AIMeM thanks Uri Kirshstein for filling in this week.
In Pirkei Avos (1:1), we are taught to, “raise up many students”; not to teach or inspire, but to raise up. The primary goal isn’t simply to educate our students and children, but to educate them to the point where they can think for themselves and become intellectually and practically independent. Chazal tell us about the interactions between Rabbah and his student, Abaye, that Rabbah used to test Abaye by purposely giving over wrong and illogical information. By receiving wrong information, Abaye was forced to have to examine each situation by himself, and wouldn’t just accept information given to him. From here we see the incredible importance of being independent and thinking for ourselves.
However, a pasuk in our Parsha, Parshas Shoftim, seems to contradict this important teaching. The pasuk commands us to listen to the Beis Din, “According to the teachings that they will teach you, and according to the judgement that they will say to you, shall you do. You shall not deviate from the word they will tell you, right or left” (Devarim 17:11).
Rashi, quoting a Sifri, explains that this obligation is so strong that, “Even if the judge tells you that right is left and left is right [you must listen to them]; how much more so if he tells you that right is right and left is left” (Ibid). Chazal seem to be teaching us that our personal opinion and logic does not matter, that we must do as the Rabbis ask of us regardless of our understanding. What happened to the importance of thinking independently?
To further complicate this matter, there is a gemarah in Horayos that discusses a case involving the Sanhedrin mistaking a piece of cheilev, forbidden fat, for a piece of shuman, permitted fat. One sage opposes what he believes is a mistaken ruling by the Sanhedrin, and follows his own opinion. If the dissenting sage eats this fat, he is obligated to bring a sin offering, usually brought for one who sins mistakenly. The gemarah asks why is his action is viewed as a mistake when he was simply following the decision of the Sanhedrin? The gemarah answers saying that he mistakenly thought that he must follow the views of the Sanhedrin, based on our pasuk, even if they were wrong! The words of the pasuk do not apply in this case.
We see that there is a time and place for both of these principles, independent thinking and complete reliance on the Sanhedrin. But when does each one apply?
The answer to this question lies in the nature of the ruling. When it comes to judging the merits of one thing over something else, we must defer to our sages because they are far more educated in the ways of the Torah, and have a better perspective than we do on what the Torah wants. But in a case where the reality of a situation is in question, like the case in Horayos, a person could be far less educated and still know the reality; so we would be obligated to act as we know it to be, even if it contradicts the statement of the Rabbis.
We are all responsible to maintain intellectual curiosity, but we are also obligated to have the humility to listen to those who have a better understanding on Torah than we do. Still, just because we subjugate ourselves to the Rav, our viewpoint is not gone; what we see, our literal views, still make a difference. However, by any halachic decision, we defer to the Rabbi’s opinion, forfeiting our own logic and personal views, because we recognize that we are not experts in this matter, and that our perspective might not be as pure and Torah motivated as a Talmud Chacham’s.
Uri Kirshstein lives in Charleston, South Carolina. He has studied at Yeshivas Derech Etz Chaim in Jerusalem and Lander College for Men in Queens, New York. This is his second contribution to AIMeM Torah.
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