The Hebrew term shoftim means judges, and in the Torah reading of Shoftim, in the plain meaning of Scripture adjudication and the teaching of law is the authority of priests in each generation (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11) – “If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment…you shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days…and you shalt observe to do… according to the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you…you shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right or to the left”.
In traditional rabbinic Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic literature, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture. The implications here are enormous – in principle, traditional rabbinic Judaism is not fundamentalist in the sense of a literal understanding of Biblical texts. The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation. The Talmudic method of midrash (commentary) was one of not being bound by the plain or literal meaning of Biblical texts, and the method of midrash allowed Judaism to evolve and develop. An important image of Torah (Judaism) in the Talmudic tradition is a tree of life – and, a tree is organic constantly growing and changing, while at the same time preserving its identity.
The authoritative figures in traditional Judaism are rabbis and not priests. The term rabbi is not found in the plain meaning of Scripture, and is a Talmudic term – and, the term rabbi means a teacher. In traditional Judaism, rabbis, and not priests (as in the plain meaning of Scripture), are judicial and legal authorities and teachers of law as well as teachers of moral and spiritual teachings.
In the Talmudic and medieval periods there were Jewish sects outside of the Jewish rabbinic tradition who did attempt to live according to Scripture – like the Sadducees in the Talmudic period and the Karaites in the medieval period. The terms Pharisees and Sadducees took on a negative connotation due to Christianity, but both the Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects during the Talmudic period.
The Sadducees were a priestly sect, and most of the ancient, hereditary priesthood in Judaism were Sadducees. The Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition (in the Jewish tradition referred to as the Oral Torah) and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in Scripture (in the Jewish tradition referred to as the Written Torah). The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans – the Temple being the institutional center of the priestly cult. The Karaites were a medieval sect who like the ancient Sadducees rejected the rabbinic tradition and attempted to live as much as possible by what was written in Scripture. There were Karaite Jews in large numbers during the medieval period, but they too have largely disappeared.
The Pharisees were a sect that was in the main led by scribes and teachers. The Pharisees did not feel bound by what is written in Scripture but by Scripture as understood according to the rabbinic tradition. The Talmudic rabbis were ideological descendants of the Pharisees. Thus, in traditional rabbinic Judaism we as Jews live not by what is written in the Bible (the Written Torah) but by the Bible as interpreted by the Jewish rabbinic tradition (the Oral Torah) – the foundation of which is the Talmudic literature.
The disputes between the Pharisees and Sadducees were of a political nature and there was a struggle for leadership of the Jewish people – between the Phariseeic Talmudic rabbis and the Sadducean priests. In the plain meaning of Scripture, priests are the main institutional religious leaders (prophets were non-institutional religious leaders) and priests were teachers and judges – as in the verses I cited from the Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11). The authority of rabbis to teach and to judge was learned by the Talmudic rabbis only on the basis of midrashic interpretation (beyond the plain meaning of Scripture) – and, in the case of the verses (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11) in which priests are judicial and legal authorities, the rabbis interpreted the verses as if speaking not of priests but of rabbis (just as the verse “eye for eye” was not understood in its plain meaning as bodily punishment but as referring to monetary compensation).
There is a Talmudic teaching (Pirkei Avot 1, 1) – “Moses received Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly”. Priests are conspicuously absent here in the transmission of Torah when in the plain meaning of Scripture the priests had responsibility over Torah (Deuteronomy17, 18) – and prophets who in the plain meaning of Scripture were non-institutional figures and not teachers of law have been inserted in the Talmudic teaching in place of priests. This is not by accident. Again, there was a tremendous political struggle over religious leadership of the Jewish people between the Phariseeic Talmudic rabbis and the Sadducean priests.
The main source of the conflict between the Sadducean priests and the Phariseeic Talmudic rabbis was concerning Biblical commentary. The Sadducean priests had a vested interest in rejecting the method of midrash and wanting to live according to Scripture as written – as their source of authority came from the plain meaning of Scripture. The Phariseeic Talmudic rabbis had a vested interest in using the process of midrash to interpret Scripture beyond its plain meaning – as their source of authority as rabbis came not from the plain meaning of Scripture but from midrashic interpretation of Scripture.
The conflict was in the main resolved by an external historical event – the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans as the Temple was the institutional center of the Sadducean priests. With the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees disappeared – and, the Talmudic rabbis transformed Judaism from Biblical prophetic-priestly Judaism as reflected in Scripture to traditional rabbinic Judaism in which we live not according to Scripture as written but by Scripture as interpreted by tradition – in the main midrashically (“an eye for eye” as monetary compensation and not actual bodily punishment).
