A (For Now) Final Post On Jewish Authority

Several recent postings below have concerned the concept of authority in the observant Jewish world, and the inappropriateness of second-guessing or disparaging decisions of Torah leaders.  A pertinent Mishneh that I didn’t cite – for the simple, unfortunate reason that I hadn’t remembered it – was part of the page of Talmud studied by Daf Yomi participants shortly thereafter.  It is in Rosh Hashana, 25a.  And it may well be the single most important statement about the topic.

The Mishneh tells of how Rabban Gamliel accepted two witnesses’ claimed sighting of the new moon (which affects all of the Jewish world’s calendar and holidays) that seemed to fly in the face of all logic, since the new moon was not evident the next night.  Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus      pointed out the seeming impossibility of the witnesses being correct,  and Rabbi Yehoshua, a student of Rabban Gamliel, felt compelled to concur.

Rabbam Gamliel, however, reprimanded his student for that fact and insisted that Rabbi Yehosua appear before him with his staff and coin-purse on the day that, according to Rabbi Dosa and all reason, should have been Yom Kippur.   R’ Yehoshua was pained by that demand, and sought the advice of others.

The first advisor, Rabbi Akiva, pointed out that the right to declare a new Jewish month is specifically entrusted to the most authoritative human court – in this case, Rabban Gamliel’s, and that the calendar follows its declaration, even if it is issued in error.  Thus, it made no difference whether or not Rabban Gamliel’s decision was reasonable.  It was binding, and so R’ Yehoshua could, and should, appear as requested on the day that logic – but not the court – designated to be Yom Kippur.

The second advisor – the very Rabbi Dosa who who had originally assailed the logic of Rabban Gamliel’s decision – also advised accepting the decision, but did not invoke the specialness of the law of establishing the new month.  His reason was more fundamental.

“If we come to second-guess the court of Rabban Gamliel,” he explained, “we will necessarily come to second-guess every court from the time of Moshe until now.”  Rabbi Dosa went on to provide Scriptual support for the truth that authoritive courts have inherent authority, and may not be challenged.”

In the end, Rabbi Yehoshua took the advice and appeared before Rabban Gamliel, who welcomed him warmly and called him “my teacher and my student – my teacher in wisdom and my student in his submission to my words.”

While the issue at the center of that account is a limited one (although with repercussions, as above, for all of the Jewish world), I believe that the narrative represents the template for the proper Jewish attitude in every Jewish age.  There will be times when Jewish leadership – the most widely accepted authorities of the times – may seem wrong, may even be wrong by all reason and logic.  But that is not our (we non-authorities’) business.  Our charge is to accept their guidance, period.  Simply because of who they are, and what Judaism requires of us.

Back in the 1960’s, there was a popular bumper sticker that read, simply, “Question Authority.”  That may a worthy credo for the wider world (especially considering the quality, all too often. of its authorities).

But it is the precise opposite of the true Jewish attitude toward our own religious leaders.

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