Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Consent of the governed vs Torah authority

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that. . . . Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . ." (American Declaration of Independence)

"You shall not depart from what they instruct you either to the left or to the right," - even if they tell you that left is right and right is left - Dvarim 17:11, Rashi, my translation

As a practicing Jew and a patriotic American, both statements resonate with me, and reconciling them seems to be a burning issue at a time when recognized Torah authority seems to be telling us that left is right and right is left, and to believe that left is left and right is right constitutes kfira (heresy). A little history might clear things up. When the second statement was given Moshe Rabbeinu was still with us and we had a Sanhedrin whose authority was unquestionable. The Sanhedrin would be in existence until the fifth century C.E. Since then, Torah authority did not derive from an unbroken chain from Moshe Rabbeinu, and there was room for acceptance or rejection. Throughout the galut, rabbanim were hired by their communities, who had the power to fire them and sometimes did. There was a check on the arbitrary authority of a rav. Only in 20th and 21st century America (of all places!) did the rosh yeshiva or admor morph into the posek, dayan and darshan rolled into one, and become invested with near infallibility. He got his position from his father or father-in-law, no one dared oppose him, and he was accountable to nobody. All we - educated, thinking, practicing Jews - need do is revert to the practice followed ever since the Sanhedrin became defunct. We have the right to choose our own Torah authority. If those on whose every word we used to hang prove to be fools who cannot accept objective reality and would drag us back to the Dark Ages, then "it is the Right of the People to . . . institute new Government," i.e. to choose other Torah scholars who are open to the world and who respect our right to think.

[Caveat: Praise to God, the Sanhedrin was recently re-established in Israel. Click here. To its credit, it is not issuing rulings that would divide the Jewish people more than it already is. I cannot for one minute imagine the nasi, R. Adin Steinzaltz, signing on to a book ban regardless of how vehemently he may disagree with what is in the book).

Happy Fourth!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great post!! Spot on!

Thu Jul 06, 07:49:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what if the next nasi DID issue a ban? Would you suddenly wish that there was no sanhedrin?
You would probably want a sanhedrin that would be responsive to the will of the governed. But that would not be leadership, that would be pathetic poll taking of the fickle will of the ignorant masses.
Look in the Pirush hamishnayos of the rambam in the beginning of tractate Chullin.
There he records that in the lands of the west in his time (12th century CE)they knocked off heretics on a regular basis.
You don't always need a sanhedrin to deal with kefirah in a very timely and efficient way...

Thu Jul 27, 12:05:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

"There he records that in the lands of the west in his time (12th century CE)they knocked off heretics on a regular basis.
You don't always need a sanhedrin to deal with kefirah in a very timely and efficient way... "

Who's "they?" The Rambam himself knew about knocking off heretics. He was chased out of Spain by the Al-Muwahaddin (Almohads), Muslim fanatics who invaded Spain with their puritanical and intolerant version of Islam. One could say that they were the Taliban of the age. Not only did Spanish Jewry never recover, Muslim Spain never recovered either. What was once a strong and united caliphate became a collection of rival fiefdoms ripe for picking by the Christians to the north, fanatics in their own right single-mindedly committed to reconquista. The results for us Jews are well known.
If a future nasi were to issue a book ban it may well lead to a schism similar to those that tore apart Christianity and Islam. That is why the Sanhedrin must be and is being re-established with the greatest of caution. Like any leadership, it must balance its responsibility to the governed with its obligation to sometimes take the public where it's not willing to go. John F. Kennedy comes to mind (ending legal apartheid in the U.S.). So do R. Hirsch and Rav Kook.

Thu Jul 27, 07:49:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"they" are the Jews. The rambam was discussing the applicability of "moridin ve'ano ma'alin in his own time.
This is a Jewish halachic principle, as intolerant and anti-democratic as could be.
Live with it.

Fri Jul 28, 02:26:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Moridin v'lo ma'alin is one of those principles that might have worked in the Middle Ages but is completely unworkable in our time. A physician, for example, who does not respond on Shabbat to an emergency involving a non-Jewish patient would face professional sanctions, and anybody who takes it on himself to execute a heretic would end up in jail.
President Kennedy once said that our system isn't perfect but we don't have to build a wall to keep our people in. That seems to be what some of the gedolim are doing, and in today's world it is causing a great many people to opt out. Real authentic uncorrupted Torah has a lot going for it and is well able to compete with other value systems without recourse to bans and threats.

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