“Emunas Chachamim” – Trust in our Sages vs. Independent Thought


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Sarah: I’ve not yet read or heard everything on your web site, but I noticed something, which leads me to ask your staff’s philosophy on “emunas chachamim”, “trust in the wise Rabbis”. Would you be able to present a united front on this subject? I don’t have time now to go back to the site and find the exact article, but I will try to do it after Yom Tov. Since there is probably widespread misunderstanding of this subject, may I suggest that you reconcile the concept of emunas chachamim with the importance of informed, independent thinking. What is “emunas chachamim”, and how does one know that his/her idea or philosophy is a valid one, in line with the Mesora, the Torah’s Oral Traditions?

Respectfully, Sarah




Moshe Ben-Chaim: Sarah, your question is an important one, and one that I am glad you brought up. It must be addressed. You write, “What is emunas chachamim – trust in the Sages – and how does one know that his/her idea or philosophy is a valid one, in line with the Mesora?” What you ask is this: “When may a Jew invoke ‘emunas chachamim’?” My response is that emunas chachamim – trust in the wise Rabbis – varies in each case. There are but two categories in which a Jew makes decisions: 1) Jewish life, and 2) secular life. And within Jewish life, there are, A) Jewish law: “Halacha”, B) Jewish beliefs: “Hashkafa”, and C) Jewish thinking; methods of analysis crucial for arriving at true Torah thought. All three are essentially dependent on the Oral Transmission, the “Mesora”.



Jewish Law

In Jewish law, when one has not fully studied an area, he is wise to rely on the Rabbis in the Shulchan Aruch for a decisive position on how to act. The Shulchan Aruch, compiled by Rabbi Yosef Caro, embodies the final legal positions derived from the Talmud, the source of all legal views. Using the same methods with which we prove Sinai, we also prove the Talmud’s accuracy as reflecting God’s words transmitted to Moses. Therefore, “Trust in the Sages” in the sense you use it, does not come into play here, as we have absolute proofs as to what is Oral and Written Law. “Faith” is unnecessary when we have proof.




But your question is truly asked in reference to philosophical views. In philosophy, the case is much different. First of all, there is no “psak” (legal ruling) when it comes to one’s philosophy. This is because no one – not even a great Rabbi – can tell you what you actually “think”. He can only tell you what to “do”, and “doing” is limited to the first case, Jewish Law alone. But philosophy is about one’s beliefs. As a Rabbi once commented, “Either one believes something to be true, or he does not. No one can tell you that you believe something as truth, if you do not.” Therefore, one cannot have “emunas chachamim”, or “trust in the sages” in this area. Meaning, if I do not know if God is physical or not, and some Rabbi tells me to ‘believe’ him that God is not physical, my belief in that Rabbi’s view does not reflect at all on my own convictions: I simply parroted him, and I might have well remained silent. For the act of parroting reflects nothing about my convictions.


I will illustrate the uselessness of parroting a Rabbi in philosophy. Let us say someone, we’ll call Michael, encounters the disputes in philosophy between Ramban and Maimonides regarding the philosophy of sacrifice, or the World to Come. What does he do? How does Michael select a position? Well, how did these great minds select their OWN positions? The fact that they disputed each other clearly teaches that they each held a theory. Otherwise, why didn’t each one accept the other’s view? Thus, we see from their examples, and even more so from reason, that a person is not to simply accept a view because someone great said it. But as these Rabbis exemplified, one must hold a view based on his own thinking. Only then is one truly acting in line with truth; only then is he supporting a position based on a conviction, and not faith, which is useless here. “Even if Joshua the son of Nun said it, I would not accept it.” (Talmud Chulin 124a)


Now, our Michael is confronted with two great thinkers who are at opposite poles with each other. Either Ramban is right, or Maimonides is right, or they are both wrong…they cannot both be right simultaneously in this case. If Michael would say, “I believe Ramban”, Michael has not achieved anything more with his empty utterance. He still does not “know” who is right. Michael’s only option is to study both sides and arrive at a conclusion based on how his mind sees matters. Emunas chachamim plays no role here. Now, in matters more serious, that enter heresy for example, like God’s nature being physical vs. non-physical, Michael must not avoid such a decision as he may regarding sacrifice, but he must think and prove to himself how impossible it is that God be physical. He cannot simply state, “God is not physical” if such a statement is meaningless to him. Even if he means to quote Maimonides, his statement is of no value, as he is not clear as to what he means. So we see, that emunas chachamim is of no relevance in selecting a position in philosophy.


