Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Emunas Chachomim - Rav Nochum Rabinovitch

See Hakirah Magazune for the full article

What is “Emunat Ḥakhamim”?*

By: Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch

The Responsibility of the Individual

This obligation to work at achieving and clarifying the truth is not limited to those who are on the level of deciding halakhah. The Torah was given to all Jews, each of whom is obligated to learn the Torah sufficiently to be capable of arranging all his actions according to halakhah. For this purpose we need to understand the reasons for the halakhah, “for if one does not comprehend the reasoning behind the halakhah, he does not understand the halakhot themselves correctly and clearly. He is the “undeveloped” person [of whom the Mishnah says, “cannot and does not fear aveirot.”] For this reason many [poskim] prohibit issuing halakhic rulings out of books which summarize the laws without providing reasons or background. It is therefore not permitted to postpone studying the reasoning behind the halakhot….”11

Until a person has studied sufficiently so that he can decide halakhot, he has no choice but to choose a rav from whom he can inquire concerning what he may do and what approach he should take. Even when one has acquired substantial knowledge, if he is truly wise he will never rely exclusively on his own decision but will turn to other ḥakhamim for their opinion and advice. But one who has insufficient knowledge, yet fails to turn to a ḥakham for guidance, relying instead on his own weak understanding, is but an arrogant person with no fear of Heaven. 
Yet, even when one asks a rav to rule for him and the rav renders a psak, he is not relieved of his responsibility to understand the reasoning behind the psak. The rishonim already dealt with this topic, and I will quote here the instructive words of the Ba’al ha-Ma’or on tractate Sanhedrin (p. 12a in the Rif). 
“If you were to ask: We hold [the prevailing view] that cases of garmi (damages resulting from direct and predictable cause) are liable for court adjudication. Why then do we say that when a judge
errs in something stated explicitly in a Mishnah, he simply reverses his ruling but is not responsible for any losses, even if the damage incurred by the litigant due to his error is irrevocable? [For example,] the case of the cow of Bet Menaḥem whose meat can not be returned because R. Tarfon [the judge] had already [caused it to be] fed to the dogs [by those who followed his ruling]. “The answer is: The litigant was negligent. Since the error is in that which is stated explicitly in a Mishnah, the error is obvious, and the litigant should not have relied upon him and should not have acted upon what he was told. He should have questioned [the judge] and demonstrated the error, for this  was as obvious as an explicit Mishnah. Therefore it is the litigant who was negligent; the judge’s ruling is superfluous. This is what is meant by: It is as if the judge never issued the ruling; he did nothing at all [to the litigant].” 

Thus, one who consults even an outstanding rav is considered negligent if he does not attempt to clarify and confirm that the psak he received is indeed correct. This is how great is each individual’s responsibility for his actions; this is how effectively he must clarify the correct ruling, as well as what Hashem expects of him in each situation

We can conclude from all this that emunat ḥakhamim is indeed an exalted attribute, but one that is quite difficult to achieve. It is not found in those who are lazy, who wish to relieve themselves of the burden of study. True emunat ḥakhamim obligates one to delve deeply to find the reasoning behind the ḥakhamim’s words while at the same time requiring the student or inquirer to be critical and to investigate rigorously, in order to verify that there is no room for dissent. Certainly there exists justification for their words; we still need to determine if they are to be actually carried out, למעשה הלכה.

All this applies to words of Torah, which all Jews are commanded to know and carry out. On the one hand one may not rely on his own knowledge to issue rulings—even for himself, certainly for others—without consulting and seeking advice from ḥakhamim. “Any scholar who has not yet achieved the level that qualifies him to issue rulings, and he nevertheless does so, is an arrogant fool…. Junior students who have not acquired an appropriate store of Torah knowledge and want to appear important to the commoners and to their own communities, leap at the opportunity to sit at the head, to weigh and decide judgments and to instruct Jewish communities. They are the ones who cause divisiveness, they destroy the world, extinguish the light of the Torah, and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:4). On the other hand, even when one does ask and seek advice, he is not freed from the obligation to personally
understand the halakhah so that he is not like a blind person following one teacher or another. Obviously, someone who has no knowledge has no choice but to choose a rav and to follow him. But he still bears the responsibility of learning so that he can understand
and validate the teachings of his rav. 

Recently, some have begun applying the term “emunat ḥakhamim” to something else entirely, something that Ḥazal never discussed—that ḥakhamim also have prophetic authority in divrei reshut. 12 We are not talking about asking advice of those who are experienced and wise in Torah, whose righteousness, Torah knowledge and brilliance provide good guidance and sound advice. It is surely good for any person to
seek advice from those who are greater and better than he. But there is a difference between asking advice and taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, and relying on others with absolutely no independent thought. There are those who label such childish behavior as “emunat ḥachamim” while in reality it is a distortion of this great attribute. Instead of acquiring true Torah, those who cling to this distorted “emunat ḥakhamim” distance themselves from the light of the Torah and are ultimately incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong.

The distinction between a prophet and a ḥakham is clear enough. When a prophet instructs on divrei reshut, not only are we commanded to obey, but “it is forbidden to have any thoughts of doubt or to contemplate the possibility that the prophecy never took place, and it is forbidden to challenge him excessively” (10:6). With a ḥakham, however, emunat ḥakhamim requires us to clarify and elucidate his every word, and one who does not do so is simply a “fool who believes anything.” If this is true for Torah, then even more so for divrei reshut. “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool, but one who acts with wisdom will prevail.” 

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