Parshas Shoftim (5771)
One of the main issues some people have with traditional (Orthodox) Judaism is the notion that the “Oral Torah”, which includes all the oral traditions, interpretations and legislation of the Rabbis of 2000-3000 years ago that have since been recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud, is just as divine and as holy as the “Written Torah”, the Five Books of Moses which contain the 613 commandments that G-d Himself is claimed to have given to the Jewish people.
This so-called “Rabbinic Judaism” is hard to take for many Jews. After all, it’s one thing to believe in a Revelation where G-d clearly tells us what to do. But to subscribe to the idea that G-d wants us to accept as binding the Rabbis’ interpretation of the Torah is a whole different story. Great scholars and saintly people they might have been, but these Rabbis were human beings just like you and me, so why should we listen to everything they said as if it were the actual word of G-d?!
Unbeknownst to many, however, the Torah itself, in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, spells out quite clearly that when questions of Halachah (Jewish law) will arise among the Jewish people, they shall ascend to Jerusalem and they shall come to the judges (i.e. the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the main legislative body of the Jewish people, whose offices were situated on the Temple Mount) who will be in those days, and they shall listen to whatever they are told to do (see Deuteronomy 17:8-11).
In fact, it is a positive commandment – one of the 613 - to obey the Sanhedrin in all questions of Torah law. It is thus written (ibid.), “You shall do according to the word that they will tell you, from that place that G-d will choose, and you shall be careful to do according to everything that they will teach you …”. This includes all questions of tradition and Torah interpretation, as well as legislation passed by the Sanhedrin.
It is almost as if G-d were afraid we wouldn’t get the message, because in the very next verse the Torah repeats the same commandment in different words: “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left” (ibid. verse 11).
Nachmanides, in his commentary to the above verses, explains that the decisions of the Sanhedrin which convened in G d’s presence in the Temple, by definition, represent the will of G-d, since the Torah was given to us according to their understanding.
It is because of these explicit verses that Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (his classic code of Jewish religious law) as follows: “The supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are the essence of the Oral Law. They are the pillars of instruction from whom statutes and judgments issue forth for the entire Jewish people. Concerning them, the Torah promises (Deuteronomy 17:11): “According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do”. This is a positive commandment. Whoever believes in Moses and in his Torah is obligated to make all of his religious acts dependent on this court and to rely on them.” (Mamrim 1:1).
So we see that the idea that G-d wants us to accept as binding the decisions, interpretations, and legislation of the (human) Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, which comprise the Oral Torah, is explicitly stated in the Written Torah itself.
But wait, there’s more ….
The fact is that that both Reform and Conservative Judaism also subscribe to the idea that human beings can interpret the will of G-d.
See, for example, the book Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants by Elliot N. Dorff, in which he describes the different “theories of Revelation”. He writes there that many Conservative Jews believe in what he calls “Continuous Revelation”. This means that G-d continues to manifest His will through the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah in each generation. Many Reform Jews, on the other hand, subscribe to what he calls "Progressive Revelation". According to that doctrine, G-d reveals His will to mankind through the use of human reason and moral striving.
No matter how you slice it, though, everyone believes that some human beings along the way can interpret the word and the will of G-d. The only difference is that whereas the Orthodox position is that only the great Rabbis of the Sanhedrin on the Temple Mount over 2000 years ago were invested with the power and authority to interpret the Torah in a way which makes their interpretations binding upon the Jewish people, the Reform and Conservative movements allow even contemporary Rabbis and other individuals to manifest the will of G-d through their human reasoning and understanding.
So I guess the big question now is – since we all seem to agree that human beings are involved in the process of interpreting G-d’s Torah – how do we really know that these human beings are truly above personal agendas and outside influences which might persuade them to interpret the Torah in a way which ultimately goes against G-d’s will instead of manifesting it?
The truth is that no human being – even the greatest rabbi in the world – is perfect and above all agendas and biases. But if anyone on earth came close, I would say it was the members of the great Sanhedrin over 2000 years ago.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his Handbook of Jewish Thought (Vol. 1), explains the qualifications needed in order to sit on the Sanhedrin:
Every member of the Sanhedrin had to be distinguished in Torah knowledge, wisdom, humility, fear of G-d, indifference to monetary gain, love of truth, love of fellow man, and good reputation. It is thus written, "You shall provide out of all the people, able men, who fear G-d, men of truth, disdaining unjust gain, and place them over [the people]" (Exodus 18:21). It is likewise written, "Take from each of your tribes, wise men, with understanding and full of knowledge, and I will make them your leaders" (Deut. 1:13). Judges had to have knowledge of science and mathematics to adapt Torah law to all possible situations. Since the Sanhedrin had to be competent to render judgment in all cases that came before it, all its members had to be expert in all areas of the Torah. They also had to have enough knowledge of science and mathematics to be able to adapt Torah law to all possible problems.
The members of the Sanhedrin whose Torah interpretations fill the 2711 pages of the Talmud included among them some of the greatest leaders and tzaddikim (righteous people) the Jewish people has ever known – the likes of Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, etc. – whose lives of great spiritual attainment are thoroughly documented in the Talmud, Midrash and elsewhere, and who were as above agenda as any human will ever be.
So if we have to go with human beings already, I am sticking with them. What do you think?
Our prophets have told us that one day we will merit having the great institution of the Sanhedrin back with us again as in olden times.
As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan writes in the Handbook of Jewish Thought: It is foretold that the restoration of the Sanhedrin will precede the coming of the Messiah. G-d thus told His prophet, "I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as in the beginning; afterward you will be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those who return to her, with righteousness" (Isaiah 1:26-27). This restoration, however, can only take place in such a time as willed by G- d. The Messiah will be a king of Israel, and as such, he can only be recognized by a duly ordained Sanhedrin. There is a tradition that the Sanhedrin will be restored after a partial ingathering of the Jewish exile, before Jerusalem is rebuilt and restored. There is also a tradition that Elijah will present himself before a duly ordained Sanhedrin when he announces the coming of the Messiah.
Let’s hope we live to see that day.