LEFT & RIGHT
Rabbi David Walk
The entire book of Deuteronomy prepares the Jews for entering the Land of Israel. I feel a bit guilty that I'm writing these words as I'm flying away from the Holy Land, but my heart remains there and I'm flying El Al, which claims that it's like being at home. Some home! Who are all these neighbors? Any way, this week's Torah reading emphasizes the political aspect of having our own country. We are given instructions about appointing judges and setting up a legal system. The most famous of these laws is to appoint a king who must carry a Torah scroll with him at all times. The purpose is to remind him constantly that the rule of the Law supersedes his power. Thus began constitutional monarchy. However, this week I'm interested in the establishment of another institution, namely the rabbinate. Today the rabbinate, especially in Israel, has been earning for itself a bad reputation. Sadly, I think our governmental and political rabbinate has well deserved its negative label, but that's not what the rabbinate was for or what it's all about. This week's parsha gives another picture. Let's study that picture.
It all begins with a verse: And you will come to the judge, who will be in your day, and you shall inquire, and they will inform you about the matter of the law. And you will do as they inform you from the place chosen by God, and you will carefully observe all that they instruct you. According to the Torah which they will instruct you, and the law which they will tell you, do not depart from the matter which they will relate neither right nor left (Deuteronomy 17:9-11). The Talmud in tractate Shabbat (23a) derives from here the power of the rabbis functioning as the Great Court (beit din hagadol or Sanhedrin) in Yerushalayim to legislate new mitzvot, like Chanuka or Purim, and to recite that God 'sanctified us and commanded us' to perform these mitzvot, because their power came from the Almighty. Even though that's the essential capability granted to the rabbinate. The verse seems to hint at something more.
What does the verse mean by not departing left or right from the teaching of the rabbis? One might think that it means that we must believe and trust the rabbinic judges even when they are wrong, when they say that right is left or left is right. But the Jerusalem Talmud (Horiot 1:1) clearly states that's not true. But the Ramban explains that there are cases, like the setting of the calendar when we trust the rabbis even when we know they are mistaken, but those are rare cases. The Torah Temima (Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, 1860-1941) writes that this expression is a common metaphor to emphasize the clarity of a situation. Here, instead, the purpose is to declare that, in general, we should trust the rabbis over our own opinion. That in matters of Jewish law we should develop a certain humility to believe the scholar who is immersed in these matters more intensively than the layperson. This is an important principle to stress to many who consider themselves to be modern Orthodox. Often this group with whom I identify, trust professionals in most areas, finance, medicine, auto repair, but not Jewish law. This set criticizes the ultra-orthodox for asking the rabbi for advice in too many areas, but our team usually doesn't seek counsel often enough. We should be searching for a reasonable middle ground. But, sadly, middle grounds aren't in vogue these days.
This brings me to the point I'd like to propose this week. Historically, there was a concern about the dissemination of books. Especially those involved in the esoteric or occult were concerned about what the man in the street might do with non-conventional information. This idea was clearly expressed by one of our giants of Kabbalistic knowledge. Rebbe Yitzchak Sagi Nahor (Rabbi Isaac of Sufficient Light, or, in other words, the Blind, Provence, 1160-1235) was the son of the Ra'avid, and was dubbed the Mentor of the Kabbalah by Rabbeinu Bechaye. He declared that a book which is written down has no master. Many authors foolishly believe that they maintain some control over their written material after it's been published or disseminated. I think that many writers would be shocked by how their ideas have been put to use. I'd love to ask Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels about their reactions to the behavior of the former Soviet Union. So, that brings us to the Torah or the Bible, to most of the world. This is the most widely distributed work in history. There are over six and a half billion copies in existence, and it continues to sell approximately one hundred million copies a year. So, that brings us to the central problem: How do we remain secure in our confidence that our reading is right? The Bible is the most translated and interpreted work ever conceived, and it's spawned innumerable offshoots and cults. What makes us so sure that we're reading it correctly?
Enter our verse. The most important words for our purposes are bayamim haheim or 'in those days'. In every time period there are heirs to the legacy of our Sages who prevent us from veering left or right from the proper path. I'm not saying that we always get it perfectly right, but we do maintain the integrity of the text. We should always be skeptical of claims of 'new' or 'revolutionary' approaches. The point is that the continuity or the mesorah is the best assurance of integrity.
Our verse teaches us that we need an eternal GPS. We require guides to keep us on track. The only guides worth following are those who have been down the trail with recognized mentors. Our trailblazing involves finding new vistas along the well trodden route. The dangers are to be found on the far left and right. So, it's steady as you go.