But what of a case when Michael is “convinced” of something, and it opposes the tenets of Judaism, what does he do? What if he truly feels “convinced” that God is actually “located”, that he is “in” the sky, but he then reads that all the Rabbis clearly said that God is not physical and takes up no space, or he reads King Solomon’s divinely inspired words, “the heavens, and the heavens of heavens cannot hold You” (Kings I, 8:27) How does Michael proceed from here? Now, Michael must follow those with greater minds – now he must engage his emunas chachamim, trust in the Rabbis. Since all of the Rabbis maintained a unified view on Judaism’s tenets, Michael must be the one in error.


Michael must trust in the transmission of the Torah, that God kept His promise that Torah would always be with us. (Isaiah, 59:20-21) He must rethink his position and see where he made an error.


Our emunas chachamim is in fact, a trust in God’s very oath in Isaiah. With those words, we may feel absolutely secure in our knowledge that the Rabbis’ unified position in Torah is in fact God’s word. Man is subject to error, so perhaps this explains why God made such an oath: to afford us this “absolute security” in what is Torah. We need to feel convinced that our Torah positions – in all generations – are accurately God’s words. Our emunas chachamim ends up as an “emunas Hashem.” That is, our trust in what the Rabbis have transmitted as Torah ends up to be a trust in God’s oath in Isaiah that “Torah will never be removed from your mouths, or the mouths of your seed, or the mouths of your seed’s seed for ever.” Here, we engage emunas chachamim.




When Michael maintains an undecided view, or a wrong view, he must rethink matters and strive to arrive at conclusions in line with the unified views of the Rabbis. How do we know when we are in line with the Mesora? When we comply with the Rabbi’s unified views. On Judaism’s tenets, there is no dispute, so we are secure that we have the truth. Transmission, and then ultimately reason and proofs are what told the Rabbis what is true about God, and is also what teaches this to us. Nothing in Judaism violates reason; all is perfectly in line with it.


Therefore, emunas chachamim is not an “ends”, but a means by which we may realize that we require further investigation, until we too possess conviction in Judaism’ tenets, as did the Rabbis. And at that point where we arrive at 100% conviction, emunas chachamim is of no use any further: belief is then supplanted by proof. The very fact that the Rabbis argued on each other was due to their convictions, and absence of emunas chachamim in that area. Since they already came to their own convictions based on their own thinking (which is all any of us have) there was no place for “belief” in other chachamim, any further. Emunas chachamim is the fist step, not the last, and is to steer us towards seeking convictions. We are not to remain with emunas chachamim, but our Torah study must ultimately eventuate in conviction.



Validity of Our Theories

Independence in thought is a human right. Rabbis and Talmudic students today arrive at theories not expressed by the great Sages, like Maimonides, Rashi, Baalei Tosafos, or Ibn Ezra. This is because no human being may possess all the answers, not even these great minds. The fact that Rashi wrote different ideas than Maimonides, teaches this very point. No human being ever pondered every idea that exists…this is impossible for the limited and frail human intellect to achieve. However, when we arrive at a new idea or theory on a given area, does this justify our own thoughts as truths? When we invariably think up new explanations in the Torah or in the Talmud that differs from the famous commentators, are these valid? Are we (Rabbis and Talmudists today included) justified to add to, or even oppose Rashi’s explanation of a given Torah verse? The answer is yes...but, a highly “qualified” yes.


The saying goes, “There are 70 faces to the Torah”. Meaning, there is not one explanation to the words of God, and many ideas are available from a single verse, provided they all follow the text and make sense, legitimately explaining an issue. Provided we do not oppose Torah fundamentals, we are not only allowed, but we are also encouraged to study the Torah and seek our own ideas. Psalms 1:1,2 reads, “Happy is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, and stands not in the path of sinners, and in the gathering of scorners he does not sit. But in God’s Torah is his desire, and in his Torah he is accustomed day and night.” We notice it first refers to “God’s Torah”, and then “his Torah”. This teaches that one makes his studies “his own” after much toil. (Rashi) Metsudas Dovid states that one should ponder the Torah at all times to bring forth new reasoning. Metsudas Dovid condones our creativity.


