Tuesday, January 12, 2021

When The Rabbis Tell You To Eat Treife

This past Shabbos, one of my daughters asked me why we have to listen to Chazal on everything - surely they could be mistaken? Just because they're the establishment, the majority, who says that they're correct?

It's an important question, and the answer has ramifications far beyond the question - in fact, it's extremely relevant to current events.

The Torah describes the case of the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder who is punished for going against the ruling of the rest of the Sanhedrin. 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. 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. Chasam Sofer stresses that the zaken mamre may even be correct! He 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 that it is treife food — yet if the rest of the Sanhedrin rules that it is kosher, he must not refuse to eat it!

Yet this zaken mamre - a great Torah scholar who is the voice of the silent majority, who may even be the one voice who is actually getting the halacha correct, is nevertheless liable for the death penalty for the "crime" of not abandoning the truth and following the Sanhedrin's ruling. Why?

The reason is simple, yet profound. 

It is crucial to maintain a system of authority, because without it, you have anarchy. 

If one person who knows better is allowed to disobey the courts, then everyone who believes that they know better than the courts will do what they think is correct. And then the courts and the legal system lose all authority. Which means that society will inevitably fall apart. Gone. Finished. Kaput. And the importance of a single truth does not remotely justify destroying everything.

That's why, in the famous story of the Achnai oven, when even a Divine voice rings out that R. Eliezer is correct, his ruling is nevertheless ignored in favor of the majority. The ruling of the majority must be followed not because they are necessarily correct - after all, in this case God Himself said that they were wrong! Rather, it must be followed due to the much greater importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy. Better for the system to occasionally get it wrong than for the entire society to collapse into chaos because everyone does what they think is right.

Stop and think about this for a few moments. This member of the Sanhedrin - this great man who has done so much for the Jewish People, who is upset that they are getting the halacha wrong and wants to make them great again, this brave man who goes against the mainstream and speaks truth to power, who is speaking the truth - is liable for the death penalty. Because by focusing on the narrow issue of his own certainty of having arrived at the truth, he has ignored the tremendous harm that he is doing to the very fabric of society. If you give license to disregard the system when you believe yourself justified, they you ruin the system. And if you ruin the system, the central body of authority, then society falls apart. An act which initially appears righteous can be devastatingly harmful and must be treated accordingly.

Vehamaivin yavin

 

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48 comments:

  1. wow - brilliantly written.
    A flawed legal system is better than anarchy and no legal system.

    I guess I can put my Viking horns, facepaint, and fur overcoat away for the time being, as storming the Knesset may just lead to anarchy.

    (Bummer - I look really good in Viking horns)

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  2. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (also lead prosecutor at Nuremberg trials) put it clearly.
    "We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final."

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  3. The Sanhedrin, if I recall correctly, has been ignored before (only know that it happened in Alexandria at one point), so it's not without precedent. Anyways, regarding keeping the fabric of society together and not ruining the system, I do wonder if there is a difference between religious (Jewish) and secular courts that would give license to listening to the former regardless of the truth of the matter, but not the latter.

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  4. What if the system is already ruined? Do you still follow the herd blindly...?

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  5. An often overlooked factor: his crime is when he rules, with his rabbinic authority, that the ruling of the Sanhedrin not be obeyed. However, it is completely legitimate that when the matter comes up for a vote, he votes against the rest of the Sanhedrin. Further, we know that the Torah allows for the Sanhedrin to eventually acknowledge a gravely mistaken ruling, and then both reverse its position and bring a specific offering to the Temple in order to atone for the error. How do they get to that point? Because it is the zaqen's responsibility to know that because he is right and the truth is as he wanted to rule, he should continue to try to speak out and convince his colleagues that they were wrong, even while he reluctantly follows their ruling. The debate must always continue and the zaqen, and even those who arise generations later, may still in theory advocate opinions not in line with the established halacha. W'hamevin Yavin.

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    1. Except, in your story, the zaqen is acting in good faith. He is not a wildly narcissistic con man and liar spreading a classic Big Lie because he is too damaged to accept that he rightfully lost.

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  6. Which is why, with all of you rcomplaints against the decision making process of the Mo'etzes and the grandchildren of Gedolim interfering, we must still listen to them, regarding public matters.
    Bibi can say what he wants, if Reb Chaim Kaniyevsky says open schools, even if the medical experts disagree, we must listen.

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    1. No. Even Rav Chaim Kanievsky, much less Yanki Kanievsky, has no authority over me.

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    2. I was gonna comment that there are many havanos that we can lehavin. One is obviously Trump (though the analogy breaks down a bit), but one is you, Rabbi Slifkin. Someone beat me to this though. Now, I agree that the chareidi gedolim are often mistaken, and I also do not follow them, etc etc, but you set yourself up for this!

