God Demands We Think – No Rabbi is Infallible

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: Shalom Kavod HaRav. This following question was triggered by your article, "Gentiles following Reason, and thus Torah".  Here is the question: What is to be said about a Noahide who wishes to know Torah for enlightenment, and not to become a Torah Authority and/or teacher etc.?

Rabbi: A gentile may not study areas of Torah that he does not observe. However, if he wishes to observe laws in addition to his Noahide laws, Maimonides teaches he may observe, and obviously, he must study those laws so as to know their performance. This of course excludes holidays, as we have discussed. But in Torah areas of perfection and philosophy – not halacha – he may study fully.

Reader: Concerning the scriptures, do the Rabbis give "their" opinions or are they God-given revelations? I find it very disconcerting when different Rabbis argue. It makes me wonder if they're relying on their brain and opinions more than on getting a revelation from God, the Source. Is it assumed by the Jews that the comments of the Rabbis automatically become part of the Torah, without testing or verifying to see if the comments are of God? After all, Rabbis are/were human and prone to error like all of us. How does the whole thing work?

Rabbi: Rabbis use their intellects, just like any person. Be mindful that before they were Rabbis, they were like anyone, and nothing changes in his function or human design when one becomes a Rabbi. This title "Rabbi" refers to the permission and endorsement of another Rabbi, that he might rule on certain areas of Jewish law. And as each Rabbi uses his own imperfect intellect, he is subject to errors. This is why we see one Rabbi disputing another.  Even Aaron disputed his brother Moses, regardless of the fact that Moses was his superior. Moses was wrong, and conceded that he erred. 

In areas of halacha, we must follow the Rabbis, regardless of whether they truly arrive at the "absolute truth". For the system of halacha – Jewish law – relies on the Rabbis' human intelligence. This is God's law to us, "In accordance with the Torah they teach you, and according to the statutes they tell you, you shall do; do not veer from the matter that they tell you right or left." (Deut. 17:11)  Thus, the Rabbis actually determine what is halacha. A Rabbi is not mandated to arrive at God's absolute truth in any area, for no man can do this. Not even Moses. Rashi comments on this verse, "Even of they tell you your right hand is your left... [you must accept them]."  Rashi does not mean to say that you intellectually deny right from left. For the Torah commands to "stay far from falsehood". (Exod. 23:7)  Rather, Rashi means that we must accept the Rabbis' "halachik definitions" and rulings. An example is, that although in reality, if an animal was slaughtered incorrectly and is non-kosher, if the presiding Rabbi at that slaughterhouse used his intellect to his best abilities and ruled this animal as kosher, we are allowed to eat it. Halacha follows the ruling of man, not "absolute reality". Yes, God knows that in fact, the animal was not properly slaughtered. But, "Torah is not in heaven". Meaning, Jewish law is determined by human intellect. Strange as it sounds, we are not concerned if we do not match God's absolute knowledge.  We accept that we cannot, and we accept God's command that we follow the Rabbis. 

However, all this applies to law, not to philosophy. 

As we discussed last week ("What You Must Know" July 23, 2010), Torah does not – and cannot –  mandate that we "believe" what any person or Rabbi says, if in fact we do not believe it. God does not decree what is impossible. If one Rabbi says reincarnation is real, and another Rabbi rejects it – namely Saadia Gaon – both opinions cannot be true. A phenomenon is, or isn't a reality. It cannot exist and not exist simultaneously. To say "I agree with my Rabbi regarding reincarnation" is meaningless statement, if in fact, my mind does not truly grasp his words. 

Worth repeating is what we said last week. Let us assume a friend tells us that inside a closed box, there rests an item called “X”. Now, as I do not know what X is, does my agreement with him that X is inside, have any meaning? Is it of any worth at all, if I “agree”? Well, what do I mean that I “agree”? It cannot mean that I have ascertained proof, since the box is closed, and I have not witnessed what this X is. I can “trust” my friend isn’t lying, but that trust offers me no knowledge whatsoever. I am still blind to what X is, regardless of my verbal statements.

Similarly, if my Rabbi were to tell me any idea, an idea that I have no way of proving, I am again no more informed if I say “I agree with you, since you are my Rabbi”. In halacha, yes: we must follow our Rabbis, as this is concerning how we “act”, not how we think. But in philosophy, an area not subject to a psak or ruling, if even our Rabbi tells us an idea that we do not comprehend, my saying “I agree with you” is a meaningless statement. I cannot “agree” with that which my mind does not grasp. So if someone – even your Rabbi – says any idea about God, an idea I do not see clearly as true with my mind, any agreement or belief is worthless. Furthermore, I have not performed any mitzvah with my agreement, my agreement is also a lie, as I have not increased my knowledge; nor have I become any more devout to God. The converse is true: I have rejected reason and allowed myself to be fooled that I know something, which I do not. Torah is about truth. To say I agree with that, which I do not understand, is a lie.

I am glad you raised this issue. Today, Jewish communities are raising another generation of crippled-minded Jews. Schools, parents, and Rabbis teach something that God does not: "Rabbis are infallible". Certain Hassidic movements were founded on such foolishness, maintaining at their core the notion of the "Rebbe" – a man whose every word is absolute truth. A sinless saint. Of course this is diametrically opposed to the true Judaism where God is at the core; a Judaism that exposes Moses' sins and the flaws of all prophets and leaders. 

