Sunday, May 10, 2009

Power of The Rabbis

In a book that I read occasionally that comments on the weekly parsha I found a very intriguing idea. The book is called Foundations and in the end of the section on parshas Emor it says the following:

"The Gemorra (Pesachim 30b; Yoma 31a; Yevamos 11a; etc) propounds that any Rabbinic ruling (tikun) carries the weight of a d'Oraisah. The Rambam (Yad Hachazaka, Hilchos Mamarim 2:9) elaborates as follows: Bais Din is empowered to prohibit what was once permitted, and their ruling stands for all generations. Similarly, they can permit what the Torah has forbidden, all according to the needs of the times."

Now, this confuses and befuddles me more than any other statement I have ever read by anyone. The first idea of the Rambam is taught to everyone and easily accepted. Of course the Rabbis have the right to protect us from transgressing a commandment from the Torah. A lot of the forbidden things that exist nowadays are prohibitions that were enacted by the Rabbis to protect us from transgressing a commandment from the Torah. However, the other idea, that Rabbis can detract from the Torah as they see necessary seems like an idea out of the Conservative or Reformed movement.

I think we can explain the Rambam to make him sound more mainstream. The Rambam doesn't say that the Rabbis have the power to get rid of the prohibition, rather he says the Rabbis are able to get rid of the prohibition according to the needs of the times. This means that the Rabbis can only proclaim a temporary lenience that will not last forever. This can be compared to the idea that women used to never cover their hair. Everyone is always shocked that no one used to cover their hair and only recently did people start covering their hair. I don't know if there was ever a Rabbinic proclamation for this, but we can see the example where allowing this commandment to be transgressed brought a lot of people back to orthodox Judaism. However, after a little while it brought many people to keep the commandments and, eventually, many people even started to cover their hair again.

It seems like, in this situation, the ends justified the means. At least according to how the Rambam understands the Rabbinic authority. The Torah is not a rigid document, but rather a guideline that should always be followed. These guidelines can only be changed by the people that have been entrusted with that responsibility, the Rabbis. Only the Rabbis can decide when it is appropriate to bend the rules in order to save the greater whole of Judaism.

I am unsure if the Rambam means that any generation can change the rules or only a generation that has a Sanhedrin. It is hard to assume that the Rabbis of this day and age, a splintered group, would have the ability to do this since there are hardly any consensuses on any topic. However, this does reveal that the Torah is not the unchanging and rigid force that most of us assume that it is and has always been.

Link to this Rambam here.

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