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The Torah instructs us to “do everything according to what the rabbis say... do not deviate to the right or left."
This raises a basic and important question. I'll listen to God. But why should I listen to the rabbis? They're only human, and they can make mistakes.
The short answer is that the Bible tells us to listen to the rabbis (Deut. 17:10). The long answer ends the same way, but the middle is more interesting.
The Talmud tells of a disagreement in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) over a point of law. Of the 71 rabbis on the court, 70 say the law is one way. One holds the opposite view.
"If I'm right," the dissenter says, "let the walls of the study hall buckle inward."
The walls buckle.
"If I'm right," he says, "let the stream outside flow uphill."
The stream flows uphill.
"If I'm right, let a voice from heaven proclaim it!"
A voice booms out of heaven, "He's right!"
A rabbi from the opposing side gets to his feet.
"The Bible is no longer in heaven," he says. The Bible tells us to follow the majority view of qualified Sages. Miracles and voices from heaven are not admissible as evidence. You're outvoted and that's the end of it!
When God gave the Bible and its explanation to Moses, it became our job to understand and apply it, and informed reason becomes the arbiter of the law's meaning.
This doesn't mean everyone's opinion of the law is equal, and it also doesn't make the final decision subjective or illegitimate. People also interpret and explain the laws of physics or of chemistry, but this doesn't make science subjective or illegitimate. And though scientists are people, not all people's opinions are equal. If I say, "Einstein was wrong. Really, E=MC4," no one's going to listen. If Stephen Hawking says it, it means more.
But why should I accept the authority of a 3,300-year-old legal tradition?
A popular bumper sticker reads "Question Authority."
Mistrust of authority isn't new. Vietnam and Watergate may have heightened mistrust of government, but Enlightenment philosophers struggled against the authority of the church and state 200 years ago.
Blind allegiance to the past is stupefying. But tradition also gives us roots, and it gives context to our lives. In denying tradition's claims, we may just discover we have become orphans in history.