There is, in my understanding of the classical halachic sources, a basic misrepresentation of what a person’s independence of halachic authority is. I think this misrepresentation is on both sides of the fence — both those who claim that one must be completely subservient, and those who claim complete independence.
Written Torah & Oral Torah
The Torah itself makes it clear that there is a need for subservience to a halachic body, namely the Sanhedrin. One who disputes their rulings, even a leading scholar, is liable to death1.
However, we find in the Oral Torah2 that this is limited to issuing a psak for others, not in maintaining one’s own view. The Talmud makes clear that the real issue is one of unity, for we do not want to have disparate practices of Judaism.
Furthermore, we find3 that one who knows that the Sanhedrin made a mistake is not allowed to listen to them. The Talmud Yerushalmi4 is even more explicit and states that one is not supposed to listen to the Sanhedrin if they tell you that “your right is your left or your left is your right.” You are only obligated to listen if “they tell you that your right is your right, etc.”
Finally, Chazal also tell us5 that one must listen to the leader of his day. This is derived from the fact that the Torah lists and compares a few different leaders of various levels of greatness. We find in this list even the Shofet Yiftach, who the Talmud calls “lightweight”, or even a more accurately, a “lowlife.” From the continuation of the Gemara it becomes apparent that this would apply not only to a leader, but even a judge.
Thus, from all of the words of Chazal it seems apparent that one must follow the leader of a given generation when he is correct. If he is violating the Torah, however, or is issuing a halachic decision that is incorrect, following such a person would be prohibited.
What About Rashi?
This all seems to be in blatant contradiction to the words of Rashi on Shoftim 17:11 that seem to say that one should follow the Sanhedrin even when they tell you “that your right is left and your left is right.”
The source for Rashi, though, is a Midrash in the Sifrei whose wording is somewhat different from the way that Rashi presents it. The Midrash uses the phrase “if it appears in your eyes that the Sanhedrin is telling you that your right is your left, etc.” The key word here is “appears,” for the Midrash is speaking only about a time of doubt. If, however, it is clear to you that the Sanhedrin has erred, it would be prohibited to follow their ruling. Indeed, many super-commentaries on Rashi interpret him to mean the very same thing as the version of the Midrash that we have.
To be sure, even if Rashi did not mean what so many interpret him to have meant, we still would not follow Rashi l’halacha, instead following the Gemara over a Midrash as is almost always the case when deciding the halacha.
This being the case, we can explain Rashi as having meant exactly what he said — that one is to follow the Sanhedrin even when they tell you that “your right is left”. However, we can suggest that Rashi was merely explaining the verse according to the simple way of understanding it, and was not trying to decide what the halacha is.
From all of this we see that there are times when someone need not, or is not even allowed to, follow the decision of the Sanhedrin.
However, we still need to clarify when one can decide that the Sanhedrin is wrong. We also need to clarify how far to apply this rule of authority, and whether a Jewish court that does not have the definition of Sanhedrin is included. Possibly even more pressing is the need to clarify the status of individual rabbis, and Roshei Yeshivah. I hope to do just that in future essays.