Today, many Rabbis and their flock are to blame for sustaining such misleading views by repeating unproven stories of miracle-performing Rabbis. But a thinking Jew should ask himself this: "If I accept stories of a Rabbi's miracle without proof of witnesses, why should I not also believe Jesus' supposed miracles?" And he would be right to ask this, but Jews don't "go there".  Jesus has a place in the Jew's mind that is absolutely false, and Rabbis are absolutely true. Herein, the Jew fails, for he/she does not define the matter. Jews are taught to be attached to "personalities", instead of thinking about the underlying "principles". Thus, the person Jesus is false, while the person of the Rebbe is always right. But this isn't Judaism – Rebbe's aren't flawless. We accept Judaism as it offers what all other religions do not: "proof" – of a Divine event. That being mass witnesses a Sinai.

Why are Rebbe's appealing? The Jew's human insecurities compel them to seek some rock, some impregnable refuge that offers comfort, success and the feeling of being "right", thereby releasing them from the burden of thinking for themselves. This was the precise corruption of the Gold Calf:  "For this Moses, the man that took us up from Egypt..." (Exod. 32:1)  Of course Moses is  a "man", but in this verse, God wished to underline their sin: the Jews' over-attachment to a human. 

In truth, God told us that our means of accepting Him and Moses was through mass revelation. (Exod. 19:9) Thus, all purported events lacking such mass witnesses must be rejected, as is God's will, including all these lies of Rabbis who heal, offer success and perform miracles. The masses buy into these stories because it attracts the emotions...not because they have been presented with proof. Had a person's limb been severed, he or she would not run to a Rebbe to miraculously have him reattach it. When reality smacks a person in the face, they wake up. So we must ask why in other matters they do in fact presume Rebbe's perform miracles.

It is clear that "thinking" has become too difficult these days. The same emotion that generates laziness, also gravitates one towards fantasy stories. 

To move forward and collectively strive to remedy this problem, let's isolate some issues and hopefully share truth – and not fables – with others.

Congregants don't oppose their Rebbe, for fear of being ostracized by others. Such silence enables the Rebbe to continue spreading his unproven notions. He thereby trains his congregants that proof – as in Revelation at Sinai – is not the only method to accept stories: any amazing story is acceptable, opening the door for unsuspecting Jewish youth to follow Jesus.

I am sure, many reading these last few sentences will say to yourselves, "How can I suggest that Rabbis today violate Torah principles? He's a great Rabbi, with many followers, and many books!"  My response: this is the crippled mind to which I refer. You fail to think for yourselves, despite God's gift to you of an intellect. Had God desired we all parrot a Rabbi when it comes to philosophy, we would not need an intellect. And again as we said last week, our greatest teachers urged our independent thinking and not merely follow whatever every Rabbi says:

“If however, you possess intelligence and insight, and through these faculties your are capable of verifying the fundamentals of the religion and the foundations of the commandments which you have received from the sages in the name of the prophets, then it is your duty to use these faculties until you understand the subject so that you are certain of it – both by tradition and force of reasoning. If you disregard and neglect this duty, you fall short in the fulfillment of what you owe your Creator”. (Duties of the Heart) 

I am sure that many times, the Rebbe too believes these stories. Unfortunately, he too has been raised in a Christian culture of blind faith and belief, following his misguided Rebbes just like all others. But he must not be viewed as beyond reproach, and he is not excused for his failure to seek the proof that God demands for all truths. He is your leader – he should be teaching truth, not fantasy. A concerned Jew must approach him, privately, requesting that he adhere to the Torah's formula of when to accept truth – only when mass witnesses exist in the story's context. We must insist he cease from claiming miraculous stories where mass witnesses were not present. If he follows God's Torah, he must confess his error.  If he fails to uphold Torah, you and other paying members must remove him and commence a search for a truthful and intelligent leader. For if you allow him to remain, you encourage the spread of corrupt thinking in others, including your children, that allows any miraculous story to be accepted as truth, including Christianity.

So what are the lessons we must take?

Lesson 1:  Do not fear your peers. 

Lesson 2:  Think for yourself. 

Lesson 3:  Popularity and authorship do not translate as truth. Many popular people have corrupt notions, and when they write books, these same notions must still be corrupt. Therefore, 

Lesson 5:  Do not buy books written for children or adults that make claims of miracles occurring after the Torah and Prophets. Why? Because...

Lesson 6: We must follow the truths spoken by Maimonides' son and King Solomon, that the Rabbis and Talmudic Aggadot (concerning "miracles") are not to be understood literally. These are not accounts found in Torah, where God performed miracles. As a wise Rabbi taught: 

"To paraphrase Shmuel Hanagid(1), the value of Aggadah (allegory) is found only in the gems of wisdom one derives from it. If one derives nonsense, it has no value. Very few people are capable of 'diving into the deep water and coming up with pearls'. [Ramban metaphor] Other individuals have no business delving into Aggadah. They would do better refraining from trying to interpret that which is beyond them. "Bmufrosh mimcha al tidrosh". Such people cannot discern between something literal or metaphorical."

Lesson 7: Abandon the need for a "holy man" to remove your insecurities. Follow God and "Cast onto God your burden, and He will sustain you..." (Psalms 55:23)  

Focus on, and pray to God. Cannot He do more than a human?

(1) See "Mavo HaTalmud" (Intro to the Talmud) found at the end of Tractate Brachos