Pity the Zealots
It's hard to be a heresy-hunter. You never know who you'll end up unwittingly indicting.
It’s risky to be a theological zealot. You might call a viewpoint idiotic or heretical, only to subsequently discover that it was espoused by great rabbinic figures in our history. And mocking these Torah giants as idiots or heretics is not a good look.
This most famously happened eighteen years ago, with those who ridiculed and condemned me for saying that the Sages could have erred in their statements about the natural world. It became awkward for them when it was brought to their attention that many great rabbinic figures in our history said precisely that. Rav Elyashiv (as interpreted by my opponents) made the deeply illogical claim that it was perfectly fine for these rabbinic giants to say it but a perversion of Torah to think that they were correct. Rav Moshe Shapiro first attempted claiming that my source from Rav Hirsch was a forgery, but when it was proven to him that it was genuine, he said that “Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash” - but that’s quite a comedown from denouncing this approach as nonsense and heresy!
Another spectacular example of this occured with the previous post. I referred in passing to the famous story in the Gemara of the oven of Achnai, in which R. Eliezer’s view was disputed by all the other Sages, even after a Divine Voice vouched for it. Some explain this Gemara in such a way that God was not actually saying that R. Eliezer was correct - either He was saying that R. Eliezer is only correct in other cases, or it was all just a test. But I described it as being a case in which R. Eliezer’s view was objectively correct, as attested by none other than God Himself, and was nevertheless overruled in favor of the majority (albeit mistaken) view of the Sages - which was the right thing to do, because the stability of the halachic system overrides objective truth.
Boy, did this upset some of my more conservative readers. They were horrified at the notion that the Sages were mistaken, and ridiculed the idea that they would have maintained a false viewpoint in the face of Divine disagreement. One person under the moniker “Rational Traditionalist” called this explanation “unbelievably ridiculous,” “objectively stupid and incoherent.” Another said “I'm not sure what's stupider, that you blithely passed off your own ridiculous misunderstanding of the achnai sugya as if this is voss shteit durtan, or the fact that your interpretation makes absolutely zero objective internal sense.” Others did not stoop to insults, but politely stated that it was unacceptable to explain the Gemara as I did, because the halachic system does not make mistakes - the whole point of following the majority, he insisted, is that the majority are going to be the ones who are correct.
While my explanation of the Gemara is not the universally agreed-upon explanation, it’s the straightforward explanation. And it’s also a very prominent traditional view. For example, it was stated by none other than the Ran, Rabbeinu Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona, in Drashot HaRan 7:
We have been commanded to abide by their consensus, whether it corresponds to the truth or is at variance with it. And this underlies the episode of R. Eliezer Hagadol and his dispute, concerning which we are told (Bava Metzia 59b) that R. Yehoshua arose and declared (Deuteronomy 30:12): "It is not in the heavens!" What is the intent of "It is not in the heavens"? It has already been given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and in it is written (Exodus 23:2): "After the multitude to incline [judgment]."
Ran proceeds to explain why the Sages would have continued to maintain their viewpoint even after God Himself attested that they were wrong:
Now it was clear to all that R. Eliezer was closer to the truth than they, that all of his signs were truthful and righteous, and that heaven itself had ruled him correct, but in spite of this they acted according to their consensus. Since their judgment inclined to "unclean," though they knew that their consensus was at variance with the truth, they did not wish to pronounce it clean. What is more, had they pronounced it clean they would have been transgressing against their reason, which inclined to "unclean," because the decision was relegated to the sages of the generations, and their consensus constituting the command of the L-rd.
But why would we follow the majority, if the majority is wrong? Ran (see Drasha 11) gives various reasons why it make sense to have an absolute policy of following the system of rabbinic authority even though it can lead to error. Chasam Sofer (who endorses Ran’s view that the disputants of R. Eliezer were mistaken but nevertheless correctly insisted on their majority view being adopted) gives a very straightforward explanation: that following the majority promotes stability. 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 who 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! Says Chasam Sofer, the ruling of the majority must be followed due to the importance of upholding the system of authority and preventing anarchy, which takes precedence over objective truth.
Ouch. So these fine frum men just accidentally described the Ran as espousing an unbelievably ridiculous and objectively stupid explanation. When I pointed this out, some tried to backtrack and twist themselves out of it by inventing non-existent differences between what I said and what Ran said, while another decided to go silent. I almost felt sorry for them.
No wonder they don’t post under their real names.
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