Sunday 4 September 2022

398) Maimonides’ view on the parameters of ‘faith in the sages’


Dr Avi Harel

Guest post by Dr Avi Harel

[Translated from the Hebrew by Gavin Michal  אבי הראל: אמונת חכמים והיקפה על פי הרמב"ם - ייצור ידע (]

Dr Avi Harel holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy and history. He served in the IDF, Border Police and Israel Police for three decades in various command positions. In his last position, he was the historian of the Israel Police. He has published four books and dozens of articles.



In the weekly portion of Shoftim in the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a general biblical overview of the style of governance which is to be established in Canaan when the Israelites eventually enter the land. Firstly, there is a reference to adherence to an appropriate system of law. Then there is an injunction to establish a form of law enforcement, along the lines of an efficient policing body, that is ethical and effective. And finally, the Torah specifies the principles that pertain to the appointment of the ruler of the people - the king. This came with the ethical requirement that his power is to be limited so that his rule is not supreme.

We will now focus on the centrality of the legal system, which has to be obeyed even under circumstances where it errs in its reasoning, in accordance with the following verses:

כִּ֣י יִפָּלֵא֩ מִמְּךָ֨ דָבָ֜ר לַמִּשְׁפָּ֗ט בֵּֽין־דָּ֨ם ׀ לְדָ֜ם בֵּֽין־דִּ֣ין לְדִ֗ין וּבֵ֥ין נֶ֙גַע֙ לָנֶ֔גַע דִּבְרֵ֥י רִיבֹ֖ת בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ וְקַמְתָּ֣ וְעָלִ֔יתָ אֶ֨ל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּֽוֹ׃ וּבָאתָ֗ אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים֙ הַלְוִיִּ֔ם וְאֶ֨ל־הַשֹּׁפֵ֔ט אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ֙ וְהִגִּ֣ידוּ לְךָ֔ אֵ֖ת דְּבַ֥ר הַמִּשְׁפָּֽט׃ וְעָשִׂ֗יתָ עַל־פִּ֤י הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַגִּ֣ידֽוּ לְךָ֔ מִן־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַה֔וּא אֲשֶׁ֖ר יִבְחַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יוֹרֽוּךָ׃ עַל־פִּ֨י הַתּוֹרָ֜ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר יוֹר֗וּךָ וְעַל־הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט אֲשֶׁר־יֹאמְר֥וּ לְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂ֑ה לֹ֣א תָס֗וּר מִן־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־יַגִּ֥ידֽוּ לְךָ֖ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל׃ וְהָאִ֞ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה בְזָד֗וֹן לְבִלְתִּ֨י שְׁמֹ֤עַ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן֙ הָעֹמֵ֞ד לְשָׁ֤רֶת שָׁם֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ א֖וֹ אֶל־הַשֹּׁפֵ֑ט וּמֵת֙ הָאִ֣ישׁ הַה֔וּא וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִיִּשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ וְכׇל־הָעָ֖ם יִשְׁמְע֣וּ וְיִרָ֑אוּ וְלֹ֥א יְזִיד֖וּן עֽוֹד׃

“If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault—matters of dispute in your courts—you shall promptly repair to the place that your God will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time, and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place that God chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left. Should either party [to the dispute] act presumptuously and disregard the priest charged with serving there your God, or the magistrate, that party shall die. Thus you will sweep out evil from Israel: all the people will hear and be afraid and will not act presumptuously again” (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

Faith in the sages

According to the literal meaning of these verses, one can never go against a court decision, even if one thinks that the legal system is mistaken and the decision is erroneous.

But is this the correct intention of verses? Why can one not insist on a personal or communal truth to be upheld in a case where the court has erred in its judgement? Do we have here a negation of criticism and independent thought? Are we bound by every pronouncement of the court? Do we have to listen to every person of the law in all circumstances?

According to the tenor of the above verses, this all applies to the rulings of the Great Court, the Sanhedrin, which is to sit in Jerusalem. However, the rabbis applied a much broader interpretation to this biblical instruction which included within it the injunction to obey every authorized sage whoever he is, even if the logic of the matter he pronounces upon does not correspond to one’s own sense of judgement, or to that of another. The name of such obedience is called, in rabbinic parlance, emunat chachamim or belief in the sages.

