When Is It Okay To Question Rabbinic Leadership?

Dear Jew in the City-

I know we’re supposed to have emunah b’chachamim, but what if I experienced rabbis doing bad things? When do I have emunah and when can I question leadership?


Dear D.J.-

Thanks for your question and sorry if you have had negative experiences. First, I’d like to clarify the intention of the concept “emunas chachomim.”

The Mishnaic tractate of Avos really has five chapters but we traditionally append a chapter of braisa known as Kinyan Torah as the unofficial sixth chapter. (Braisos are statements that were contemporary with the Mishna but were not included in that work. “Kinyan Torah” means “the acquisition of Torah.”) The braisa popularly categorized as Avos 6:6 tells us that Torah is acquired with 48 attributes, the 23rd of which is emunas chachomim – faith in the Sages. But what does this mean? Machzor Vitri explains it to mean that we accept the teachings of the Sages. This is contrasted with the Sadducees and Boethusians, heretical sects that rejected the Oral Law.

Along these lines, the Torah tells us, “you shall not turn from the word they (i.e., the Sages) tell you, neither right nor left (Deuteronomy 17:11). On this verse, Rashi comments that we should follow the Sages even if they tell us that right is left or vice versa. This, of course, is very perplexing. Why should we follow them if we know they said something wrong? Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer (early 20th century, Belarus) explains that Rashi doesn’t tell us to listen if the Sages say that black is white or white is black. Rashi chose his words carefully. Sometimes my right is your left. This is not an objective reality, it’s a point of view. What we are expected to do is to trust the perspective from which the Sages make their rulings. Something may seem “obvious” to you or me but we have to accept that the Sages – like doctors, tax accountants, constitutional lawyers, etc. – know more about their area of expertise than we do. If their ruling seems “wrong” to us, we’re supposed to defer to their superior knowledge of Talmud, halacha and mesorah (the oral tradition).

The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) illustrates – perhaps inadvertently – the concept of emunas chachomim in the story where a potential convert tells Hillel to teach him the written but not the oral Torah. On the first day of his lessons, Hillel teaches him “this is an alef and this is a beis.” The next day, Hillel reversed the order. The student balked, “Yesterday you said that that was the alef and that was the beis!” Through this, Hillel demonstrated that we can’t know any Torah, not even the written Torah, without relying on the oral Torah. Similarly, we can’t really know any Torah without relying on the Sages, who transmitted it.

The Maharal in Tiferes Yisrael explains that relying on emunas chachomim doesn’t mean that one just accepts everything with blind faith. He cites Proverbs 14:15 – “The fool believes every word but a discerning person understands his steps.” Accepting the wisdom of those who know more Torah isn’t gullibility, it’s using our own intellects to consciously rely upon those whom we know to have greater understanding. We should always try to understand Torah to our fullest ability but we also have to recognize our own limitations. When we reach those limits, we must rely upon the words of the experts.

With all this in mind, it’s time to clarify (a) that not every rabbi is one of “the Sages,” and (b) emunas chachomim doesn’t mean that rabbis (or the Sages) are infallible.

Regarding the former point, there are many thousands of rabbis in the United States, and even more around the world. I have no reason to doubt that most of them are sincere and qualified for their jobs. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority are not world-class decisors of Jewish law. When a major question faces the Jewish people, we don’t pull out the phone book (remember phone books?), flip open to “Rabbis” and pick a name at random. Rather, there are a handful of gedolim who are called upon to address such matters. It is to people of this stature that I believe the concept of emunas chachomim would apply today.

Regarding the latter point, that of fallibility, there’s an entire Talmudic tractate – Horayos – that addresses the subject of mistaken rulings by the Sages. The Sages are by far the best source of Jewish law but only God is perfect. We are always prepared for the eventuality that humans make mistakes.

The concept of emunas chachomim deals primarily with the correctness of the Sages’ rulings but you seem to be more concerned with rabbis’ personal piety. While I don’t believe that’s the intent of emunas chachomim, it is nonetheless a fair point. One doesn’t get to be one of the Sages without “walking the walk,” i.e., practicing what one preaches. It’s reasonable to expect that one who teaches morality should be moral. But, once again, all people are fallible. Humans are subject to temptation just as they are to error.

Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 7:20 tells us, “There is no (completely) righteous person on Earth who (always) does good and never sins.” The archetypical Sage gone astray would be Elisha ben Avuyah. Despite his great Torah scholarship, he also immersed himself in heretical philosophy and ultimately became the heretic known as “Acheir” – “the other” (Chagigah 15a-b). Nevertheless, a dictum that he stated before he went astray is recorded in the Mishna (Avos 4:20). The good that he did wasn’t expunged from the record just because he later fell from grace. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

So do rabbis occasionally show up in the news for a variety of misdeeds and indiscretions? Sure, just like teachers, policemen, politicians and others whom we entrust with our children or our communities. But if a teacher is pedophile, that doesn’t make education inherently bad, nor does it mean that this teacher doesn’t believe in education. If a politician is corrupt, it doesn’t invalidate the Constitution, nor does it mean that the offender doesn’t believe in democracy. It just means that they’re human and fallible. Similarly, if a rabbi does something inappropriate, that doesn’t invalidate the Torah, nor does it necessarily prove that this person is hypocritical. All it means is that they’re human and they made a mistake.

If you know rabbis who failed to live up to your expectations – maybe they were rude, boorish people; maybe they committed criminal acts, whatever – that has literally nothing to do with emunas chachomim. First off, your rank-and-file rabbi doesn’t qualify as one of the “chachomim.” (Offhand, I can’t think of any scandals of note involving actual gedolim.) Additionally, “emunas chachomim” means that we trust the rulings of out gedolim, not that they’re infallible.

So if you know rabbis who are bad role models, those people should no longer be your role models. That’s the extent of the ramifications. Not that Torah isn’t true, not that Orthodox Jews are hypocrites, and not that everything these people ever said was insincere or inaccurate. Just that these people made errors in judgment or succumbed to temptation to such an extent that you no longer choose to subscribe to them.

I get that bad character traits or misdeeds on the part of rabbis or teachers can distance one from the path of Torah, and that can be very difficult for a person who has been affected by it to overcome. Objectively speaking, however, the shortcomings of a handful of individuals when it comes to the Torah do not reflect the Book itself, nor do they implicate the One Who authored it. God is perfect; we aren’t.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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