Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Tavo 5761/ September 8, 2001
Faith in the Words of the Sages
Rabbi Aharon Katz
Institute for Advanced Torah Studies
Among the instructions for bringing bikkurim, first fruits, is the command, "You shall go to the priest in charge at that time" (Deut. 26:3). Rashi comments on this, "You have none other than the priest who lives in your day." The Torah intends that Jews should follow the priests and sages of their own generation, indicating that the obligation to follow the Sages is one of the foundations of the Jewish faith. The chapter in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) on acquiring knowledge of the Torah (6, 5) counts the "faith in the Sages" as one of the forty-eight ways of acquiring Torah. Rabbi Simha of Vitri (France, 11-12c., a disciple of Rashi) explained this in his Mahzor: "faith in the Sages, and not like the Sadducees or ןייסותייב." By this apparently he meant that every person should accept the teachings of the Sages as an intrinsic part of the entire Torah and not do as the Sadducees or ןייסותייב who rejected the authority of the Rabbis.
The remark by the author of the Vitri Mahzor (a compendium of customs and laws about prayer) does not make clear exactly which Sages the Mishnah had in mind. Was it the Sages of Israel - the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud who created the body of literature comprising the Oral Torah - or was it the sages of each and every generation? But even more significant, it does not make clear whether the reference was to the accepted body of literature comprising the Oral Torah, which over the years has become part of the Torah as it is studied, or whether the Mishnah about acquiring Torah had in mind the ongoing connection, in each generation, with the contemporary rabbis and the obligations to have faith in them?
In Menorat ha-Maor (ch. 2), Rabbi Isaac Abuhab said that "faith in the sages" also includes aggadah, their legends:
We are obliged to believe in all that the Sages said in their homilies and legends, just as in the Torah of Moses. If we find something there that seems to us exaggerated, or unnatural, we should ascribe the deficiency to the shortcomings of our intellect and not to what they said. All that is written in their names should be credited by every person as true and should not be held in contempt, either in word or thought.
The question remains as to who are these sages, whose views we are obliged to accept? On the command of the Torah, "You shall appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at that time" (Deut. 17:9, Parashat Shofetim), the Talmud (Rosh ha-Shanah 25b) remarks:
Is it conceivable that a person would go to a magistrate not in charge in his day? Thus you have none other to go to than the magistrate in your day. Moreover, it is written, "Don't say, ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?'" (Eccles. 7:10)
Hiddushei ha-Maharsha explains the passage as follows:
Do not say that in former times the magistrates were better than they are today; rather, you should follow the later ones just as the earlier ones, and you have no other magistrate than the one in your day.
In Meshekh Hokhmah on Parshat Shofetim, Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk noted:
So that there not be anyone who says, "I am the seer" [cf. I Sam.9:19, meaning here, "I am someone of authority"] and am not subject to the Sages of Israel," the Torah established the restriction, "do not deviate [to the right or to the left]." For were it not for this, the Torah would be placed in the hands of everyone, and separate groups would form, breaking apart from the general bond, which would be contrary to the will of the Lord that there be one people, following their Sages; and if they do not follow them, they violate the commandment, "you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left"(Deut.17:11). But it is possible that the actual opinion of the Rabbis in the matter at hand might not be in accordance with the will of the Creator.
Thus it is not the actual decision of the Sages of Israel that makes it obligatory to listen to them, rather it is the need for social order that requires establishing the authority of the Sages of Israel. This is not in line with the view of the kabbalists, as expressed by R. Samuel di Uzeida, a chief disciple of the Ari and friend of R. Moses Cordevero, in Midrash Samuel (a commentary on Tractate Avot):
It is obligatory to believe in all that the Sages of blessed memory said, as if it were the Teaching given to Moses at Sinai. The words, "You must not deviate" are with reference to this, for if there is even one thing that you do not believe, the secrets of the Torah will not be revealed to you; for in the end you will become a Sadducee, since one transgression leads to another.
