Rabbinic Infallibility

There has been much discussion in the Orthodox Jewish world recently about the question of rabbinic authority. Yeshiva University published a book on the subject, the journal Tradition devoted an  issue to the topic and there have been numerous postings in "Mail Jewish", an e-mail forum on the Internet,  regarding various facets of the topic. This paper is written to address one important aspect of the topic only - the opinion that holds Talmudic sages to have been infallible and that all their statements, including those of a factual type, whether they relate to history, geography, medicine, astronomy, biology, etc., to be absolutely true. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that such an opinion is logically untenable and a misunderstanding of the sources.

If the above opinion meant that in many areas the sages had exceedingly great insight surpassing others of their time, it would be fine. If it meant that in certain cases the sages had a tradition originating from a Divinely-inspired source, that would be a different matter. If it meant that Halacha, even in those instances when apparently based upon factual insights of the sages, remains binding regardless of present-day scientific opinion, until a future Sanhedrin exercises its duly-authorized power to reevaluate matters, it would be correct. However, some present-day yeshiva authorities mean actual infallibility and absolute truth in all Talmudic statements.

This position cannot be accepted. Its negative effects cannot be overstated. A clarification of this matter is called for not only to improve the quality of our own Torah study, but also to remove a stumbling block from the path of many who might thus find their way to Orthodox Judaism. It is not only the opinion in and of itself, but its consequences that are particularly injurious, as will be briefly touched upon further in this paper.

The clearest way to recognize the impossibility of rabbinic infallibility is to consider Talmudic controversies pertaining to factual matters wherein one opinion completely contradicts the other. By definition it is impossible that both opinions in such controversies correspond to actual reality. Something is the case or isn't; the particular event took place or it did not.

There are numerous such Talmudic controversies. For several random examples, consider the following discussions:

From an historically accurate point of view only one opinion in each case can be correct, as the opinions contradict each other. From a factual perspective at least one opinion in all such cases must necessarily be incorrect. Each opinion is valuable, offering wisdom and insight, but it is impossible to say that all such opinions are correct as far as the fact of the case is concerned.

The Talmudic discussion of (Gittin 6), where it states (both explanations are the words of the living G-d), supports this rational view. There, on the question of what caused such a violent reaction in the husband, one opinion said a fly and one said a hair. The Talmud states that both are true but hastens to explain that when one incident occurred it didn't trigger his blow-up, and when the second occurred, it did. It is absolutely clear that the Talmud is assuming that only one opinion could be correct if the question would be "which finally triggered his blow-up?" However, the question was transformed to "what incident is alluded to by the verse?" The answer given was both - the verse alludes to two distinct incidents that are not contradictory one to the other, the first of which didn't yet cause the explosion.

According to those who take all Aggadic and Midrashic statements literally, the sages have committed themselves to historical minutiae in countless thousands of additional cases, many of which involve controversies. This position of interpreting all Aggada and Midrash literally must also be rejected, but that is not the purpose of this paper.

The sages themselves never claimed infallibility; indeed they clearly indicate the reverse. The style and tone of Talmudic dialogue; the probing and freedom of opinion inherent in it; its openendedness; and the controversies over the centuries all clearly indicate receptivity to further insight, consciousness of vulnerability and the absence of a sense of infallibility. Further, consider the innumerable variant readings the Talmudic sages have of the Mishna and Baraitot; the differing versions the sages have of many particular dialogues, often diametrically opposed one to another, sometimes of long sections; and the reversals of opinion, sometimes admitting grievous error.

An important case to consider in this regard in the passage in Pesahim 94b. Here the Talmud records a controversy between the Jewish and the non-Jewish sages regarding the sun's movement during the night. The Jewish sages maintained that after setting each evening in the West the sun rose the height of the firmament and travelled through the night above the firmament back to the East, then descended below the firmament and became visible to earth the next morning. The non-Jewish sages maintained that the sun travelled around the bottom of the earth during the night. The Talmud concludes, "their words seem more correct than ours" and proceeds to adduce evidence buttressing the opinion of the non- Jewish sages. A variant reading of the text has "the non-Jewish sages were victorious over the Jewish sages".

The Rambam, in his Guide, Part II Chapter 8, in discussing an adjacent passage covered by the same quotation states, "And you already know that the opinion of the non-Jewish sages was accepted [by the Talmud] over that of the Jewish sages in these matters of astronomy, as explicitly stated `the non-Jewish sages were victorious'. This is proper, for in speculative matters none spoke except in accordance with the results of his study, and therefore one must hold that which is established by proof."

Some commentators have disagreed with the Rambam's viewpoint, and interpreted the above quotation to mean that the non-Jewish sages merely appear, in the realm of physical evidence, to be correct, but in reality the Jewish sages are correct. Such an interpretation is forced and was proffered centuries ago when the evidence available was extremely sketchy and weak at best. Today, we know beyond a doubt both opinions to be refuted. Should we not now embrace the Rambam's interpretation?

When confronted with the overwhelming force of the above-quoted statement of the Rambam, some yeshiva authorities have claimed that he does mean the Talmudic sages are fallible, but only the sages themselves have the authority to apply such a determination to any particular opinion of their's. This would not be said by one who has read the broad range of the Rambam's writings. A good example is his Letter on Astrology written to the Community of Marseilles when he was about sixty years of age. Here he was confronted with an apparent contradiction between what he felt to be the clear-cut proofs arising from his own research and statements of certain Talmudic sages. Following a lengthy attack on astrology, he states

I know you may find statements of individuals among the sages of truth, our rabbis, peace be upon them, in the Talmud, Mishnah and Midrashim, from whose words it appears that at the moment of formation of a person the stars caused thus and thus. Do not let this disturb you. For it is not proper to abandon practical halakha to pursue questions and answers, and it is also not proper to abandon rational views whose proofs have been demonstrated, and let go of them, to embrace the opinion of an individual from among the [Talmudic] sages, peace be among them. For it is possible that something was unknown to him at that moment, or perhaps his words were intended to hint at something, or perhaps he only said them for the moment or for some specific incident that occurred. Do you not see that many verses of the Torah are not to be taken literally, and being that it is known with rational proof that it is impossible for them to be taken literally, the Targum translated them in a way compatible with logic? A man should always refrain from casting his intelligence in back of him, for our eyes are in front of us, not in the back. I have thus communicated to you my heart with my words.