The Talmudic rabbis in effect brought about a revolution during the Talmudic period in transforming the nature of Judaism from Biblical, priestly-prophetic Judaism to traditional rabbinic Judaism. Biblical, priestly-prophetic Judaism (the Written Torah) is characterized by the following elements:
- the Sanctuary and Temple as the central religious institution
- sacrificial rites as the central form of religious worship and ritual
- the hereditary priesthood and prophets as the religious leadership
- prophetic revelation of the Divine will as the basis of religion
By contrast, traditional, rabbinic Judaism (the Oral Torah) is characterized by the following elements:
- the Synagogue and Beit Midrash (study hall) as the central religious institutions
- prayer and study as the central form of religious worship and ritual (and study in the Jewish tradition is not just of an intellectual nature but a religious experience)
- rabbis (teachers) as the religious leadership
- midrash (interpretation of Biblical texts not according to the plain meaning) in order to teach Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings) as the basis of religion
Strikingly, not one of these elements that characterize traditional rabbinic Judaism appears even one time explicitly in the plain meaning of the Bible. There are rabbinic midrashim (commentaries) that speak of Biblical figures who studied in a Beit Midrash (study hall), or studied in a Yeshiva (academy of study) or who prayed traditional prayers of the Siddur (prayer book of the Jewish tradition). According to the Jewish tradition Moses is referred to as a rabbi (משה רבינו) rather than as a prophet. However, the terms Synagogue, Beit Midrash, Yeshiva and rabbi do not appear even one time in the Bible. Not one time in the plain meaning of Scripture, do we find that a Biblical figure enters a Synagogue to pray the traditional prayers of the traditional prayer book, or enters a Beit Midrash or Yeshiva to study. Although there are Biblical verses speaking in general of prayer and study, the traditional prayers of rabbinic Judaism are not referred to at all. There are various Biblical verses that speak of teaching children words of Torah, and that words of Torah should be studied day and night. However, such study is without question subordinate to the far greater goal of morality that is the essence of Biblical religion, and the study that is being referred to is of words of Torah that are primarily moral and spiritual in nature constituting moral and spiritual guidance. Nowhere is the central mitzvah (commandment) of the Jewish tradition of Talmud Torah (study) that is fulfilled by the rigorous and intellectual study of texts, in the main in the Beit Midrash or Yeshiva, referred to at all. The Talmudic terms Halacha (law), Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings), plain meaning (of Scripture) and midrash (interpretation of Scripture not according to the plain meaning) do not appear in the plain meaning of the Bible.
If we return to the verses that I cited from the Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 17, 8- 11) that are understood as being the source of rabbinical authority in the Jewish tradition, and which demand obedience to the authority of rabbis (“you shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right or to the left”), the question arises as to the limits of rabbinic authority. Before addressing this question, I want to give some background.
The term Torah, the central concept of the Jewish tradition literally means guidance or instruction – and the term Torah can refer to the 5 Books of Moses as a kind of legal constitution of the Jewish people and basis of Jewish law, and the term can refer more broadly to Judaism. According to the Jewish tradition, there are two aspects to Torah (Judaism) that represent two kinds of guidance and instruction (Torah) – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings).
Halacha, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning to go or walk, is the external aspect of Torah – and to go or walk is an external behavior. Halacha is legal guidance of the Torah based upon the commandments (mitzvot) of the 5 Books of Moses as a legal constitution of the Jewish people, and relates to issues of permissible, forbidden and obligatory. Such material establishes permissible, forbidden and obligatory behavior as a matter of external authority, and demands obedience to its authority in terms of behavior. Just as in any modern nation state, citizens do not establish law for themselves and there are authoritative law makers and interpreters of law – so, too, we do not establish law for ourselves in traditional Judaism, and it is the authority of rabbis as authoritative interpreters of Halacha (law) to teach and establish law based upon the verses from the Torah reading of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 17, 8-11) that were understood midrashically, not according to their plain meaning, as giving authority to rabbis to teach and establish law.
Aggadah, which means story, is the internal aspect of Torah – and a story is a source of ideas and ideals. Aggadah is moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance of the Torah (Judaism) that relates to issues of good and bad (right and wrong), and truth and falsehood. Such material is not a matter of external authority and obedience, but is a matter of internal autonomy based upon persuasion and conviction (the mind and heart). Anyone, and not just rabbis, may teach words of moral, spiritual and philosophic guidance (Aggadah), and there is no obligation to agree or identify with such material even if taught by rabbis. In the Talmudic literature Halacha is termed “bodies of Torah”, and Aggadah then is the soul of Torah. Thus, the Christian polemic portraying Judaism as a religion of law is clearly a misconception. Law (Halacha) is only one aspect of Torah (Judaism), and an external aspect – and, the internal, spiritual aspect is Aggadah.