The rabbis say this very clearly in the following Mishna:

והתורה נקנית בארבעים ושמונה דברים. ואלו הן, בתלמוד, בשמיעת האזן, בעריכת שפתים, בבינת הלב, באימה, ביראה, בענווה, בשמחה, בטהרה, בשימוש חכמים, בדקדוק חברים, בפלפול התלמידים, בישוב, במקרא, במשנה, במעוט סחורה, במעוט דרך ארץ, במעוט תענוג, במעוט שנה, במעוט שיחה, במעוט שחוק, בארך אפים, בלב טוב, באמונת חכמים

The Torah is acquired by forty-eight things: By study, Attentive listening, Proper speech, By an understanding heart, By an intelligent heart, By awe, By fear, By humility, By joy, By attending to the sages, By critical give and take with friends, By fine argumentation with disciples, By clear thinking, By study of Scripture, By study of mishnah, By a minimum of sleep, By a minimum of chatter, By a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, By a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, By long-suffering, By generosity, By faith in the sages, By acceptance of suffering.[1]

The Mishna also mentions other factors which are beyond the scope of this article.

Based on this Mishna, the rabbis established the principle that when it comes to Torah study, the student must follow the sages blindly. Now, if this was only referring to the actual study of Torah, the matter would be entirely understandable. This is because in the interests of unity one should strive with all one’s might to prevent the Torah from becoming a multiple form of law where people do as they please. Additionally, one must be able to decide on new matters that arise that are peculiar to new circumstances. For both these reasons, one needs the guidance of the sage.

Maimonides similarly understood the importance of unity when he ruled in his Sefer haMitzvot on the matter of לא תתגודדו (not making ‘lacerations’), by quoting the Gemara in Yevamot (13b):

You shall not titgodedu' - you shall not make agudot, agudot (many groups) - This indicates a prohibition against disunity in the religious practices of the nation and its division into distinct groups.[2]

The problem, however, is that the concept of emunat chachamim (faith in the sages) did not stop there. It did not end with obedience to the sages concerning Torah interpretation alone thus keeping the Torah a unified body of law.

The rabbis broadened and extended this injunction to include this obedience to all matters of life, not just Torah interpretation. They required obedience to every chacham musmach (authorised rabbi) in all aspects.

This is also how the Jerusalem Talmud understands this concept as well:

נביא וזקן למה הם דומים? למלך ששלח שני פלמטרין שלו למדינה. לאחד מהם כתב: אם אינו מראה לכם חותם שלי אל תאמינו לו, ולאחד כתב: אף על פי שאינו מראה לכם חותם שלי תאמינו לו. כך בנביא כתיב: ונתן אליך אות ומופת, ברם הכא כתיב: על פי התורה אשר יורוך.

To what can a prophet and a scholar be compared? To a king who sent two of his palmaters (diplomats) to the provinces. About the one [the prophet]  he wrote: If he does not show you my seal, do not believe him. About the other [the scholar] he wrote: even if he does not show you my seal, believe him. Thus regarding a prophet is it written: “And he will give you a sign or a miracle.” However, regarding a scholar, it is written: “According to the teachings that they will teach you.”[3]

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the prophet at least has to produce a ‘sign’ but the scholar does not have to produce any credentials. He is to be obeyed simply according to the “teachings which he will teach.” And this was a well-accepted position because we don’t find that the Babylonian Talmud disagrees with this perspective.

To put it another way, there is no doubt at all - based on the plain reading of the text - that the biblical injunction to “do according to all he (the judge/sage) instructs,”[4] applies to Halachic matters. This is not disputed. However, according to many poskim (Halachic decisors) this commandment also falls on every single matter of faith and belief, including ethical principles, imaginative Aggadot or Midrashim of the sages, and other similar notions.  The common denominator of all these non-Halachic issues is that none of them are expressly to be found in the Torah and are, instead, generally rooted in various traditions or derived from reason or societal norms. In short, many of these poskim claim that emunat chachamim (faith in the sages) is essentially expanded to govern every possible aspect of our lives.

In sharp contradistinction to this rather prevalent view, is the opinion of Maimonides who has an entirely different approach. According to him, any area that is not strictly Halachic, such as medicine, economics, or politics, is no longer within the jurisdiction of the sages. Instead, the relevant experts in those areas must be consulted.