Belief in the infallibility of the Talmudic sages has played an important part in the renunciation of general, academic studies by many yeshivot. The Talmud contains insights and remarks on so many variegated topics, that a deep, thorough study of almost any discipline might bring about an apparent conflict between the Talmud and modern science and scholarship.

Despite the best attempts at suppression, it was inevitable that certain results of modern science and scholarship penetrated the Beth Medrash walls. This has given rise to innumerable forced and artificial interpretations of both the Talmud and reality. It has prompted some students not to care about what the world says about Judaism, as it became apparent that "our" world was so different from "theirs". Further, impressionable students sometimes learn to generate superficial explanations and rationalizations in other areas of life also.

In certain countries, under vastly different circumstances, advocacy of the viewpoint of infallibility, and some of its consequences, was a necessary, temporary measure to stem the tide of defection from traditional Judaism. This surely was the case in Eastern Europe in the not-too-distant past. Today, however, this opinion has the reverse effect. With the 20th Century growth and sophistication of many disciplines and the advent of almost universal higher education, many have been turned off by the claim of infallibility and the forced and artificial interpretations developed to defend this opinion. This may not always be directly visible in the case of the masses as it is with the more gifted, academic and thoughtful members of society, who inexorably shape the opinion of the others.

The problem is becoming more acute as Judaic Studies programs have become more popular. Several hundred colleges and universities already have such departments.

Of course abandoning the opinion of the infallibility of the Talmudic sages will not solve the problem of the alienated Jew. This is only one aspect of a gigantic problem.

It should not be thought that recognition of the fallibility of the Talmudic sages on factual matters of reality lowers one's respect for them. On the contrary, it heightens it. It substitutes an intelligent and meaningful understanding and appreciation of great men, spiritual giants, saintly as angels, relevant and practical, for a view that in 1993 need be an incredulous and fantasy-like one of impractical angels always committed to forced and artificial interpretations, whom we cannot truly understand or appreciate.

It is a bit difficult for some to adjust to the reality that some halakha was based upon a perception of reality that was in fact faulty, or that some halakha was propounded due to the difficulty or previous impossibility of ascertaining certain facts. However, this obviously is the case and we ultimately gain nothing, but lose a great deal, if we deny it.

For random examples of the above consider the mechanics of taste transfer and the absorptive and emitive capacity of foods and utensils; the harmful effects of certain items on health or on another's property; the medicinal or health value of certain substances or procedures; the determination of parentage. In these areas and in many more, modern scientific research has much to say. Of course, as mentioned earlier, halakha does not change even when originally predicated on an imperfect perception of reality. Nonetheless, recognition of the problem will prevent many negative consequences and will help prepare for the day when we will be able to resolve many of our problems with the reestablishment of a national Bet Din .


Regarding the Talmudic statement wherein the Jewish sages comment on the sun's movement during the night, there is an interpretation found in relatively recent works that should be addressed. It is claimed that the Jewish sages knew the astronomical reality, but were not speaking about the physical realm at all. They were speaking in an allegorical vein, clothing a very different type of thought in astronomical nomenclature.

Although such interpretations usually cannot be absolutely refuted, especially considering that the ancients often wrote in allegoric and symbolic fashion, sometimes designing elaborate surface systems to camouflage deeper thoughts, it is highly unlikely to be the case in the instance at hand, or indeed in many of the Talmudic passages for which such interpretations are proffered.

There are at least seven important questions one must ask regarding this interpretation and similar ones:

1. Why should we abandon the apparently clear and explicit literal meaning of the passage? What valid principle compels us to search for additional meaning, when the literal meaning is completely sufficient to justify the words, style and tone of the passage?

2. Why would the sages choose a doctrine they know to be false in which to clothe their message? Would they not thus be intentionally disseminating false information to the masses, which could bring about much harm plus disrespect for them from the unknowing?

3. Does not such an interpretation run against the grain of the Talmud in general, and its spirit of inquiry and analysis?

4. Why does not a single early commentator ever so much as hint at this interpretation?

5. Isn't the fact that the true physical reality is nowhere hinted at in the Talmud (or in any literature of the time) an indication that it was not known?

6. Why does no one discover the intended message? Does anyone sincerely claim to know it? If the full message still remains too deep for us, can we not be given a partial glimpse to show how the terminology used is justified?

7. Does not such an interpretation too patently coincide with other apologetic efforts of the same school or artifacts. The new commentaries needed today must make greater use of these ancillary aids such as philology, archaeology, ancient history, etc., as these disciplines have been greatly expanded and can offer much relevant information.

The situation did become more confused in the Middle Ages when Rishonim propounded widely divergent views toward Aggada and Midrash. Some would attribute to a midrash an allegorical interpretation, others would claim the midrash merely emit.

Today, unfortunately, the majority of Jews have abandoned the Torah as their primary guide in life, rather than finding meaning and inspiration in its profound philosophical, psychological and moral lessons. Many of them will not turn to Judaism unless they find the system of studying its primary texts sound and responsive to reality. In this situation it is apparent that, among other requirements, new commentaries to Tanach, written in accordance with the principles of modern scholarship are vitally essential.