Case and point: Rashi’s idea here differs from that of Metsudas Dovid; this is because no man has all the answers. There are many ideas that we can derive. Sometimes explanations will offer additional insight as is the case here, and sometimes they will refute one another, as with the dispute over sacrifice and the World to Come between Maimonides and Ramban. But in all cases, the Rabbis commentaries will follow Torah fundamentals, and the precise method of analysis and interpretation. These great Rabbis received their method of understanding from their teachers, all the way back to Moses. Someone today cannot simply open a Torah and offer his own commentary, without years upon years of tutelage under a teacher trained in the methods of Torah analysis, and fundamentals. This is an essential point: the methods of understanding Torah – the Mesora – are, by very definition, a “transmitted” entity, including methods of thinking and factual truths. Without receiving this transmission, one is virtually lost as to what the Torah wishes to communicate. (Rabbi Reuven Mann)


So yes, we may arrive at new understandings, and this is what every commentator displays. It is not that they sought to “differ” with other commentators, but it is the natural course of reality that independent thought results in independent findings. In this area, we also engage in emunas chachamim, trusting they had the “correct” traditions, and if we oppose the unified ideals they expressed, then we are in error. Although here, we are involved in philosophy and theory, matters that we cannot be “obligated” to accept, we cannot deviate from fundamentals, and must trust that the Rabbis (supported by Isaiah) possessed these fundamentals. But in specific explanations, we may cautiously disagree with them. In these areas, we may indulge our own creativity and analysis, and this is the real joy of learning: to enter new areas and explore with our own paths of thought. We cannot “trust” what Maimonides says on a given area in Chumash for example, we have to study it and see for ourselves what it means to us. But we cannot oppose a unified explanation or an accepted transmission. Our new insights must conform to fundamentals and proper thinking, and they must be borne out of the very verses, not free-floating hypotheses.


We may read, and find Maimonides and Rashi differ, and then we must choose one or the other, as we cannot agree with two mutually exclusive views. Or, we may disagree with both, and arrive at our own understanding, just as they exemplified. It is only in Judaism’s Tenets, methods of analysis and in Halacha – Jewish law – that we may not oppose. But we may suggest our own understanding for Torah verses and theories in Talmud, provided they do not oppose fundamentals, and also comply with the area in accord with Torah and Talmudic methods, and again, only after years of properly, guided study. These are very general rules, and it is mandatory that we subject our subjective ideas to a wise Torah scholar for scrutiny. Certainly, without years if not decades of training, one is fooling themselves if they feel they may simply read the Torah an doffer their own commentary. Wisdom is earned through toil, as Rashi stated, not imagined. But we must also realize the level of a Maimonides and be alarmed and alerted towards introspection if we find ourselves disagreeing with his philosophy. What basis do we have to disagree, unless we have mastered all that he has considered before speaking? King Solomon’s words are fitly heeded on this, “Do not be excited on your mouth, and (on) your heart do not hurry to bring forth a matter before God, because God is in heaven, and you are on Earth, therefore let your words be few.” (Proverbs, 5:1)



Daily Life

One may also rely on emunas chachamim when it comes to other decisions. As Rabbis are well trained in analytical thought, they are best to rely on when we are faced with life’s decisions. Although they may not be as well versed in investing, medicine, architecture, etc. as are others, one may convey facts to them, and with their keen understanding and analytical skills, they may provide solutions at which we may not have arrived. Although a Talmudic mind is incomparable, we don’t have to follow their words, other than in Jewish Law, but we are wise to heed them. We may then compare their counsel to that of others better trained, and then ultimately decide for ourselves what we see as the best course of action. All things being equal, emunas chachamim would be advised. Certainly when their advice makes sense to our minds, we should follow them.


“Her ways (the Torah’s ways) are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peaceful.”  (Proverbs, 3:17) This means that Torah is completely pleasant to our minds: Judaism follows reason, not belief, and is synonymous with truth, with reality. Our objective as Jews is to arrive at truth using reason. Thus, emunas chachamim – trust in the wise Rabbis – is a means by which we may eventually arrive at truth, as they possess the analytical skills and the Transmitted Torah to guide us there. Ultimately we are to agree to truths not based on faith of the Rabbis, but on our own, clear convictions, as they exemplified.