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Questioning the Limits of Rabbinic Authority

One of the most important issues being debated today is the matter of rabbinical authority; nearly every conflict between the Haredi/Hassidic rabbis and the non-Ultra-Orthodox rabbis revolves around one issue: Who has the right to speak for the Jewish people? Historically, every rabbi spoke for his own community;  an attitude of polydoxy prevailed  and each community respected the decisions of the other neighboring city.

Dissent always was and will forever remain an essential feature of rabbinic debate. However, there are rules of etiquette where each opinion must respect but not necessarily agree with the viewpoint of the Other; we must agree to sometimes disagree with one another. Controversies for the sake of Heaven can be passionate, but they must always lead to an attitude of peace among scholars. When debates serve the ego, often the outcome can become ugly and lead to factionalism within the Jewish community. Factionalism is the Original Sin of rabbinical discourse. Creating a consensus is a slow process; no rabbi has the right to rule by fiat alone.

Historically, Jewish law has long recognized the importance for new generations of rabbinical thinkers must occasionally take issue with the decrees established by the earlier rabbinical authorities. This is one of the main reasons why the first generations of Talmudic scholars deliberately left certain critical case studies in the Talmud remain unresolved, so that the future generations might come to their own conclusions. Minority viewpoints are always important because sometimes the circumstances of the future may require that a minority view become the appropriate law for its time. Rabbinical law is not inherently static, it is flexidox and not purely “orthodox.”

A Talmudic conversation never ceases to challenge the present day student; we are all  a part of the discussion. Being a student of rabbinical and deconstructionist thought, I think we have a duty to sometimes turn rabbinic wisdom and even tradition upside down on its head. Flexidoxy demands that the debates of the past ought to continue being discussed and even be re-visioned for the realities that govern our age today.

Examine the following rabbinic tale:

The Talmud in (T.B. Bava Metzia 59b) relates a fascinating Aggadic episode known as “The Oven of Achnai.” A man named Achnai invented a new kind of oven consisting of tiles separated by sand  but plastered together  with cement. R. Eliezer believed this  new type of oven would technically  be exempt from the laws of ritual impurity; however, the Sages differed; this oven was still ritually susceptible to the laws governing ritual impurity.The real controversy did not so much center around the oven’s status so much; the real issue they argued about was the nature of rabbinical authority as understood by a younger generation of rabbinical scholars.

R. Eliezer saw the Halacha in binary terms: either the Torah permitted the oven, or it prohibited the oven. Since there was no evidence in the Scriptures to indicate such an oven was susceptible to impurity, ergo, it was permitted. The Sages took a different viewpoint. For them, they had the right to circumvent even biblical authority itself.

To prove his case, Rabbi Eliezer brought many miraculous signs to show that he was correct, but the Sages rejected his opinion. Rabbi Eliezer then calls upon God Himself to vindicate his position. A Heavenly voice is heard: “What argument do you have with Rabbi Eliezer, for the halachah (Jewish law) is like him in every instance?” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Joshua declares: “It (The Torah) is no longer in Heaven (Deut.30:12)”! This means that we pay no credence to a Heavenly voice in matters of halachah, for the Torah was already given to humankind at Mount Sinai, while citing the phrase: “You shall follow the majority …” = “matters shall be decided according to the majority (of the Sages)” (Exod. 23:2).

Arguably, on the one hand the talmudic anecdote stresses the importance of re-interpreting the Torah–a fact that occurs again and again throughout rabbinic literature. The Sages, to their credit, stopped executing children for insulting or rebelling against their parents; they redefined the law of lex tallionis (eye for an eye) and stressed compensation over disfigurement, and made the law of the “apostate city” virtually into a legal abstraction that should never be grounded in reality. There are countless other examples of how the Sages “reformed” the Torah, so to speak.

