|For Rabbinic Judaism, one passage in Parshat Shoftim, in particular, has played an extraordinary role in shaping its destiny:
Should the matter be beyond you to judge… you shall arise up and go up to the place that the Lord your God chooses, and you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who will be on those days, and you shall inquire and they will tell you the matter of the judgement… (11) According to the teaching that they instruct you and according to the judgement that they say to you, you shall do, you shall not swerve from the word that they tell you right or left. (Deuteronomy 17:8-11)
This passage was understood to provide the sages with the authority to be the judicial adjudicators for the rabbinic tradition. (For an understanding of how the sages extrapolated this mandate from this passage, see my teacher, Rabbi Joel Roth’s The Halakhic Process, chapter 5) Verse 11 (in the bold) was interpreted to ensure the community of Israel that the interpretations of these authorities in each generation was/is indeed correct one or more precisely the will of God.
The sages focused on the words at the end of the verse to spell out what this means: “you shall not swerve from the word that they tell you right or left”. The earliest extant rabbinic reflection on this question is found in a midrash from the period of the Mishnah:
‘right or left’ – Even if it seems in your eyes that left is right and right is left, listen to them. (Sifre Devarim 154 Finkelstein ed. p. 297)
The intent of this midrash is not clear so it is possible to interpret it any number of different ways. It is possible to understand from this midrash that the sages, as the authentic repository of the tradition, represent the will of God, namely, they have in their hands the answers that the tradition has to offer.
This passage might also mean, however, that the sages are invested with the instrumental authority of the tradition, meaning that it gives them the authority to make decisions and consequently they must be obeyed right or wrong.
Rashi clearly bases his interpretation on this midrash and, like the midrash, can be understood either way: “even if he says to you that the right is the left and the left is the right and all the more so if he says the right is the right and the left is the left.”
This interpretation for obvious reasons, did not sit well with everyone. The following reading, found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, questions the propriety of following opinions which one knows to be incorrect:
‘right or left’ – Is it possible that if they say to you regarding the right that it is left and regarding the left that it is right that you should listen to them? Scripture says: “right and left” – when they say to you right is right and left is left. (Yerushalmi Horayot 1:1)
Ramban (Nahmanides – 13th century Spain), one of the Torah giants of the Middle Ages, offers, perhaps, the most radical reading of this passage and, to my mind, the most religiously significant reading of this passage. For him, the sages are not just a repository of the past, nor instrumental authorities. According the Ramban, this verse makes the sages an extension of the process of revelation! He spells out his understanding of what Rashi means in these words: …Scripture, therefore defined the law that we are to obey the Great Court… For it was subject to their (that of the sages) judgement that He (God) gave them the Torah, even if it appears to you to exchange right for left.” In other words, the sages define what is right and what is left and their authority is not based simply on what the tradition said explicitly in the past, but rather, on the fact that the Torah gives them ongoing authority, namely, what the sages in each generation say is an extension of the revelation!
The Ritba (Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili), one of Ramban’s outstanding students, further spells out this position:
These and those are the words of the living God.” The French Rabbis of blessed memory asked how it is possible that both positions could be the words of the living God when one prohibits and the other permits, and they answered: When Moses ascended to heaven to receive that Torah, he was shown forty-nine reasons for prohibition and forty-nine reasons for permission concerning each rule. He asked God about this and God answered that the matter will be given to the sages of Israel in each generation and the ruling will be as they decide. (adapted from Hidushei HaRitba on Eruvin 13b)
The upshot of this position is that God’s revelation at Sinai was not definitive in nature; rather all possible options were revealed, putting it into is the hands of the sages of each generation to decide the appropriate answer. (See Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book, pp. 63-72)
This gives the sages, in fact, the Jewish people as a whole, the awesome responsibility of perpetuating the meaning of the revelation at Sinai. If taken seriously, with joy, love, and loyalty to God’s Torah, this task can help us make the world as God intended.