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WHEN LEADERS ERR

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

We are to follow the leader even when what they say seems counterintuitive. Are there exceptions or are we required to have blind faith? * In cases where the Beis Din fails to listen to or adequately interview those involved, it compromises the integrity of the judicial process. * On the first reading of Parshas Shoftim.

by MoshiachAI

"According to the instruction which they teach you, and according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not deviate from the word which they declare to you, to the right nor to the left." (Deuteronomy 17:11)


Rashi, in his keen interpretation of this verse, tells us: "Even if he tells you about what appears to you to be right that it is left, or about what appears to you to be left that it is right, you have to obey him."


Such strong deference to authority naturally raises an eyebrow. It prompts us to delve deeper, pondering on the ramifications of such obedience. Does this verse truly grant our sages boundless authority, even in error?


Maskil L'Dovid, reflecting on this Rashi, infers the importance of understanding context. The verse is not granting a blank check to the sages to mislead or misinform. Rather, it underscores the importance of abiding by their interpretations and rulings, even when they appear counter-intuitive or against our personal perspectives. He further emphasizes that this instruction is consistent throughout the Torah, drawing parallels with verses such as: "If there's a fire to the right or to the left, from all that man says..." indicating the consistency of this sentiment.


The author cites Ramban, who delves deeper, highlighting a crucial distinction. The deference is not to the individual sage but to the institution of Torah scholarship. It’s a commitment to the chain of transmission, the mesorah. When they rule, it's not mere opinion but a reflection of centuries of Torah wisdom.


The Gur Aryeh adds another layer. It’s not about blind obedience. It's about acknowledging the depth and breadth of their Torah knowledge. They have swum in the oceanic depths of Torah, plumbing its mysteries and intricacies. When they rule, it's from a vantage point most of us can hardly fathom.


Before we delve into the crux of the matter, consider this: leadership, especially in spiritual matters, has always been fraught with the responsibility of guiding the masses through the murky waters of life. Our sages were keenly aware of this weight on their shoulders, not just as individuals but as torchbearers of a tradition that stretches back to Sinai. But does our tradition suggest that this authority is limitless, even if it appears to be in error?


EXCEPTIONS

While the ancient wisdom of our sages forms the bedrock of Jewish tradition, it is equally essential to recognize that like all human institutions, rabbinic authority has its bounds. As we navigate the vast sea of Jewish law and tradition, we find that our texts and teachings, in their profound wisdom, anticipate and make allowances for the very human propensity to err. This understanding serves as a testament to the dynamism and realism embedded within our tradition. Let's explore some notable exceptions where the seemingly infallible authority of our leaders meets the practical realities of human imperfection.


1. Mistaken Rulings: The Talmud, our compendium of rabbinic wisdom, openly acknowledges human fallibility. In Tractate Horayot (4b), it's stated: "If the court issued a mistaken ruling and the people acted on it, then the court brings a bull as an offering." This isn't merely about rectification; it's a profound reflection on humility. Even the greatest leaders and sages, steeped in knowledge, can err. Recognizing and rectifying those errors maintains the integrity of the system.


2. Clearly Erroneous Rulings: Rambam, one of our most prolific and decisive halachic authorities, erects clear boundaries around rabbinic directives. In his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mamrim 1:4, he mentions, "If the court instructs the populace to violate one of the Torah's commandments or adds a commandment of their own, they are not listened to." This isn't a slight on the court but a safeguard. The Torah's core teachings are sacrosanct; no individual or body can override its fundamental tenets.


3. Deference to Greater Authority: Our tradition places immense value on wisdom. When we find ourselves at crossroads, the Talmud urges seeking greater knowledge. As illustrated in Berakhot (63a), "Always set your table, even on a weekday, according to the (knowledge of) the Torah scholar." This isn’t just about physical sustenance but spiritual and intellectual nourishment, too.


4. Intent: Delving into the psyche of our leaders reveals an intricate web of intention, understanding, and foresight. Pirkei Avot (1:16) admonishes us to "be deliberate in judgment." This underscores that our sages operated from a profound depth of sincerity. Their every ruling was weighed, measured, and rendered with the entirety of Jewish tradition in mind.