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    3. Iirc no less an authority than r Chaim soloveitchik was quoted as saying even if all the gedolim disagreed with him, the Halacha would still be like him. Sanhedrin only works when they all sit together and discus
      Kt

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    4. @comment writer, as it turns out, the medical "experts" were wrong. Children do not get covid nor act as potential carriers. Since children are immune to covid, masks are unnecessary. Studies show that masks actually harm children under 10. Children have smaller lungs and cannot breathe. We should have opened our schools long ago. And the "experts" knew this. They just wanted to make Trump look bad so they could impeach him.

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    5. TH - the rabbit hole just created a new twist. What do masks have to do with impeachment? Trump is not getting impeached for covid violations, it is for insurrection, an entirely different claim.

      Are you claiming that the Israeli government is trying to get Trump to look bad, and that is why they closed schools?

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    6. "Children have smaller lungs and cannot breathe."

      No comment.

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    7. "Are you claiming that the Israeli government is trying to get Trump to look bad, and that is why they closed schools?"

      Ah, finally someone pointing out the hyper-provincialism of right wing covid denialism!

      Covid scoffers & deniers are not necessarily right wing here in Israel. One big covid denier in the UK is leftist Piers Corbyn- the current gov't there is conservative. Right-winger Netanyahu is generally in favor of lockdowns when necessary. Sweden which until recently opposed lockdowns is run by leftists. Covid crank RFK Jr's left-wing credentials are unimpeachable.
      Furthermore, it would hard to proven that lockdowns make Trump look bad. Take a look at the monthly approval/disapproval ratings (Gallup) for the past two years. Do you see any connection between lockdowns and approval? Or are you speculating?


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    8. @Zd, Ephraim, By ruining the economy with endless lockdowns, the Dems can say that Trump did not do a good job handling coronavirus, and people will believe it. By closing schools and making kids wear masks (which harms them more than coronavirus) they can attack Trump. The American government, not Israeli. But Israel will have a difficult time with Biden since Dems are usually anti-semantic. (Obama visited every country in the middle east except Israel).

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    9. So you jumped from impeachment to 'look bad'.

      Seems that someone here suffers from 'anti-semantics'.....

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    10. Turk, we love you, but OMG.
      Children get sick and die also from this thing.
      And my kids and their classmates are doing just fine with masks. Nobody has passed out yet.

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    11. Yosef R I could be wrong, but I heard on the news that children do not catch the virus significantly and that mask is bad for their lungs because their lungs are smaller than a full-grown adult.

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  7. Not sure how or why you slyly manage to drag President Trump into this, but he's not involved here. A businessman comes to Washington to drain the swamp.
    They resist. Flawed as he is, he does remarkable things: he stands up to China, whacks some Islamic terrorist thugs, gets businesses back to the US, gets a roaring economy going, encourages black businesses, and brings some new peace to the Middle East. For his efforts he's vilified and demonized all day. Then on election day the dead rise and all vote for a Democrat (an old Chicago trick), suitcases loaded with ballots are brought out in the dead of night when Republican poll watchers are sent home, and 1000+ poll workers in several states swear under the pain of perjury that they saw outrageous irregularities. We are to ignore all this, commanded to shut up and be happy with the results and suck it up as big tech deplatforms all freedom of expression and the marxist media do the bidding of their stalinist leaders. I think Brits living in Israel ought not comment too loudly on American politics. Vehamaivin yavin.

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    1. All of that has been debunked. He is just a lying con man who is too narcissistic and mentally damaged to accept that he lost. And his gullible, uninformed and not too bright cult followers are carrying his torch.

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    2. Yitz: He was the same lying con man, narcissistic and mentally damaged that he was four years ago. We all knew that then.
      Who still managed to convince 75 million Americans to vote for him, almost half the inflated voting poll.
      And you're calling them gullible, uninformed and not too bright?
      Only difference is that four years ago, they were called deplorables, now he partially screwed up with covid (which problem was solved a week after the election, but the powers that be admittedly held off on announcing till a week after the election.

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    3. The ONLY reason why you, or any other person, cries election fraud is because Trump said so, a man who has LONG been KNOWN to be criminally corrupt and morally bankrupt and NOT because of any evidence of these nonsense talking points you mentioned. Give it up.

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    4. "suitcases loaded with ballots are brought out in the dead of night when Republican poll watchers are sent home"-watch the most recent 60 Minutes to see how obvious a lie this is.

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    5. I want to add, even if Trump did collude with Russia in which is there no evidence, "collusion" is not a crime.

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    6. Oh sure. 60 minutes. CNN. The ny times. Washington Post. All very trustworthy sources. They "debunked" all the sworn affiants. Sure guy.