In other words, the public order is not what obliges us to accept the words of the rabbis throughout the generations; rather, this obligation is necessary for the perfection of each individual's soul to worship the Lord. By connecting with the Sages a person prepares himself for perfection and can enter the secret world of the Torah; whereas distancing oneself from the Rabbis distances a person from the wisdom of the Torah, so that ultimately one becomes a Sadducee.
A highly instructive remark on the difference between the duty to accept the words of the Sages in matters of Halakhah, as opposed to matters of outlook and morality, can be found in the introduction to the Talmud that is attributed to R. Samuel ha-Nagid:
All interpretations presented in the Talmud on any subject that is not a commandment fall into the category of aggadah, from which you need not learn more than you please. Note well that regarding all the things that the Sages accepted as mitzvot handed down by Moses, who received them from the Almighty, you may neither add nor detract. But regarding that which they interpreted on verses of the text -- each person according to his circumstances and what he sees fit, and according to what seems reasonable in these commentaries - that is to be learned, and the rest is not to be relied upon.
In other words, what the Rabbis said must be accepted without challenge when it concerns the commandments. In contrast, regarding aggadah, we may accept what seems plausible to us, or reject what does not seem so. Essentially the view here is that accepting the Sages' words regarding aggadah or outlook changes from an obligatory ruling to a challenge for the student of their works.
The statements made by the geonim were even stronger. In Sefer ha-Eshkol, Part II, Rav Sherira Gaon is quoted as follows: "Those things that are based on verses [of the Bible] and are called midrash aggadah are only speculation, and one should not rely on aggadah." Further on Rav Sherira Gaon asserts, "Those things that are reinforced by the intellect and by Scripture we shall accept," and lastly, "There is no end to aggadot."
This final statement seems to mean that we can find support for every point of view in the aggadah. Likewise, Rav Hai Gaon (cited in Otzar ha-Geonim by R. B. M. Levi on Hagigah) notes:
Everything that is established in the Talmud is clearer than those things that are not established in it. Nevertheless, the aggadot that are written in it - if not clarified or if erroneous - are not to be relied upon. For the general rule is that one does not rely upon aggadah. But whenever we can remove the inaccuracies from something asserted in the Talmud, we should do so, for it would not have been included in the Talmud had it not contained a lesson to teach us. . . But as for that which is not in the Talmud, we do not need all this. If it is fine and true, it is studied and taught; and if not, it is ignored.
This is more than a scholarly remark aimed at distinguishing between aggadah presented in the Talmud and that which is presented elsewhere. Rather, it is an expression of dubiousness about aggadah in general. Nevertheless, if an aggadah presented in the Talmud is examined and found not to contain errors, it should be accepted. On the other hand, all other aggadic material must be subjecto the test of the intellect and logic.
The Geonim asked us to view the words of the Sages in the aggadah as requiring elucidation and study, and challenged us not to accept things simply because they are written or said in the name of the Sages. Rather, we are to examine them with our powers of rationality and logic.
Several places in Maimonides' writings show that he too gave thought to these subjects. For the sake of brevity I shall only cite one passage (Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, Ch. 14, p. 304 in Rabbi Kapah's edition):
Do not expect me to correlate all that they [the Rabbis] said regarding astronomy with things as they actually are, since their scientific understanding was lacking. They did not expound on these matters because they had received it as tradition from the Prophets, but because they were the knowledgeable people of their generation in those subjects, or because they had heard it from knowledgeable sources in their generations. This is not the reason that their words are said to correspond with the truth, or that they are incorrect, or that they correspond by chance. Rather, all human statements that can be elucidated and shown to correspond with reality, the reality being its proof, are preferable and more correct for a person of higher nature and righteousness.
Maimonides, like the rishonim, viewed the words of the Sages on matters of Halakhah as precepts given at Mount Sinai. In contrast, matters of outlook or subjects pertaining to science should be accepted with great circumspection and only after passing the test of reality.
The teachings of the Rabbis and the commandment to believe in them thus set forth a challenge to any educated student of the Torah.