Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Unorthodoxy of Chasam Sofer

R. Moshe Sofer, better known as Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) is considered to have launched Orthodox Judaism. In response to the Reform movement, which sought to undermine the importance of various halachos and minhagim, Chasam Sofer adopted the approach of building up their status in order to render them inviolable. It therefore comes as a surprise to find him adopting a somewhat unorthodox approach to the question of rabbinic fallibility regarding the Sanhedrin.

Let us begin with a passuk which is a foundation for rabbinic authority:

"According to the law that they direct you and the judgment that they will say to you, you shall do; you should not deviate right or left from the verdict that they instruct you." (Devarim 17:11)

This verse is taken to specifically refer to the zaken mamre, the sage who must conform to the ruling of the rabbinical court even if he disputes them. There is an intriguing halachic Midrash on this verse, often quoted by advocates of Daas Torah (despite the fact that it is referring to court decisions), which states as follows:
"Even if it appears to you that they are telling you that right is left and left is right, you must listen to them." (Sifre)

Now, there is a contradictory statement in the Jerusalem Talmud, which states that one must not follow them if they say that right is left and left is right. There is extensive discussion regarding whether this can be reconciled with the Midrash, with most taking the view that the two are referring to different circumstances. In any case, there is clearly a traditional idea that, given certain circumstances, the zaken mamre must conform to the Sanhedrin even if they appear to be mistaken. One might presume that this is because even if they appear to be mistaken, they are actually always correct, due to their being the majority of Sages, or due to their receiving divine assistance. That is usually the approach of Orthodox apologists. But Chasam Sofer says otherwise.

Chasam Sofer raises, and then rejects, the idea that the Sanhedrin receive divine assistance to ensure that they are never mistaken - despite the fact that this was proposed by no less a figure than Ramban. His reason for rejecting it is that, as seen in the Talmudic story of the Achnai oven, no form of divine intervention is permitted in the halachic process — “[The Torah] is not in Heaven.” The Sanhedrin are human beings, and they are thus, by definition, fallible. Chasam Sofer concludes that one is obligated to accept that the Sanhedrin can make mistakes. He further points out that the zaken mamre may be wiser than all the rest of the Sanhedrin, and may even have the majority of non-Sanhedrin scholars on his side. Nevertheless, he is obligated to adhere to the ruling of the Sanhedrin, due to the importance of having a system of authority. Chasam Sofer gives the powerful example of a lone judge on the Sanhedrin who is of the view that a certain food is not kosher, and is actually correct — yet if the rest of the Sanhedrin rules that it is kosher, and he refrains from eating it, then he is deserving of the death penalty! The ruling of the majority must be followed due to the importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy - not because they are necessarily correct.