If we demythologize the talmudic story, the real issue of the famous debate might suggest that R. Eliezer and his tendency toward conservatism, evidently did not approve of the coercive Sages manner in which they imposed their will upon dissenters.  For R. Eliezer, it wasn’t the ritual status of an oven that was the issue, it was  the nasty way in which the case was being debated and decided.  When people argue about  small matters, it is often really about much more serious problems that were never resolved. As resentment builds up, sometimes a small incident becomes the trigger that leads to an explosive fight. Since there is no tonality to the above story, let us imagine hearing rabbis discussing the issue in a rather angry manner. Perhaps the  Sage’s self-righteous tone toffended the older Rabbi Eliezer, who disliked their belittling attitude toward him.  Perhaps the Sages thought it was R. Eliezer who seemed more self-righteous in the manner he expressed his opinions.

According to R. Eliezer’s conservative way of thinking, the truth is more important than popular consent of the Rabbis.  By defying rabbinical authority, R. Eliezer asserted that the power of the individual is so great, one has the right and even the moral obligation to question the limits of rabbinical power. The Sages felt so threatened by the stature of this giant of a man who dared to question their authority that they excommunicated him in order to prove that they had it within their power to exclude anyone–even a great sage like Rabbi Eliezer. (T.B. Bava Metzia 59b and JT Moed Katan iii. 81 a, et. seq.). Other would-be independent thinkers would soon cower in fear, knowing that R. Eliezer’s fate might very well be their own as well. To further deligitmize Rabbi Eliezer, tunder the leadership of Rabban Gamliel II, he Sages decided to throw away all the foods that were made in the Achnai oven and ordered them burnt (Rashi). One may wonder whether Rashi’s interpretation is correct; perhaps the Sages delegitimized every legal decision R. Eliezer ever made with respect to the laws of ritual purity; their ban against him may have even extended to other areas of law as well.  As a general Talmudic rule, whenever there is a debate involving R. Eliezer, the Halacha almost never follows his opinion. Obviously, this decree only served to add insult to injury.

Interestingly enough, R. Eliezer was later  accused of being sympathetic to the nascent Jewish-Christian community and was accused of even being an apostate because he approved of a Halacha that was said in the name of Jesus (T.B. Avodah Zarah 16b, Kohelet Rabbah 1:8). One may wonder whether these sectarian  accusations were really trumped up charges intended to vilify him further in the rabbinical community he dared to challenge.  We the readers will never know for sure.

One cannot read this story without having a hermeneutical suspicion of what actually happened. At any rate, poor R. Eliezer spent the rest of his days apart from the Sanhedrin’s deliberations;  I am inclined to think that he wanted nothing to do with the heavy-handedness of this new generation of Sages. Perhaps it was Rabbi Eliezer who for all practical purposes, excluded himself from having anything to do with the Sages.

Perhaps there exists a shadow side to this precautionary Talmudic teaching, which I think has impacted rabbinical psychology over the ages–especially today, where the Israeli rabbinate is seeking to ever expand its authority to every Jewish community of the world. To put it bluntly (and I think Freud would probably agree with me, and would have probably seen this rabbinic teaching in terms of “wish fulfillment”) , the contemporary rabbis of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox variety think they know better than God Himself, and possess a metaphysical power to create reality as they wish to see it.

Maybe this might help explain why Rabbi Eliezer differed from the Sages; perhaps he saw a danger in absolute rabbinic power, if left unchecked and unrestrained, could potentially lead to disastrous results. This does not mean that the rabbis must always agree in order to avoid being contentious, but R. Eliezer recognized there must be a system of interpretation that protects the people from the excesses of rabbinic abuse. Halacha must be a God-centered process and not be man-centered in its basic orientation, for if it is the latter–it may lead to the idolatrous worship of power. When Halacha serves the human ego that wishes to be declared “right”, at any cost,  it is no longer a God-centered process.

And now, back to the present day world of modern Israel.

Haredism believes its halachic decrees has an almost incantational power and presence, altering the ontology of the object they are either permitting or forbidding–while never having to be accountable to a Higher Authority; if the rabbis are not accountable to God Himself, why should they be accountable to the vox populi that they are supposed to serve? The name “rabbi” means “master” and the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical community seeks to impose its hegemony over the Jewish masses–by fiat alone.

Incidentally, this is probably one of the most important reasons why the Karaites rejected rabbinic thought, because they distrusted the potential abuse of rabbinic power.

Maybe in a paradoxical sort of way, Rabbi Eliezer was right after all!