelligence, and not parrot others. This is our tool. This is God's will and His method for insuring we determine what is true and false, for all generations.
This is the only method you can, and must use.