Rabbis: A Monopoly on Truth?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: There exists an idea amongst many, that questioning great Rabbis from previous generations is a taboo, prohibited, not encouraged, etc. I refer not to the Tanaim and/or Amoraim, but to the Rabbinic commentators throughout the subsequent time periods, i.e. the Rishonim and Acharonim. Usually when one responds that these Rabbis held many mutually exclusive ideas on certain topics, one is met with an answer to the effect of, "That doesn't mean they were wrong, we just don't understand it at our level."

As an example, my question was, "Can we view Rashi as having erred?" I was given the response, "It seems wrong to us, but at his level it is not" whatever the heck that means.

Furthermore, we can challenge such an idea with an example: the Vilna Gaon, who was know to have expressed to his students differences in opinions with the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, Rama, Rav Chaim Vital, and even to have differed with Amoraim on how a certain mishna is to be understood. It seems that the Gra encouraged his students not to be afraid to challenge Rabbinic opinion from eras long gone. Usually the response I am met with here is that "the Gra and Rav Chaim Volozhin had broad enough shoulders to do this." Of course I don't buy into this silly defensive notion either.

What do you say about challenging Rabbinic opinion? Is it allowed, to be encouraged, or taboo and only done by people with bad education or heretical notions? Didn't the Rabbis always encourage critical thinking and therefore would have been happy with us challenging them, especially when we have perhaps updated scientific understanding and the like behind us?

Rabbi: To the response you received, "We just don't understand it at our level,"  I say, "There is only one level of truth."  Their primary error is suggesting that opposing views are not opposing, merely to save the reputations of both debating Rabbis. Thereby, they ignore their mind. Such a person cannot be talked to. For they will misconstrue when you say "Yes," and suggest you say "No." 

Above all else, in the search for truth, one must be truthful. One must be able to rise above his fear of reputations and say, "One of the Rabbis must be wrong, or they are both wrong, but two opposing views cannot both be correct." Reason demands this, and God granted each person reason, for the purpose of using it.

When it comes to psak – a halachik ruling – the student/congregant must follow his specific Rabbi. Here, the objective is not to know what God knows, but Halacha works wherein each Rabbi determines the law to the best of his abilities. His pronouncement of a law, now becomes binding on those who follow him. But, if a student sees the ruling different than his Rabbi, provided he studied the areas thoroughly, he may rule differently for himself privately; he need not follow his Rabbi, but he may not teach others his own  ruling. This is halacha, and a prime example of how God desires we act based on our best reasoning. 

But in areas of philosophy – not halacha – there is no psak, no ruling. Nothing in Torah coerces us to follow a given philosophical idea. In fact, as a wise Rabbi said, "One cannot be forced to believe what he does not believe." Here, in philosophical matters, either we arrive at what we see as true, false, or what we are not certain of. No one can tell us we believe demons are literal, if we do not believe such nonsense…we cannot be made to accept as true, a notion with which we disagree, or cannot grasp. And when two Rabbis oppose each other, one suggesting  reincarnation is true, and the other saying it is false, how in the world can they both be right…"on some higher level?" This is ludicrous. This statement shows a mind that is not working. One Rabbi must be wrong.

You ask, "Can we view Rashi as having erred?"  Of course! Even Moses erred! No man possesses a monopoly on truth. God alone is always correct. Unfortunately, Jews have developed into a mindless bunch, where they deify their Rebbes, assuming them to be infallible, miracle-working, angel-like beings. This is despite God's many lessons of how the greatest men and prophets erred. It is this great distortion of the mind and emotion that lead people to deify a dead Jesus, and leads Jews to think the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others read notes in their graves. People don't pray directly to God anymore, even though He is running the world alone. They cannot detach themselves from the man of the Rabbi, just as the ancient Jews could not detach themselves from the man of Moses, and created a Gold Calf. Tragically, we rarely hear Rabbis denouncing this Torah prohibition of "consulting the dead." 

God demands we use our minds, and this applies to any idea, and any person's statement. If we detect an error, we cannot ignore our minds. Talmud Chullin 124a states that a Rabbi said, "I would not accept a certain opinion even is Joshua son of Nun said it." The Talmud is teaching us this case, since this idea is sound: reputations do not render statements into truths. An idea is true based on its content, not its author.

You ask, "Didn't the Rabbis always encourage critical thinking and therefore would have been happy with us challenging them, especially when we have perhaps updated scientific understanding and the like behind us?"  The answer is yes. Maimonides asked his readers to inform him if they found any errors in his writings. What greater example is needed to prove that all men err, that rabbis knew they erred, and that Maimonides agreed that lesser individuals can determine when a great sage erred?