Here is the relevant section, from שו"ת חתם סופר חלק ה - השמטות סימן קצא

ועוד דמסיים שם אפי' יאמר לך על ימין שהוא שמאל וכו' ומכ"ש שאומר לך על ימין שהוא ימין ועל שמאל שהוא שמאל, דבר זה אין לו שחר, מאי כ"ש הוא זה, הרי הממרא יטעון ימינו ימין צדק וימינם שקר, ומי יברר שיהי' זה כ"ש, וצע"ג לכאורה. אבל הפי' הברור הוא כך, דהנה זקן ממרא וחבריו המה גדולי עולם המחלוקי' עם ב"ד, ואף על גב שהמה גדולי ישראל היושבי' לפני ה' בביתו אין מזה הכרח שיהי' סברתם אמת, ואפשר הבנת הזקן בקרא יותר אמיתי, ולא המקום מכבד וכו', ואפי' יהי' הם רוב טבא חדא פלפלא חריפתא ממלא צני קרי, ועוד אפשר יהי' הזקן וכת דילי' אלפי' ורבבות, והסנהדרי' בכלל אינם אלא ע"א. אלא הקדוש ברוך הוא גזר ואמר שעל פי הבנתם בקרא יוחתך הדין וההלכה, יען כי השורש לא בשמים היא, ואין משגיחי' בבת קול, ואם יבוא נביא ויאמר כך נאמרה הלכה זו בשמים אין משגיחי', ועוד שחייב מיתה כנבי' שקר, שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר כן לנביא, ואפי' ליב"נ לא אמר ההלכות ששכח עד שהחזירן עתניאל בן קנז בפלפולו, והנה מי יודע שכיון עתניאל בן קנז האמת בפלפולו, ודיעות אנשי' משתני' בהבנת הקרא הנכתב ובסברות ק"ו וכדומה. אלא שהקב"ה נתן התורה עפ"י הבנתם כדי שלא ירבה מחלוקות בישראל, דא"כ אין לדבר סוף. וע"כ ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאם ח"ו יארע מקרה מקרה לא טהור שקמי שמי' גלי' שחלב שעל הדקין חייב כרת, והסנהדרי' שבאותו הדור לפי קוצר שכלם אינם מבינים האמת, ואחר שעיינו היטב לשם שמים ודנו זה נגד זה נכשלו הרוב, ואמרו על האסור מותר, ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא, וכל ישראל ישמעו ויראו ויאכלו אותו החלב ואין להם עון אשר חטאו בזה, כיון שב"ד הגדול טעו בזה הקדוש ברוך הוא ויתר בזה. ולא עוד אלא הזקן ממרא בעצמו, אם מחמיר על עצמו ואינו אוכל מטעם שחושש לדבריו הראשונים, אעפ"י שקמי שמי' גלי' שהדין עמו, וכן כ' להדי' רמב"ם ריש פ"ד מממרים שאפי' הם מקילי' והוא מחמיר חייב מיתה, ואולי אעפ"י שחייב מיתה אין ממיתן על החומרא דהוה שב ואל תעשה, מ"מ חייב מיתה. וזהו תיקון גדול שלא ירבה מחלוקות בישראל. נמצא אין להזקן הזה לדאוג כלל איך אוכל החלב הזה ואיך אעשה מלאכה זו בשבת, אל תדאג, כי אפי' לו יהי' שאומרי' לך על ימין דגלי קמי' שמי' שהוא שמאל לפי טעות הבנתם, הרי הוא ימין, כי הקדוש ברוך הוא ויתר. ושוב אומר סברא אחרת, מאחר שהנחנו כנ"ל, ממילא יש לנו להאמין שבודאי אומרי' על ימין ימין באמת ולא טעו, אלא כיוונו כוונת נותן התורה ית"ש, כיון שהקב"ה נתן התורה על דעתם והבנתם של אלו, ושני הכתות כוונתם לשם שמים לכוון האמת, וכשיטעו אלו הרי כל ישראל מוטעי' באונס', חזקה על הקדוש ברוך הוא שרגלי חסידיו ישמור ולא תצא כזאת מלפניו להטעות כל ישראל כשהם חפצים לעשות רצונו. והיינו דמסיים מכ"ש שאומרי' על ימין ימין פי' שהרי אפי' כשבאמת טעו, מ"מ כיונו האמת לדעתם, והקב"ה מסכים לטעותם, ומכ"ש שיש לנו להבין שלא טעו. ומיהו בטעם זה האחרון, לא סגי לומר חזקה על היושבי' לפני ה' שלא יטעו כי הקדוש ברוך הוא לא יניחום לטעות, זה אינו, כיון דלפי טבע האנושי יכולים לטעות, ורק מצד קדשת המקום נבוא על הזקן ממרא, דהוא בכלל לא בשמים, אפי' בת קול ואפי' נביא לא יכול להכריע. ע"כ עיקור הסמיכה הוא על סברא ראשונה, שאפי' טעו ח"ו, ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא טעותם, וממילא לא נחשד את הקדוש ברוך הוא ית"ש שהניחום בטעותם להכשיל כל ישראל. זה פי' הברור בספרי. והמעיין בנימוקי רמב"ן על החומש יבין לאישורו כי לזה נתכוון גם הוא, אבל לומר ח"ו שיהיה להם רשות לשנות דבר קטן אלו דברי צדוקים ומיאוני' הראשונים:

12 comments:

  1. It is hard to believe that Ramban really held that Sanhedrin cannot err. He explains in his commentary to the first Shoresh in the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot (my translation):

