Shavuot – Religious Obedience or Blind Cruelty
What is the difference between this statement and those of our enemies who pride themselves on obedience to any order including mass murder?
In 1965 Prof. Stanley Milgram of Yale University researched people’s obedience to Authority figures. These experiments are now famous. He asked volunteers to give electric shocks of escalating strength to “learners” who were really his cohorts. Under certain conditions 100% of the volunteers administered a lethal jolt of electricity of 450 volts. Some of these volunteers even prided themselves in their ability to follow orders to the end. Although most of the participants subsequently felt bad they still committed an act which they viewed as murder. The people of Europe felt pretty miserable after the NAZIs were defeated but this did not change the fact that the vast majority helped murder millions of Jews.
Is there a difference between this obedience and our Pasuk which says Naaseh Venishmah? I believe that there is. The Jews at Har Sinai were talking to G-d. They were not simply spell bound by some great speaker. They trusted and believed that G-d would give them good mitzvot.
Today when any speaker talks to a Jewish crowd there are always many people who question the validity of anything stated by the speaker. The Jewish people do not take to authority easily. I am sure that a Jew invented the Political pin-button that was popular in the seventies which said “Question Authority.” Additionally, Our Rabbis have Told us that the Jewish people have uncircumcised hearts. (Nedarim 31b)
You may have noticed that a certain minority of Jews are actually into mind control. They like to quote a particular Midrash which is quoted by Rashi and elucidated by Ramban. The pasuk in Devarim 17-11 says:
According to the Law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment they will tell you, you should do, you should not turn aside from the sentence which they will declare to you, to the right or to the left.
The Midrash Halacha – Sifri states on this Pasuk.
Even if their words seem to you as if left is right and that right is left, you should still listen to them.
I have sometimes heard this quoted. The quoter informs me that I must heed the words of a particular rabbi. I must listen and not ask questions even if he tells me to commit murder or to waste my life away, and live off of charity while dodging the draft. Followers of such opinions believe that their minds are too feeble to make any decision since this right is reserved for “Gedolim”.
I, personally, do not fear religious Jews who espouse such opinions as I do of gentiles. This is because they try to follow the Torah whose ways are peaceful.
However, How should I view the statement that I must listen to anything and everything that their Rabbi says? The first and simplest answer is that the Pasuk and Midrash are referring to halachic rulings made by the Sanhedrin which is supposed to be a ruling body. Transgressing their words is worse than breaking some civil law made by your government. (Like drunk driving the wrong way on a busy highway)
Today there is no Sanhedrin constituting the 70 most brilliant Jewish minds. When I am told to heed the political statements of certain rabbis and not to veer left or right I can answer “no”. Even if the Rabbi is great enough to have a seat on the Sanhedrin he is only one of a possible seventy! Seventy brilliant Jewish Rabbis would certainly regularly disagree.
We must still admit that the Midrash holds that you must blindly follow rulings made which seem to be illogical.
However, The Yaavet”z, who lived at the end of the 17th Century, says that a student must always listen his personal rabbi from whom he has gained most of his knowledge even if the ruling seems illogical.
Mahara”m Elashkar says that every individual must always listen to the “Gadol Hador” – the Greatest Rabbi of the generation.
Many Jews pride themselves on using their brains. When you see a gathering of six hundred thousand Jews you need to say a Bracha called “Chacham Harazim”. G-d is great enough to see into the hearts of all these people who think differently from each other. (Brachot 58a) All of these people find it difficult to listen to rulings which are made by great bodies, certainly it is even more difficult to listen to individual rabbis even if they are great.
There are at least 2 talmudic sources which contradict our popularly quoted Midrash.
The first Mishnah in Horayot says:
…A Bet Din made a ruling and a member of the Bet Din knew that they were mistaken or a student who is great enough that he could himself make rulings [knew that they were mistaken.] If he acted on their ruling, whether he acted with the Bet Din, after they acted or if they did not act he is guilty [and must bring a sacrifice.]
Therefore it is forbidden for a knowledgeable person to blindly follow any ruling which he knows to be incorrect even if the Sanhedrin made the ruling.
Additionally, the Talmud Yerushlmi on the above Mishna in Masechet Horayot cites a sources from a Braita:
Is it possible that that you must obey them even if they tell you that right is left and that left is right? [No] the Pasuk teaches us to follow them on right and Left, Only if they tell you that right is right and that left is left.
This statement from the Braita clearly contradicts the Sifri. Indeed, both use the same pasuk to teach the exact opposite.
Interestingly enough, it is not rabbis who regularly make rulings and statements which are so illogical as to seem that they are saying that right is left and left is right. This privilege is generally reserved for idiots. In his responsa Mahara”m” Elashkar and certain others refer to Blind Amey Haaretz – Ignorant people as those who say such stupid things which seem to be implying that they do not know the difference between right and left (see Shu”t Mahara”m Elashkar 67 and more)