Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Rabbinic Infallibility and the Kuzari Principle

I don't know how old the doctrine of rabbinic infallibility is, nor exactly how widespread it is. It certainly seems to have been with us for quite a while and also seems to be well entrenched in some of our communities. However, it's clearly not universally held. There are plenty of people in the Orthodox community who maintain that rabbanim can and do make mistakes. Even the gadol hador (no, not the blogger... we all *know* he's infallible. :) ) can make a mistake. This idea has clear support from the Torah, Navi, Mishna and the Gemara.

In any event, I was giving the matter of rabbinic infallibility some thought when I happened to listen to a lecture on the Kuzari Principle. The Kuzari Principle (in short, oversimplified form) states that the events of Mt. Sinai must be true because the entire nation witnessed it and passed the story of the Revelation to their children and grandchildren who, in turn, passed it along to their descendants, and so on. Had someone else invented the story of the Sinatic Revelation after the fact, the people would have rejected it saying "my father never told me that story." While it's certainly not a perfect proof to the factuality of the Sinatic Revelation, it's not a bad argument either.

However, it occurred to me that the doctrine of rabbinic infallibility actually wipes out the Kuzari Principle. If one accepts the premise that the leader or leaders of the generation are incapable of making an error, then it follows that they can formulate new traditions and have them be accepted by the masses. The fact that the audience did not receive these traditions from the ancestors won't matter. Just to take an extreme (and silly) example: Suppose a gadol announces that this year that everyone must, after eating the matzah at the seder, stand up and do the Macarena. He announces that he found sources which indicate that this practice is correct and should be done. Now, if you're going to posit that the rabbinic authority is always correct ("He's the gadol hador. Just listen to him. Be m'vatel your da'as to da'as torah.") then it does not matter that the people doing the Macarena this year never heard of this from their fathers or father's fathers -- they're going to take the gadol's word for it since he is infallible. But this scenario is exactly the sort of thing that undercuts the Kuzari Principle. The Kuzari Principle rests on the assumption that no one can introduce a new "history" to the nation because the check against that happening is the collective memory of the nation; but by granting someone the power to be infallible, you are giving them the ability to invent a new history and have it accepted despite the collective memory of the population saying otherwise. Therefore, in any system where the Kuzari Prinicple is accepted, human infallibility cannot exist.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Using your definition of the Kuzari Principle, the story passed down to the generations is subject to the telephone Game Principle, things being lost or changed along the way. that opens the door to so-called gedolim thinking that only they have the story right.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point.

Even with "infallibility", there will still be plenty of questioners of something of this enormity. I don't see a time when everyone would have bought into infallibility. Look at all the complainers and questioners in the desert. And then the sinners in Yehoshua and Shoftim who were not following the rules set down by the leadership.

Perhaps the TaNaCH reports on such incidents nationally embarrassing incidents precisely to show people were critical and questioning.

G said...

It certainly seems to have been with us for quite a while
I beg your pardon, but...whaaa?

Frum Heretic said...

This is a brilliant point that I hadn't thought of previously.

The Kuzari argument - while flawed - is probably the most compelling of all of the Torah "proofs". Although I would question whether the "doctrine of rabbinic infallibility" has that many adherents, your argument definitively shows the proof to be fallacious for those that do hold by such a skewed perspective.

Baal Habos said...

Very interesting, but I don't think your argument holds water. It can be argued that the concept of infallibillity would not have caught on if not true. So it's a chicken and egg thing. In other words they'll extend the KP to Daas Torah.

Of course, they'll have a hard time explaining Papal infallibility, but I imagine there's a way to disprove that, while claiming OJ's Daas Torah is better.

Having said that, there are of course other flaws to the Kuzari principal.

Kylopod said...

I wasn't aware that there is any such thing as rabbinic infallibility in Judaism. The Charedi position is not that the Gedolim are literally infallible, but that whatever faults they may have, it is not our place to point them out. The argument, as I understand it, is that we are better off putting our trust in them, because they are likely to make fewer mistakes than we would if we simply trusted our own judgment.

Anonymous said...

Officially there is no principle of rabbinic infallibility in Judaism and when confronted, the Chareidim will agree with this. But then they'll add that their Gedolim are so smart and we're so limited that even if they made a mistake, it would be so minor that we'd never know it and the mistake would probably be in not being strict enough.