    "The Torah was given to us in writing through Moshe Rabbeinu, may Peace be upon him, and it was apparent that the opinions regarding all the important issues that would come up would not align by themselves. So, the Exalted made us the law that we should listen to the great Beit Din in everything they will say, whether they received explanation from Him, or whether they will speak from the essence of the Torah and its intention according to their understanding. Because, it is through them that He commands us and gives us the Torah. Regarding this there is one condition, which he who delicately studies the beginning of Horayot will notice. The condition is that if in the time of the Sanhedrin there was a sage who was fit to teach and the great Beit Din would issue a teaching that a certain thing is permissible and he is convinced that they erred in their teaching, he should not listen to the words of the sages and he is not permitted to allow himself that what is forbidden to him, but he must act with stringency for himself. And this is even more so if he would be a member of the Sanhedrin. He has the obligation to come before them and tell them his claims and they will debate and discuss with him. And if all agreed that the opinion that he said should be discarded, showing him how his reasoning is erroneous, he will return and he will act according to their understanding."

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  2. There are discrepancies and ambiguities regarding Ramban's comments in different places on this topic. Lawrence Kaplan suggests that when Ramban speaks about divine protection from error, he is only explaining Rashi's view. Others answer differently.

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  3. The Daas Torah crowd already has this covered. The conversation goes like this:
    Us: Can the Gedolim really never err? I thought only God was infallible.
    Them: Well of course only God is perfect. All humans can make a mistake.
    Us: So were your Gedolim possibly wrong in instance X?
    Them: Chas v'shalom you should say that!

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  4. The Sefer Hachinuch says this quite explicitly also (Mitzvah 496).

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  5. Obviously the Sanhedrine can err since the Chumash gives a procedure for them to bring a sacrifice if they made a mistake and people followed their incorrect ruling!

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  6. Rav Dessler took a similar line when resonding to a question about the gedolei torah of europe begin wrong in not encouraging more people to leave europe before the war. Rav Dessler told his pupil that it's assur to even think such a thing.

    So, as Garnel suggests, the Gedolim are human and cannot be infallible, yet we can never even think that they were wrong about something

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  7. it is a fine line between the possible and the actual. perhaps the are willing to admit that it is possible that they could err,but unwilling to admit that they actually did so(or willing to admit to a general condition of error but not to any specific error).

    Reminds me of what a trial lawyer told me regarding a malpractice suit against a physician at the Mayo clinic(I am not sure if the story is apocyphal, but the point is valid none the less). the physician claimed that anything done at the Mayo clinic by definition was the standard of care, so, since he worked at the Mayo clinic, it would be impossible for him to violate the standard of care. If, for example, he operated on the wrong part, since it was done at the Mayo clinic, that would be the standard of care for that surgery.

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  8. There are loads and loads of statements acknolwedging mistakes. There are statements from Rashi and Tosfos stating a certain amora erred, there are other statements from others (including one from the chasam sofer in Niddah you already once posted) stating that rishonim erred. But when (if) the charedi mindset stumbles upon some such statement, or upon one of the many others that conflict his worldview, he simply does what Winston Churchill said about a a certain other type of persons who occasionally stumble s the truth: he simply picks himself up, brushes himself off, and carries on as though nothing had ever happened.

    Agav, though its the conventional wisdom, i dont think its correct to attribute orthodox judaism to the Chasam sofer. It's like trying to assign rabbinic judaism to R. Yehuda Hanassi. The fact is, it takes hundreds and hundreds of men, over many decades, for a movement - if such be contemporary orthodox judaism - to take shape. The Chasam Sofer was a large influence on us Hungarians, no doubt, but in no way did he launch orthodox judaism. That's a trope that deserves to be put to pasture.

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  9. Is it possible to have שו"ת חתם סופר חלק ה - השמטות סימן קצא
    translated?
    o

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  10. Of interest:

    http://www.ravaviner.com/2010/08/rabbi-can-make-mistake.html

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  11. From Moshe Raphael's quote, it's clear and undeniable that Ramban does NOT believe the Sanhedrin is infallible.

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  12. With regard to Chazal, is it that they were considered literally infallible or the "tzaddik gozer, Hashem mekayem" concept? Meaning once they decree the truth of something, nature conforms to MAKE that true. Basically, did those who hold them infallible do so in a literal sense or a metaphysical sense?

    I'm inclined to think that those who held that way meant it metaphysically because to mean that literally doesn't make sense and isn't supported by historical example. And only later did rabbis come to believe that literally.

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