Disputes Vs. Deference
When the first ban against my books was issued, by Rav Shiner, Rav Wachtfogel, Rav Lefkowitz and Rav Weintraub, I didn't think for a moment that I would have to obey it, especially since I had never actually heard of any of these people. But I was concerned that Rav Elyashiv would end up banning my books. If he were to do that, would I have to obey him?
In the ensuing months, I explored the topic of rabbinic authority in detail. I discovered that I was not the only one who was confused and misinformed about it! And so I posted a page on my website explaining why I was not obligated to follow the directive of Rav Elyashiv or any of the other charedi Gedolim. It began with the more obvious reasons - that these Gedolim are simply not knowledgeable about the scientific issues, the positions of the Rishonim, the books or the audience - but the final reason, which was a later addition, was really the most crucial point: that these Gedolim follow an entirely different school of thought within Judaism.
Yet even that was short of the mark. It presumed and implied that when everyone is working within the same school of thought, one should indeed defer to the judgment of those who are more learned. This is indeed the argument made in the latest post at the outstanding Hirhurim blog. Yet, while anyone is free to defer to whoever they want, is there really a reason to do so?
I have an essay, due to be published soon in a memorial volume, on the topic of students disputing teachers - a case where the relationship between the two would surely demand maximal deference. And the Gemara says that "Anyone who disputes his teacher, is as one who disputes the Divine Presence." Yet the Rishonim and Acharonim considered it inconceivable to interpret this maximally; after all, the Gemara is replete with examples of students disputing their teachers. They therefore explained it to refer to things such as the student acting disrespectfully to his teacher, undermining his teacher's authority by publicly overturning his rulings, etc. But for him to disagree with his teacher's rulings - and even to say so publicly - was not only permitted, but actually mandated, according to several authorities, in cases where he genuinely feels his teacher to be mistaken.
And this is in the case of a student-teacher relationship! Clearly there would be even less reason for deference in other cases. Rav Moshe Feinstein has two important responsa on the topic of disputes vs. deference. One is regarding the propriety of a rabbi in Bnei Brak disputing the Chazon Ish (see translation here), where Rav Moshe says that it is inconceivable that there would be any reason why he would have to defer to the Chazon Ish. He says that even a student may not rule in accordance with his teacher if he disagrees with him - all the more so with someone who is not his teacher. And in another responsum (translated here), he explains why he sometimes disputes Acharonim and even Rishonim. His reason is that everyone has the responsibility to form opinions based on what makes sense to them.
But how can one have the audacity to dispute those who are vastly greater in scholarship and wisdom? Isn't it absurd to think that one's view has any credibility?
Not at all. This is not like a first-year college student disputing Einstein. It's more like an average person having different political views than a professor of political studies. In Torah, interpretation is not solely based upon stored facts. Rather, there is an enormous amount of sevara - subjective reasoning and personal judgment. These can be improved with more study and experience, but there will inevitably always be differences between different people. It's not just between different schools of thought, such as with rationalism versus mysticism, that differences come to the fore. Every person is different - as Chazal say, "Just as their faces are different, so too are their thoughts different." Assuming that someone possesses basic competence in Torah, and is not missing any relevant facts or sources, there is no a priori reason why his analysis of a topic should not be superior to that of someone else who is more learned. (Though there may be cases, such as in issuing public rulings, where experience with dealing with communal issues itself is a factor in arriving at the appropriate ruling.) The credibility of his conclusions in the eyes of the general public, and the extent to which it will be accepted, will inevitably be based on the general stature of that person. But everything ought to be judged on its own merits, and there is no reason why, barring a case where one lacks information, someone should a priori assume that his analysis of a topic is necessarily worthless vis-a-vis that of a more knowledgeable or brilliant scholar.