Beyond Just Right and Left: On the Authority of Law

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of the justice system. There we read:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:11

While we need to believe in the Torah, the Torah itself is asking us to follow the interpretation of the Judges. The rule of law is not limited to the given word, but rather predicated by following the Judges interpretation of the law. This idea continues from the Judges to the Rabbis as they become the interpreters of the law. This idea is echoed in one of three wonderful story about a non-Jew who wants to convert with a condition. There we read:

There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

Shabbat 31a

The would-be convert wants to accept the Torah but not the Rabbis’ interpretation. While Shammai is not having it at all, Hillel is willing to play. Just as in our Torah portion one would have to accept left as right and right as left, Hillel is pushing him to accept Alef as Taf and Taf as Alef. In this context the convert realizes that it is a package deal. To have access to the written Torah he will also need to trust the Rabbis and accept their interpretation for better and for worse. To become a Jew is predicated by accepting Rabbinic Authority. We see in the would-be convert a character that I often find in myself. I think I know what is right and what is wrong and I am not willing to trust an external authority. I often get stuck there. I have a feeling I am not the only one who gets stuck in this place.

This is profoundly similar to the Avraham’s situation at the Akedah, binding of his son Yitzhak. God told him to sacrifice his beloved son. Just as Avraham is about to go through with it an Angel tell him not to do it. Is this message the truth or just an interpretation. Should he go through with it? What is he to do? There we read:

When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Genesis 22:13
Genesis 22 vers 13. De ram op de berg Moria. | Genesis bible, Bible  pictures, Biblical art

Avraham did not know which authority to follow. He did not turn his head to “either to the right or to the left “. He lifts his head and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. In the ram he sees himself. Will he go to the right or to the left or will he lift his head and see another path through the situation? We all get stuck between A and B. We do not always find a way to back up, analyze, and make a plan C. To live a life within the law we cannot deviate from the path. The path itself demands that we trust our Rabbis AND think for ourselves.

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