We can now turn to the question of the limits of rabbinic authority. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator of the Jewish tradition, who lived in the 11th century, on the verse (Deuteronomy 17, 11) “you shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right or to the left”, makes a shocking statement. Regarding the phrase “to the right or to the left”, Rashi writes “even if you are told that right is left, or left is right, all the more so if you are told right is right or left is left”. On the face of it this statement of Rashi clearly implies that if we know with certainty that a forbidden piece of meat is indeed forbidden, and a rabbi tells us that it is permissible to eat, we are to accept the ruling of the rabbi. Seemingly, according to Rashi’s shocking statement rabbinical authority requires blind obedience to rabbinical rulings as if rabbis are infallible.
However, Rashi is drawing here in his shocking statement from a midrashic commentary of the Talmudic rabbis (Sifrei, Deuteronomy 17, 11) – and, the wording of the original Talmudic source is actually different, and I think that it is at least possible that there may have been a mistake in manuscripts regarding Rashi’s statement. In any case, though, the original source writes “Even if it seems in your eyes left is right and right is left, listen to them” – and, the intention is that even if a rabbi is telling you what seems to be in your eyes that left is right or right is left we are to listen to the rabbi. But, according to the original Talmudic source, in the case that we are certain that we are being told left is right or right is left we will not listen to rabbinic authority – and, if we are certain that a forbidden piece of meat is indeed forbidden, and a rabbi tells us that it is permissible to eat, we are not to accept the ruling of the rabbi.
Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud also limits rabbinical authority such that we are not blindly obedient to rabbinic rulings as if infallible. Regarding the phrase “to the right or to the left”, the Jerusalem Talmud writes (Horayot p. 2, 2, ch. 1, Halacha 1) – “you might think that if you are told right is left or left is right that you are to listen to them; the text to the right or to the left (Deuteronomy 17, 11) is when you are told that right is right and left is left”.
Thus, rabbinic authority to teach and establish law is limited according to the Talmudic tradition. We are to be obedient to rabbis in teaching and establishing law – however, rabbinic rulings do not require blind obedience as if infallible.
One other issue – if I were to choose only one word to describe the Jewish rabbinic tradition, it would be the Hebrew word (מחלוקת) meaning argument or debate. The Talmudic and Midrashic literatures record intellectual arguments and debates that were held in the Yeshivot (study academies) during the Talmudic period in a systematic way between the Talmudic rabbis and their students regarding a wide variety of issues – Halachic (legal) and Aggadic (moral, philosophic and spiritual issues as well as issues of commentary and interpretation of texts). Therefore, virtually every issue in the Jewish tradition (Halachic or Aggadic) is a matter of argument and debate in which there is a plurality of viewpoints. There is a well-known joke illustrating the nature of the Jewish tradition that when there are two Jews together there are at least three different opinions. The Jewish tradition from a factual point of view is characterized by pluralism – by a plurality of viewpoints regarding virtually every issue. This means that even regarding Halacha (law), which is authoritative material demanding obedience and determined by rabbinic interpretation, there is room for a traditional Jew to choose (a matter of Aggadah) from conflicting rabbinic opinions in the realm of law.
The obvious problem that arises in the face of such pluralism is how one decides among conflicting viewpoints and how one decides how to act. There is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) that raises the problem and responds (Chagiga 3b):
Rabbis are…studying Torah – these say impure and these say pure, these say forbidden and these say permissible, these say invalid and these say valid. Perhaps you will say…how do I then learn Torah? It is taught: From one Shepherd they (words of Torah) are given – one God gave them…so now make your ears like a funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom), and acquire for yourself a hearing heart in hearing the words of those who say impure and those who say pure, the words of those who say forbidden and those who say permissible, and the words of those who say invalid and those who say valid.
The meaning of the image of the funnel (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom) by which we are to sift and funnel conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is that we are to be open to hearing differing viewpoints and interpretations. This also follows from the view of the midrash that words of Torah come from One Divine source – for, if so, then we must be not only open to hearing but at least tolerant (if not respectful) of differing viewpoints and interpretations. According to the midrash, the sifting and funneling of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is by hearing through “a hearing heart” – that we are to be loyal to ourselves and to our own heart in deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations which of them to ultimately accept. In such a debate of scholars we cannot decide among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations on the basis of reason – as we do not have the knowledge and background of such scholars to be able to decide on the basis of reason. Thus, according to the midrash, the basis for deciding among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations is not reason or obedience to external authority, but our own heart.
The midrash teaches that we are to be open to hearing many different viewpoints and interpretations, and that we are to be loyal to our own hearts in deciding between conflicting viewpoints and interpretations (even though we may be lacking in knowledge and background regarding the issue under discussion). Most significantly, according to the midrash, we are not merely to be obedient to Halacha (law) as an external system of authority; rather, we are to decide and choose among conflicting viewpoints and interpretations within the legal system (a matter of Aggadah) on the basis of our own heart and then to be obedient to the law.