The Sceptic Blog

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Rabbinic infallability

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The last post, Passive Smoking, attracted some interesting questions and comments (by email), including one asking whether the fact that the Pnei Yehoshuah thought that smoking was good for you suggests something about rabbinic infallibility, or rather the lack of it.
The position in Torah thought about the status of rabbinic pronouncements is clear in principle, although not always easy to apply in practice.  The essence of the approach is to determine which of many possible functions a particular rabbi is performing when he speaks or writes.
At one extreme, the rabbis may expound the meaning of the written Torah or the latest developments of the oral Torah (in accordance with the exegetical principles given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai) or enact decrees to reflect the needs of their time.  We have an express biblical obligation to observe the Torah in accordance with the rabbis’ pronouncements and decrees which are therefore, if not exactly infallible, certainly beyond challenge (whether by reference to objective accuracy or to any other matter).
So, for example, the Talmud records that when the rabbis made an objective error in calculating the dates of Yom Tov and the angels objected to God, He told them not to interfere (and there are other similar Talmudic passages).  Similarly, until the Cohen pronounces that a house is affected by tzoraas, it is not affected and vessels may be removed from it, but once the pronouncement is made any remaining vessels become affected: illogical, given that the nature of the tzoraas has not changed during the process, but explicable by reference to the power that the Torah gives to the pronouncements and decisions of the rabbis (originally, the Cohanim).
At the other extreme, the rabbis sometimes speak or write merely to record or transmit information.  If the information is wrong, either because the rabbi in question was supplied with deficient data or because his techniques of observation or calculation were limited or faulty, there is nothing heretical about disregarding the information when its deficiencies become apparent.  So, for example, early parts of the Mishneh Torah record certain astronomical information which has been shown by later techniques of observation to be erroneous: the Rambam thought it would be helpful to record the latest scientific understanding of these matters in the Mishneh Torah, but that does not give them any kind of Torah authority or infallibility.
Between these two extremes is an important grey area.  In particular, where the rabbis give halachic decisions which are expressly based on stated information, the decision will be open to challenge if it is shown that the information is flawed.  (See, in this connection, Rav Moshe Feinstein’s introduction to the Igros Moshe, where he explains why he gives his reasoning in full in each decision.)  In the case mentioned in the last issue, the Pnei Yehoshuah gave a decision about smoking on Yom Tov expressly based on the best medical evidence available to him at the time as to the beneficial effects on the digestive system of smoking.  Now that the medical evidence has changed, there is nothing heretical in disregarding the Pnei Yehoshuah’s psak halochoh and asking the rabbis of today to start again to determine the halochoh based on the present state of medical evidence; indeed, any other approach would be to ascribe to factual statements of the rabbis an infallibility and authority that could itself be seen as heretical.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

March 4, 2006 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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