When discussing the balance between authority and autonomy in Halacha, one of the central modern issue that arises is that of Daas Torah – what is the extent of rabbinic authority even beyond limited Halachic issues? To set up the background for the modern issue, it is important to explore the concepts that are used to argue that Daas Torah is a classic Halachic/Hashkafic category – starting with the most basic question of rabbinic power – Lo Tasur. Shiur and sources: here.
In Lo Tasur we need to ask several questions: 1) Why do we listen? Does the obligation to listen to the Rabbis imply infallibility, or do we have to listen even though we understand that they are fallible? Do we listen even if we think they are wrong? 2) What Rabbis are granted authority by this obligation? 3) What does it extend to? Only Halacha? Hashkafa? More mundane issues?
- Why do we listen? Are they infallible?
Rashi is famously quoted that we have to listen to rabbis even when they tell you that left is right and right is left. His formulation is based on the Sifrei. However, there are girsa issues, and despite the very stark formulation that is often quoted, the girsa may be that you have listen if “it seems” they are telling you right is left. The former would imply that you have to listen, either because they are always right, or even though they are not. The latter would tell us that when they are clearly wrong, there is no obligation to listen. Related to this is the Mishnayot in Rosh Hashana that make it clear that when it comes to the calendar, you have to listen to the Sanhedrin even if you are convinced they are wrong. While this may be a local halacha that relates to the calendar where the rabbis have a unique level of control, the Ramban takes this as proof for the more ambitious position of Rashi – that you always have to listen even when you are told left is right and right is left. The Ramban al HaTorah and the Kuzari both indicate that the reason for this obligation is that the rabbis are basically infallible because they are divinely inspired. I assume they don’t mean they are totally infallible, as there is the halacha that if a Sanhedrin makes a mistake and rules for the nation who act on the psak, they need to bring a korban, a Par Helem Davar Shel Tzibbur. At any rate, they go in the direction of saying we listen to the rabbis because they are right. One can argue that they are right because they create the truth, but that is a discussion we have had in the past and relates to issues of Eili V’Eilu. The Ran in the Drashot admits that they can make mistakes, but thinks that we need to follow them anyway because in the long run, it is worth giving authority to the people who are best, if not perfect, at understanding the Torah. He suggests that in theory if we followed their psak when it was wrong, it would hurt us spiritually, but we are still obligated to listen. In the end he says that God will prevent the spiritual damage, but it makes the point clear. The Chinuch also says that the reason we listen is because it is worth risking the occasional mistake to have a unified psak that is issued by the experts.
The Ramban rejects Lo Tasur as the general source for rabbinic power in general. R. Elchanan Wasserman argues their power comes from their ability to intuit the will of God. This works with the position of Ramban mentioned above – that the authority of rabbis comes from God ensuring they will get things right.
Both the Bavli and Yerushalmi in Horayot make it clear that you only listen when they are right – when they tell you left it left and right is right. However, the Ramban limits this to before you take your case to the Sanhedrin to argue. Once you do, if they reject your argument, then you must listen. Still, the simple understanding is that the authority of the rabbis does not usually apply when they are wrong. How one would know with certitude that they are wrong is a difficult question.
The Abarbanel claims that both formulations are correct – when rabbis are interpreting Torah, they need to be right. When they are setting up decrees, or perhaps even using their power to temporarily suspend the Torah, they obviously do not need to be “correct” – they are going beyond/ against the basic Torah law. R. Elchanan Wasserman argues that the formulation of “even if they tell you right is left” applies specifically to cases where they are suspending the Torah.
- Who does it apply to?
It is clear the main obligation applies to the Sanhedrin HaGadol, and the Rambam notes this. However, they is good reason to assume it extends at least through the closing of the Gemara. This is because the Sanhedrin may derive their power from representing Klal Yisrael. Thus, if all of Klal Yisrael were to accept the authority of a rabbinic body, they would achieve a similar status to that of the Sanhedrin. This is essentially what happened with the Mishna and Gemara according to many Rishonim – all of Klal Yisrael accepted them, making them more binding than any future rabbis (at least until Mashiach comes). The Smag thinks there was an actual convention where all the rabbis accepted the Talmud. The Rambam thinks there was a formal acceptance, though not an actual convention. The Rif seems to think there was a very informal acceptance, but does imply that the power comes from this acceptance as well.
The Chinuch extends Lo Tasur to the Gedolim in every generation. The Ritva goes farther and argues it applies to one’s personal Rebbe, arguing that the authority of Mara D’Atra stems from Lo Tasur (see our shiur on Mara D’Atra.) The Ran thinks that main obligation only applied to the Sanhedrin, but there is a secondary obligation that extends to other rabbis (he calls this an asmachta, and that makes it hard to know exactly the level of this obligation). The Chayei Adam also extends the authority of Lo Tasur to modern rabbis, arguing it is what makes the minhag of kitniyot binding.
R. Gil Student suggests that the fact that poskim throughout the generation has authority needs no source – it is just logical that the experts in Halacha would have authority. I think this argument has much merit, or may even be the logic behind the positions that extend Lo Tasur.
The Netziv argues that the authority of the Sanhedrin allows them to poskan without explaining their reasons. Future poskim, while they may have authority, need to explain why they say what they say to justify their authority.
- What does it apply to?
Classically, the authority applies to halacha. There are disputes about whether it extends to Hashkafa- Rabbenu Bachya seems to not apply it, while the Ran includes these issues. Whether it extends even beyond this is the issue we took up when we dealt with the modern discussion of Lo Tasur – which hopefully I will summarize soon.
I am posting this as Chanukah is about to start or has started – which is very appropriate. It is in the context of Chanukah that the Gemara suggests that the obligation to listen to the rabbis is derived from Lo Tasur. Chanukah Sameach!