The problem is that there are three areas of intellectual thought for a Jew - halacha, haskafah, and the outside world.

In the first group, the Gedolim of any Torah group should be listened to. They are, after all, THE experts in the material at hand. If you think they're wrong, you can't just say so. You need to prove it from the same sources. People often miss this point by saying that once they paskened, you're not even allowed to re-examine the sources to see if you agree. But anyway...

In the second group, hashkafah, well there is no halacha of haskafah but there are those who would like for there to be. And this is probably where most people's irritation comes in. There is no halacha vis a vis whether or not one sees the State of Israel as a miracle from God. Really, that would depend a lot on one's personal perspective. But many sources have turned that hashkafah into halachah - you either must believe it is or it's asur m'doraisa to not believe it isn't. In this regard, how can a Gadol who's never met me, doesn't know anything about me and leads a very different lifestyle than me tell me what I should think about these issues? Ah, but thinking for yourself is a scary thing some times.

Finally, there's the third category. How does rading Shas 7 times a year make you qualified to talk about politics or military strategy? But the same philosophy that extended leadership in halachah to leadership in haskafah extended it here too. And this is where the system frays. After all, if one quickly reviews the last 150 years of history, the religious leadership has made plenty of HUGE mistakes. And why not? They're not historians, strategists or politicians any more than the chemical engineer down the hall who may be brilliant in his own field but not so much in anything else.

Recognition of these differences lends perspective to the idea of rabbinic infallibility.

Anonymous said...

From Bartley Kulp

Where is this crackpot idea that the gedolim are infallible? There is even a korbon that the Sanhedrin had to make if they gave a mistaken psak.

Anonymous said...

My former rabbi said once: "The Rebbeim who told Jews not to flee from the Nazis could be argued to be mistaken but they were not wrong. If they so ruled and their followers died as a result it was G-d's will."

This is, for all practical purposes, a contention of infallibility.

Kylopod said...

I think that calling the Gedolim infallible borders on heresy.

It is a deeply ingrained part of our tradition that no human being is infallible. Everyone agrees that the greatest man, Moshe Rabbeinu, sinned, even if it was very subtle.

That's why I think most Charedim would disagree with the claim that they hold their Gedolim to be infallible.

-suitepotato- said...

Officially, no, kylopod. They'd not agree publicly on the record. In private, there's still the quiet implication without overt statement that R. Schneerson was the messiah. An excellent example of holding great rabbis to insanely high levels of attribution without a complimentary level of standards and all the while without going on the record.

Fallibility should be taken as an a priori assumption, although since we are made in G-d's image, the question arises, is G-d fallible Himself, and whether or not He is, what is the point of inventing fallibility in us?

I choose to believe that G-d doesn't know and that's why we're fallible so far. Our fallibility exists for G-d to answer a question for Himself.

While we should not strive to be Bart Simpson underachievers, neither should be look askance at being imperfect. There's a certain nobility in always having more to learn and being able to make mistakes along the way.

Your point of disagreement between the two principles is logically correct btw.

Kylopod said...

Chabad are a poor example. They're a special case and not representative of Charedim in general.

"since we are made in G-d's image, the question arises, is G-d fallible Himself, and whether or not He is, what is the point of inventing fallibility in us?"

That's easy. So that people will have a choice. The fact that great men and women didn't have to achieve greatness, but chose to do so, is what makes them so worthy. In that sense, humans are able to do something that God cannot do.

Anonymous said...

Rabbinic infallibility? I think my rabbi is wrong about almost everything.

Anonymous said...

The author of the Kuzari was well aware that, on the whole, the Jewish people is not gullible and does not follow its leaders blindly. Motivating Orthodox Jews to do something without a convincing explanation grounded in Torah is still not easy in most communities.

Das Liberal said...

The claim for rabbinical infallibility stems from "Velo Tasur" (thou shalt not decline), originally from Deuteronomy 17:

[9] And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites...[10] And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall shew thee...[11] According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee...thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

"Velo Tasur" is invoked by orthodox Jews in Israel whenever you try to question rabbinical authority.