Many years ago there was a TV show called The Practice. As the name implies the show was about attorneys and their trials. In the midst of one trial, one of the lawyers mentioned that one of the reasons that a topic like abortion is so divisive and contentious in American society so many decades after Roe vs Wade, is because Americans never got a chance to vote on the matter. Assuming there had been a national referendum, it is clear that whatever the case, many on one side would still reject the legitimacy of the decision. Its understandable. For some the notion of abortion is abhorrent and tantamount to infanticide. Conversely others might feel that the individual right of a person to exercise the ultimate choice is sacrosanct. The point is simple. The lack of a vote, leads to frustration for those willing to live with its outcome.

How does this apply to Judaism? In the previous blog post, we discussed the story of Akhnai's oven and Rabbi Eliezer's refusal to cede the legal ruling to the majority. He argued and even appealed to divine intervention. The rabbis were not dissuaded and rejected his point of view. From their perspective, the case had already been argued and the vote cast. Even if Rabbi Eliezer was correct, he was wrong.

Introduction to Jewish Theology

He was causing division among the community of Israel and this was too great a sin to leave unanswered. In the end, Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated. The rabbis of the Talmud did not, I believe, profess to be 100% right on every decision. They were, I believe, far wiser and aware of their limitations to think that. Their concern was the unity of Israel in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the military occupation of Israel. While this may be difficult for us to agree with, at least we should strive to understand.

A conciliatory approach was offered by Rabbi Byron Sherwin to resolve contentious issues. The approach he suggested was that of a Takanah that had a time limit. The point was to assess whether a decision had negative consequences. Unfortunately, that approach does not have significant support nowadays.

In the end, it may be foolish to believe that unity can be reached beyond certain communities. The rabbis had limited authority in the early centuries of the Common Era. This made the rabbis much more concerned with Rabbi Eliezer's reticence to town the party line.

The rabbis of late antiquity performed various roles in Jewish religious and civic life. The rabbis of Babylonia, like their counterparts in the land of Israel, were seen as or functioned as holy men[1], sages, mystics[2], exorcists[3], lawyers, judges, and as community organizers.[4] The rabbis were honored and feared by many, but they were also despised and rejected by others. Their authority is often overstated and was only valid for those willing to support their enactments.

The rabbis crossed hereditary, financial, and social classes and based their authority on their mastery of Torah knowledge. Their power was significant in many ways and incredibly limited in others. In the end, rabbinic authority was limited by the extent to which the local populace accepted their jurisdiction and the degree to which the Persian and Roman ruling authorities allowed them to operate.

To find out more about the concept of revelation and the Torah, checkout An Introduction to Jewish Theology.

[1] Bavli Berachot 34b; Ta’anit 24b; Pesahim 112b; Bava Kamma 50a.

[2] Bavli Hagigah 14b; Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1.

[3] Bavli Me'ilah 17b.

[4] Jacob Neusner, There We Sat Down (Hoboken: Ktav, 1978), 74. See also Lee I. Levine, The Rabbinic Class in Late Antiquity (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1989), 99..

Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics.