The Truth About Halachic Authority (Part 3): Modern Authorities

In our last installment we started to mention contemporary authority without actually discussing the halachic sources for it. We also did not yet discuss the breakdown of the various components of the contemporary rabbinic makeup.

The Chinuch (496) states that the halachos of following the Sanhedrin apply to the chachamim of each and every generation. This is supported by the Gemara (Rosh HaShana 25b) that states that one must follow the judge in his day. Some sort of support for this can also be found in Teshuvos HaRosh in which he writes that someone who argues with the Gemara is acting like the unrepentant sage who would have been executed during Temple times.

Furthermore, there is the actual authority of the Gemara itself. Rambam states that this authority is based on the fact that almost all the chachamim of the time were assembled together at the time of the Gemara and made a consensus. This was subsequently accepted by the later generations and now has binding authority on the whole Jewish nation.

Rabbis & Courts

We also find throughout history the concept of the Rabbi or beis din of the city. These two institutions had the power to enact various laws for their city, and said city was to rely on their opinion even in the face of opposition. This is already mentioned in the Gemara with some cities following their rabbi’s opinion even to the point of eating something others do not consider Kosher, or violating Shabbos. Based on this it would also seem that either after their particular sage passed away, or a consensus was reached, the city stopped following this ruling. (This would explain why, for instance, we do not find anyone who keeps Kosher eating chicken cooked in milk.)

However, that was all the case during the times of the Gemara. Since then, arriving at a complete consensus has become more difficult. As such, we do find enduring differences in halacha among the various communities of the Jewish people. Indeed, the rabbanut in Israel tried to unify observance in order to maintain the peace, but only achieved limited success, and even had opposition to their attempts.

Roshei Yeshiva & “Da’as Torah”

Possibly even more unclear is the need to clarify the status of individual rabbis and Roshei Yeshivah. It is certainly understandable that a rabbi should, and could, have the power to decide for his own congregation. Similarly, we can understand that a Rosh Yeshiva, provided that he knows halacha, would have the authority over his own institution. But just how far does this authority extend?

No one would suggest that every congregational rabbi’s opinion is binding on anyone beyond said rabbi’s own congregation. The only time one would suggest this would be if the rabbi happened to be considered one of the leading rabbis of the generation. The same would apply with a Rosh Yeshiva, for example R. Moshe Feinstein.

It seems then that the broad-based authority of Roshei Yeshivos is based on a few different concepts. One is the acceptance of their authority by the greater “Yeshiva world.” In this case their authority is similar to a town Rav’s authority throughout our history, as discussed above.

Furthermore, the assumption is that most decisions are being based on what is called “shikol ha’daas” (judgment calls). Therefore, one is submitting his own personal judgment in front of the judgment of a great, or a convention of great, Torah scholars. One who does this is assuming that his own powers of judgment are no better than the Rosh Yeshiva. This is considered true for a few reasons. One is the vast Torah knowledge that they possess, which has refined their understanding and trained and guides their thought process. Their exalted status leaves us to assume that they are looking at the events with at the very least a less-biased approach than we might posses, giving them the ability to more clearly understand the issues at hand. Also assumed is that they receive more information on the issue at hand and therefore can better evaluate the situation more so then the average person (at least when discussing something like political decisions). Those who follow this approach also believe that the exalted status of the Rosh Yeshiva, together with his fear of Heaven and desire to serve HaShem correctly, causes HaShem to act with him in the manner of what is known as “siyata d’shamaya”.

One who does not want to accept upon himself the authority of the Roshei Yeshivos must disagree with any of the above assumptions (and perhaps more). While technically this might be halachicly permitted, one might say that it is foolhardy. This is not to say that any of the great Roshei Yeshivos are infallible; all humans can make mistakes. However, just as a Gadol is capable of making a mistake, so too are we. Those who follow the “daas Torah” approach, though, simply assume the chances of a mistake being made by a Gadol is lower.

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