Furthermore, Maimonides hints in his Guide For the Perplexed, that the Aggadot (non-legal writings) of the rabbis - most of which did not correspond to later scientific knowledge (even in his days) - should rather be understood allegorically and not literally as if it were part of emunat chachamim.

אל תדרוש ממני להתאים את כל ענייני האסטרונומיה שהם ציינו אל המצב כפי שהוא, כי המתמטיקה הייתה לקויה באותם זמנים. והם לא דנו בזאת מבחינת שהם מוסרים אמרות אלה מפי הנביאים, אלא מבחינת שהם היו חכמי אותן תקופות במקצועות אלה או שמעו אותן מפי חכמי אותן תקופות. אין אני אומר בגלל זה על אודות אמרות שלהם, שאנו מוצאים אותן מתאימות לאמת, שהן אינן נכונות או שהן הופיעו במקרה. אלא כל-אימת שאפשר לפרש דברי אדם כדי שיתאימו למציאות שהוכח בהוכחה מופתית שהיא נמצאת, יהיה זה הראוי והנאות ביותר לאיש מעולה מטבעו עושׂה-צדק[5]

You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.[6]

Here Maimonides says very clearly that one should not follow the sages blindly when it comes to scientific matters, because they simply were not experts in such subjects. This is the view of Maimonides on science.

in a similar vein, when it comes to beliefs and opinions which are not clear cut like Halacha, which may include burning issues like the peace settlement, the return of territories, and questions of religious or political belief and so on, we can draw from some of Maimonides’ teaching in his Mishna commentary:

Yeshayahu Liebowitz writes:

“Maimonides establishes an important principle to help us deal with divergent beliefs and opinions [i.e., non-Halachic matters], which he references three times in his commentary on the Mishna:

1) When there is a theoretical argument amongst the sages concerning a religious matter which has no real or practical implications, one should not rule according to either one opinion but leave it as an open question (Sota ch. 3, Mishna 5).

2) Any argument between the sages which does not distil into a physical act but remains a principle of belief, should not be resolved by ruling according to either side (Sanhedrin ch. 10, Mishna 3).

3) Any theory that the sages grapple with but which does not result in a tangible outcome, should not be resolved by stating that the ruling is in accordance with either one of them (Shavuot ch. 1).[7]

Conclusion and summary

In the parsha of Shoftim, there is a statement concerning the commandment to follow the words of the sages. In its sensus literalis, it requires obedience to the sages only in matters of Halacha. However, the Talmudic rabbis and certain poskim (decisors) in the past and the present, expanded this biblical injunction and claimed that we are required to obey the words of the sages on every conceivable topic. This all fell, according to them, under the broad rubric of emunat chachamim.

Opposing this position was Maimonides who argued that the original biblical command remained entirely restricted to the technical nuances of Halacha alone. When it came to anything outside of Halacha, whether it related to science, medicine, political affiliations or even faith, the original biblical command fell away entirely - and in its place, we are required to consult with experts in the relevant fields, regardless of their religious or scholarly affiliation.

Accordingly, emunat chachamim (interpreted today as the blind faith in rabbis in matters all and sundry that is commonly displayed by so many within our communities) is totally out of step with the view of Maimonides who rejects such extreme faith in rabbis out of hand.

Further reading

[1] Mishna, Masechet Avot, Chapter 6, Mishnah 6 (Translation by Sefaria).

[2] Maimondes, Sefer haMitzvot, Negative Commandments, 45.

[3] Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 1:4.

[4] Deuteronomy 17:10.

[5] רמב"ם, מורה נבוכים, חלק ג', פרק י"ד, מהדורת שוורץ. לקביעה שהמתמטיקה והאסטרונומיה לא היו מפותחות בימי אריסטו וחז"ל, ראה – רוס, י. הרמב"ם והקדמה, התפיסה ההיסטורית של הרמב"ם, הכינוס השנתי למחשבת היהדות, ירושלים, תש"מ, עמודים 529 – 542

[6] Maimonides, Guide for the perplexed, Friedlander 1903.

[7] ליבוביץ, י. אמונתו של הרמב"ם, משרד הביטחון, אוניברסיטה משודרת, 1985, עמוד 66.


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