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    7. "Vehamaivin yavin."

      I don't think you know what that phrase means.

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  8. So, in other words, let the broken system continue to break itself further until the majority finally realizes it’s broken, but by that time it’s too late?

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  9. authority: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/first-letter-to-all-judges

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  10. Of course, the intent of Chasam Sofer is precisely the opposite of how you portray it, but hey, your fan club doesn't bother to do fact checking...המבין יבין

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    1. Of course, the intent of Chasam Sofer is precisely how RNS portrayed it, (although the part it parentheses should be modified) but while some of his fans did bother to check thoroughly enough, you (frummie) didn't ...והבלתי מבין לעולם לא יבין.

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    2. If you read the CS until the end, you will see that his punchline is that seeing as the halacha will always follow the Chachomim, therefore Hashem will not allow them to make a mistake, and that is why, in reality, they are always right.
      It starts with the need for authority and finishes with the idea that the Sanhedrin does not make mistakes.

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    3. @ a frummie/comment writer
      reread the Chasam Sofer as cited @ http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/06/unorthodoxy-of-chasam-sofer.html, or if you must, in the sefer itself,
      but briefly he says at the end regarding רמב"ן's two reasons,
      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

      Such that Sanhedrin is limited by טבע האנושי & relies on ויתר הקדוש ברוך הוא טעותם .

      But actually there's no way you'll be able to read it correctly until you appreciate that the immeasurable greatness of the members of the Sanhedrin isn't diminished by their fallibility.

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  11. I agree. Rabbi Eliezer is correct about a certain oven yet we follow the majority of rabbis, “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2). Similarly, the Torah is not in heaven. Similarly, Rabbi Joshua was correct about the day or new month begins for Yom Kippur, yet we agree with Rabban Gamaliel. The rabbis decide by a majority vote, not G-d (as is evident in the Rabbi Eliezer story where the rabbis reject G-d’s interpretation of the halakhah despite in the form of a divine voice, a bat kol [heavenly voice]). Thus, rabbinical enactments have authority, as to not cause division amongst Jews. I agree with Rabbi Slifkin's assessment entirely.

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  12. I thought that the case of Sanhedrin was very particular to them, and not at all generalisable. Am I mistaken?

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  13. R. Slifkin, you didn't answer the question. So who gave us the right to disagree with the majority and the gdolim and hereby destroy the current Jewish society?

    The short answer is: because our current gdolim don't have proper semicha.

    The long answer is too long to elaborate and deserves separate article. One issue, for example: it's not clear who are gdolim and who are not. It depends much on whom you ask.

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  14. BTW why do we need Chatam Sofer and Akhnay oven story when Tora itself explicitly says that Sanhedrin might mistake! Simply recall what is "ox for overlooking" (פר העלם דבר).

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  15. Umi she'eino maivin, lo yavin, v'yichtov "vehamaivin yavin".

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  16. I want to add that we must conform to the majority because if we don't we risk and endanger the rest of society.

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  17. BTW, RNS's essays prove that we shouldn't impeach Trump because it would cause further division. We need unity right now, and Biden and the Dems do not want to provide it. Shame. Shame. Shame.

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    1. ...אחרי הבזוי בא הנבזה

      After the despised comes the despicable...

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  18. Your daughter asked why we have to listen to Chazal on everything?? Sounds like you're not sending her to the right Beis Yaakov...

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  19. Put simply: If not for fear of the Government, people would swallow each other alive." However, extrapolation from the idea of the Sanhedrin's authority to USA events is unnecessary and contentious - even regarding it's application to the current Jewish ethos.

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  20. Turk Hill, I deleted your comment about "But Biden is worse!" Stick to the point under discussion.

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  21. I agree with your analysis. It's better to preserve the system, but that's only when the system is relatively fair. What Trump supporters claim is that this system no longer exists. The election was stolen and will be stolen again because there is no price to be paid for stealing it. In other words, there is nothing left to preserve unless you mean preserving a rigged system, which is surely not what you mean.

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  22. I respect many of your attitudes and contributions very much but this is utter nonsense - the legacy of an idea that was indoctrinated into you at some point in your past. Please look beyond your heritage.
    The answer to doubting the authorities is not anarchy, but democratic rule of law. The absurd authoritarian order of the East European kehilla is no more acceptable than the ancient legal order of the Sanhedrin. These are all systems that support corrupt power structures instead of serving truth and justice. Hashem stands for truth and all these antiquated, partly psychopathic Gedolim just have to go! All these ideas come from only one emotion: fear and fear again. Fear for the loss of "yiddishkait" and mesorah. Together with large parts of the Halakha this is all deepest Avodah Zara. God has nothing to do with it. Even less truth and justice.

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