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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

What is the Basis for Rabbinic Authority?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on September 26, 2016)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Devarim, Shoftim, Halakha & Modernity, Halakhic Methodology

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What is the basis for Rabbinic authority? Why do we follow the Talmud? Why is the Rabbis’ interpretation of Torah mitzvot binding on us? The Talmud tells us that the answer to some of these questions can be found in our parasha. Much of Parashat Shoftim is devoted to institutions of authority: the court system, the king, the prophet, and those whose job it is to interpret the true meaning of the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah states that if something is hidden from you, “You shall arise, and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose.” It continues:

And you shall come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days and enquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence, which they shall tell you from that place which the Lord shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform thee. According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not deviate from the sentence which they shall tell you to the right, nor to the left (Devarim 17:8–11).

The Torah is investing this body with the power to interpret a law whose meaning is unclear. One who deviates from their interpretation violates both the positive mitzvah to follow the law that they shall teach, and the mitzvah to not deviate from it, to the right or to the left. This, then, would seem to serve as a basis for Rabbinic authority, if not in their capacity to legislate, at least in matters of interpretation. But the matter is far from clear.

First, in this case, the court is not analyzing the meaning of a law for its own sake. Rather, it is responding to a case brought before them. Just as the Supreme Court of the United States cannot rule on a law until a case is brought before it, there is nothing in the Torah giving this body any authority to initiate a ruling on their own accord. Moreover, the Torah does not describe an individual bringing a question to the court, say, on the scope of a melakha on Shabbat, but rather, a case of litigants, “a matter of dispute in your gates.” Because each side is demanding justice, they must turn to a higher court for an authoritative decision. This is how a court that oversees the law of the land operates; it does not make proactive rulings or respond to inquiries of individuals. But this is not how the Talmud operates. The Talmud’s ruling regarding Shabbat, kashrut, prayer, torts, and even murder all emerged from a group of rabbis discussing the issues among themselves—a far cry from “a matter of dispute in your gates.”

Even if we were to assert that the court could initiate such rulings and decisions, we would still have a long way to go to connect the body described in these verses to the Rabbis of the Talmud. According to these verses, this body consists of a single judge and kohanim. The “judge” may refer to a sage or to someone knowledgeable in the law, but it may also refer to a political leader, typically referred to as judges in the book of Judges. Thus, the Talmud comments on the phrase, “the judge that you will have at that time”: “Yiftach in his generation was like Shmuel in his generation” (Rosh HaShannah 25b). While Shmuel did indeed judge the people (Shmuel 1, 7:15–16), Yiftach was only a political leader, and yet the Rabbis see this verse as referring to him as well. More significantly, the kohanim are not sages. They seem to be playing the role of God’s representatives, hence the location of this body on Temple grounds. It is true that, later in Devarim, the kohanim are entrusted with the responsibility of teaching Torah to the people (33:10), but there is no indication that this is the role they are playing here, or that a sage who is not a kohen could serve equally on this body.

Finally, as this body is the supreme judicial authority of the land, this court is singular, and it is located in a central location. While there did exist a single, central Sanhedrin in the time of the Second Temple, only a tiny fraction of the rulings of the Sages comes from that body. The vast majority of the rulings in the Talmud come from the post-Temple, post-Sanhedrin period, when there was no single authoritative body. What, then, is the basis for the authority of the Rabbis of the Talmud?

Of course, it could be argued that none of these details matter, that after the Temple’s destruction the Sages replaced the kohanim as the religious leaders of the people, and that the verse applies to them as well. Similarly, implicit in these verses is the idea that a local body can have authority for those who turn to it in the absence of a central body. While it is possible to interpret the verses in this way, it will not solve our problem, for what makes such a reading correct? The answer cannot be that the Talmud says it is so, for this is obviously circular: How do we know that the Rabbis have the right to interpret the Torah? Because they interpret the Torah to say that they have that right!

While this is clearly begging the question, it is worth noting that we find a similar instance in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. Although the right of the court to determine if a law is constitutional is not explicitly granted in the Constitution, in Marbury v. Madison (1803), Chief Justice John Marshall maintained that this power was implicit in the Court’s duty to uphold the Constitution. While a somewhat circular argument, there was at least never any question as to which body had the right to make the final legal decisions of the land. In contrast, there is nothing that obviously leads from the verses in the Torah to identifying the Talmudic Rabbis as such a body.

So we are back where we started. What is the basis for Rabbinic authority to interpret Torah law? Ultimately, an explicit answer cannot be found in the Torah, as history makes clear. Going back to the time of the Second Temple, there were sects that rejected Rabbinic authority while fully accepting the authority of the Torah: the Essenes, the Sadducees, the Karaites. So much of what distinguished these groups lay in who they believed held the ultimate authority to interpret and apply Torah law. Their answers were not found in verses; they were found in the practitioners’ beliefs. A Rabbinic Jew believed in Rabbinic authority. This was an a priori belief; it was his point of departure.

In a way, this is no different than belief in the Torah itself. Why does a person believe that the Torah is from God? The answer can’t be that the Torah says so. That’s circular! (An old yeshiva joke: “How do you know that God exists? Rambam says so, and Ra’avad doesn’t argue.” So much for yeshiva humor…) If one steps outside the system, there is no objective evidence which proves a person’s beliefs. One is a Torah Jew because she believes that the Torah comes from God and is binding on us. And one is a Rabbinic Jew because she believes that the Rabbis were invested with the authority to interpret the Torah.

Our parasha is devoted largely to laying the foundations for a system of authority—the king, the courts, the judges, and the prophet—and to severely punishing those who would challenge it. Of all these, the one that remains today, the authority to interpret the Torah, that is, rabbinic authority, is the one rooted in those who believe in it and accept it upon themselves. This parallels our contemporary condition: We live in a world in which, for the majority, religious practice is not imposed by the state but is fully voluntary. We live in a world in which, in practice, the only power that rabbis have is given to them by the people who turn to them and those who employ them. Some may bemoan this state of affairs, but for many, it is the ideal. It helps prevent—to some degree and in most, but not all, cases—gross abuses of power. It also helps create a dynamic wherein rabbis must be attuned to the needs of the populace if they hope to have people turn to them for their rulings and leadership. Such is the nature of an authority that emerges from belief, acceptance, and choice.

Who says the Rabbis have this authority? I do.