The limits of Rabbinic authority

It’s one of the first sections of Gemara we teach to our children in the fourth chapter of Berachot. Yet, the implications of the story are far from childish, and resonate to this very day.

Following the near decimation of the Jewish community in Judea and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, a small group of Sages gathered in Yavneh to regroup and reform the rabbinic Academy, with the hope of reestablishing a Jewish community that has the spiritual wherewithal to withstand the churning waves of history. Rabban Gamliel HaNasi – the Head of the Academy – took a deliberately authoritarian tact, determined to establish a single communal norm in the face of growing division and within the rabbinic community. To his mind, the rabbis had to unite around a single halachic tradition lest the community render itself apart. And, to prevent just this type of split from happening, he intentionally imposed his authority over the Sages in the study hall, dominating the discussion and discouraging disagreement.

His foil, the great sage Rabbi Yehoshua, clearly disagreed not only with Rabban Gamliel’s rulings, but his tactics. What about the values of dispute, debate and healthy disagreement, which formed the foundation of halachic dialogue? Even in the aftermath of the Churban, was unity worth the cost of silencing dissent and preventing healthy rabbinic debate? Rabbi Yehoshua publicly disagreed with Rabban Gamliel, challenging not only the substance of his rulings but the propriety of his authority.

It is difficult to know how long the dispute raged; the Talmud relates three separate stories (spread across different masechtot) describing disputes related to the Jewish calendar, blemishes on a first-born animal, and finally regarding the obligation to pray in the evening. Yet, the effects of these disputes were cataclysmic, changing the very nature of Jewish scholarship.

The Talmud (Berachot 27) relates that Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed with Rabban Gamliel’s ruling regarding the obligation to pray in the evening. While Rabban Gamliel ruled that one must pray in the evening, Rabbi Yehoshua felt that the prayer is optional. This seemingly minor disagreement led to a major confrontation in the Beit Midrash, in the presence of the entire academy.

When the champions (i.e. students) came in, someone rose and inquired, Is the evening Tefillah compulsory or optional? Rabban Gamaliel replied: It is compulsory. Said Rabban Gamliel to the Sages: Is there anyone who disputes this? R. Yehoshua replied to him: No. He said to him: Did they not report you to me as saying that it is optional? He then went on: Yehoshua, stand up and let them testify against you! R. Yehoshua stood up and said: Were I alive and he [the witness] dead, the living could contradict the dead. But now that he is alive and I am alive, how can the living contradict the living? Rabban Gamaliel remained sitting and expounding and R. Joshua remained standing, until all the people there began to shout and say to Huzpith the Turgeman, Stop! and he stopped.

Rabban Gamliel clearly felt the need to impose his authority with definitiveness and finality. He must have felt that as his earlier attempts to bring Rabbi Yehoshua into compliance with his authority had failed, he was left with no choice but to make a public example of the sage – to insist that Rabbi Yehoshua remain standing, while he continued his lecture. In essence he conveyed the clear message that contradicting the ruling of the Nasi would not be tolerated, even to the point of public shaming. After all, had he not tried to communicate his point to Rabbi Yehoshua privately and failed twice?

Yet, in the eyes of his students and the members of the academy, Rabban Gamliel had gone a step too far. To publicly embarrass a sage over a halachic dispute crossed a line; it transformed the dispute from an appropriate “battle of Torah” into a personal vendetta. It indicated that despite his good intentions, Rabban Gamliel had lost his sense of proportion and had to be reined in. The Talmud relates that as Rabban Gamliel continued his lecture with Rabbi Yehoshua standing at attention, “All the people there began to shout and say to Huzpith the Turgeman, Stop! and he stopped.” Huzpith was more than a translator; he was essentially the loudspeaker. When Rabban Gamliel would teach, Huzpith would shout so that the entire academy could in fact hear the lesson. When they stopped Huzpith, they essentially cut off Rabban Gamliel’s microphone, halting the lesson and preventing him from continuing.

The Talmud relates that the rabbis appointed a new Nasi – Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaria – albeit temporarily. When they appointed an eighteen-year-old to replace their great leader, everyone, Rabbi Eliezer included, understood that he would never really be the true Nasi, and that Rabban Gamliel would soon return to his post. Yet, they inherently understood that despite Rabban Gamliel’s proper intentions, he had taken the imposition of his authority too far. His authoritarian tactics, rather than serving as a cause for unity, now presented an even greater threat to the cohesion within the Beit Midrash.

They recognized that for the sake of unity within the Jewish community, at a time of fracture, division and danger, they had to take the proper steps to reign in their great and revered leader.

About the Author
Raised in Silver Spring, MD, Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Michigan until his aliyah in 2008. He then served as a Judaic studies instructor and Academic Coordinator of the Elkana Campus of the Orot College of Education from 2008 until 2018. Today he is the director of OTS Amiel BaKehila, which sends delegations of educators, Israel-Engagers and Jewish artists to small and medium-sized Jewish communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter also serves as the Shorashim Coordinator for English-speaking countries for Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar. A graduate of Yeshiva University with an MA in Secondary Jewish Education and Rabbinic Ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, he has taught and lectured to groups of all ages in communities around the world. Rabbi Spolter lives with his family in Yad Binyamin, Israel
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