5. Later Authorities: Judaism is not static. As the world evolved, so did halachic perspectives. A fascinating reflection of this dynamic is the debate between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, recorded in the Talmud, Bava Metzia (86b). The majority of rulings today follow the House of Hillel, suggesting that the evolution of halachic thought remains crucial to its contemporary application.


6. Self-Inflicted Harm: In our pursuit of spiritual connection and halachic adherence, the Torah remains clear: life is paramount. If one's actions, even rooted in rabbinic directives, lead to palpable harm, the tradition mandates a reevaluation. The Talmud in Berakhot (32b) suggests introspection in face of adversity. Even more emphatically, Yoma (85b) declares, "Saving a life takes precedence over the Sabbath." This profound principle places the sanctity of life at the pinnacle of Jewish values, ensuring that it always takes precedence.


7. Listening and Fair Judgment: The sanctity of a fair trial is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The very essence of justice in Jewish law revolves around the act of listening. It's not merely a procedural requirement but a fundamental ethical imperative. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (32b) emphasizes the critical role of witnesses, stating, "Both witnesses must see him [the perpetrator] at the same time, and he must be warned in their presence.” Furthermore, the court is required to engage in an in-depth examination of witnesses to ensure the truth's accuracy.


In cases where the Beis Din fails to listen to or adequately interview those involved, it compromises the integrity of the judicial process. Maimonides (Rambam) in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin 20:6, underscores this by emphasizing the thoroughness required in the interrogation of witnesses. He mentions: "One must be very cautious in [examining] the witnesses. Perhaps they will be found to be colluding, or they might have heard the matter from another and come to give testimony concerning what they heard."


By neglecting the voices of those being judged or the witnesses, the court risks contravening the Torah's command: "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). The repetition of "justice" in this verse has been interpreted by many scholars to mean both the ends (a just outcome) and the means (a just process) must be righteous. Without ensuring both, the system's integrity and the broader trust of the community in the system can erode.


True justice can only be achieved when the judicial process is thorough, fair, and most importantly, listens intently to every voice involved. By becoming aware of these principles, we gain a more nuanced understanding of the balance between rabbinic authority and the overarching values of the Torah. The system is designed to be both authoritative and compassionate, ensuring the continuity of Jewish tradition while safeguarding its core values.


In essence, while our tradition emphasizes deference to authority, it also underscores the importance of intention and the sanctity of life. Our sages were not infallible, but they navigated with a compass of intent and a commitment to the well-being of the Jewish people.


OUR UNIQUE ERA

In our modern age, as we dance the delicate dance between deference to authority and the acknowledgment of human fallibility, may we always be guided by the principles of intention and the sanctity of life.


We live in a unique epoch in Jewish history. Our sages describe the days leading up to the arrival of the Moshiach as the "Ikveta de'Meshicha", the footsteps or heels of the Moshiach. It's a time of paradox, of great spiritual darkness yet also the cusp of redemption.


In the Talmud, Sotah 49b, it is mentioned: "In the footsteps of the Moshiach, insolence will increase... the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog..." This cryptic comparison has been interpreted by many to mean that just as a dog runs ahead but always looks back at its owner, so too will leaders of such a generation lead with a seeming forward momentum but often be glancing back, unsure, lacking the full conviction and moral clarity of their predecessors.


It’s during these times that the authenticity and purity of heart of our leaders come into sharp focus. If, as our sages suggest, our era is marked by a certain degree of vacillation and lack of spiritual certainty, then the importance of ensuring that our leaders act with genuine intent, as mentioned in our fourth principle, becomes even more pressing.


The challenges of the "Ikveta de'Meshicha" period aren't just external. They're internal, affecting the spiritual and moral fiber of both the leadership and the community. Yet, it's precisely in such trying times that these principles serve as lighthouses, guiding us through the fog of moral ambiguity.


In our era, perhaps more than ever, the balance between deference to authority and the overarching moral and ethical compass of the Torah is tested. But the system remains resilient. By looking to these principles and the vast reservoir of wisdom in our tradition, we can navigate these choppy waters, ensuring that even in times of doubt, the sanctity of life, the value of sincere intent, and the clarity of Torah remains paramount.

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