Parashat Shofetim: The Imperatives of Truth and Law

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September 04 2008

Deuteronomy 17:10-11 states: You shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you from that place which the L-rd 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.

Rashi famously comments: Even if he tells you regarding the right that it is left, or regarding the left that it is right, and certainly so if he tells you regarding the right that it is right, and regarding the left that it is left.

Apparently, the immediate source of Rashi’s words are those of the Sifre (Piska 154): to the right or to the left-even if they point out to you that right is left and left is right, obey them.

This comment opens the door to many questions. If Torah law, as expounded by the judges, is the expression of God’s Will, even granting that we always must follow the directions of these judges, how ab initio can it ever be considered to be false, in the manner that it is false to define right as left? Bet Din can never make a “mistake”! On the other hand, granted that as Jews, we must live our lives following the truth (the seal of God is truth!), if there is an independent standard by which we can ascertain that something is true or false, how dare we not follow the truth?

Without attempting a full analysis of the issues here, I wish to point out that many other Talmudic passages present a different version of the imperative than the one cited by Rashi.

The Talmud Yerushlami, in the beginning of Massekhet Horayot, draws the exact opposite conclusion: If they tell you that right is left and left is right, should you listen to them? The Torah states… to the right or to the left: (only when) they tell you that right is right and left is left.

Indeed, from one vantage point, the entire premise of Massekhet Horayot would seem to reject the maximalist version of the Sifre that Rashi quotes. For if what Bet Din does is by definition right (=true), what room is there for the sacrifices that the judges bring when it turns out that they erred?

Numerous authorities have attempted to reconcile the Sifre and the Yerushalmi. Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman z”l, on the other hand (She’elot U-Teshuvot Melamed le-Ho’il, sec. 3, #82), stated that there is indeed a dispute between the two sources. Moreover, he continued, the assumption of the Talmud Bavli (Horayot 2b), agrees with the Yerushalmi. Numerous students of Maran Harav Joseph B. Solovetchik, z”l, have cited his understanding of the matter, which may fit with one an interpretation of the Ramban’s remarks on the topic, found in his commentary on the Torah (Deut., ad loc.). The Rav distinguished between a case in which one thinks that probably the judges confused right with left, and a case where one is absolutely, positively sure that they have. The obligation to follow the judges even, as the Sifre writes, when right is left only holds in the first case, but not the second. In the latter instance, the Yerushalmi’s notion that one follows them only when right is right is operative.

Ramban first cites Rashi, and quotes the celebrated case (Rosh Ha-Shanah 25a) of Rabbi Yehoshua, who was instructed to come before Rabban Gamliel with his walking stick (a violation of the prohibition of carrying) on the Day of Atonement that occurred according to his (Rabbi Yehoshua’s) reckoning. These words of the Ramban seem to agree with the maximalist view expressed by Rashi. Even if Rabbi Yehoshua knew that Rabban Gamliel was wrong, he was obligated to disregard his own view and follow him.

However, Ramban continues: Now the need for this commandment is very great, for the Torah was given to us in written form and it is known that not all opinions concur on newly arising matters. Disagreements would thus increase and the one Torah would become many Torahs. Scripture, therefore, defined the law that we are to obey the Great court that stands before God in the place that He chose in whatever they tell us with respect to the interpretations of the Torah, whether they received its interpretation by means of witness from witness until Moses (who heard it) from the mouth of the Almighty, or whether they said so based upon the implication (of the written words) of the torah or its intent. For it was subject to their judgment that He gave them the Torah even if the judgment appears to you to exchange right for left. And surely you are obligated to think that they say “right” what is truly right, because God’s spirit is upon the ministers of the Sanctuary (Ezekiel 45:4), and He forsakes not His saints, they are preserved forever (Psalms 37:28) from error and stumbling. In the language of the Sifre: even if they show you before your own eyes that right is left and left is right-obey them!

This portion of the Ramban seems to argue that we must give the Bet Din the benefit of the doubt. It is not that they are wrong but we must follow them anyway. It that we must we have every reason to assume that they know what they are talking about, and therefore they are right, and therefore we must follow them. This leaves room for the truly exceptional case in which one knows for sure (qim li) that the truth is otherwise, and the position cited in the Yerushalmi in Horayot comes to the fore.

Analogously, philosophers distinguish between obeying someone who is in authority and someone who is an authority. According to the latter view, which may be the final view of the Ramban, there is no magical ipse dixit rule. (Cicero, in De Natura Deorum (I, 10), refers to Pythagoras's students debating, saying "ipse dixit", that is, "he said it himself", speaking of Pythagoras, whose authority they considered strong "even without reason".) Our recognition of those whose directives we follow is bounded by our realization that only God is totally free from error; in the meantime, we rely on those who have proven themselves a authorities, and try to fulfill God’s law as best as we can.


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