Shoftim – Why is the Rabbinic law legitimate?

August 17, 2023

What is the basis for rabbinic law? For many Bible-believing people outside of Judaism, the system of rabbinic Jewish practice appears to stray far from the instructions of the Bible. For Christians, this perception is amplified based on a number of verses in the New Testament portraying rabbinic law as “doctrines of men” (see Mark 7:7, Matthew 15:9). Many Christians see the adherence to laws that are not stated explicitly in Scripture as a practice that is unbiblical. So, the question remains, where does the legitimacy of the rabbinic law come from?

One of the key verses, if not the key verse, in the Bible, providing the basis for the obligation to listen to the rulings and interpretations of the rabbis is found in this week’s Torah portion.

According to the instruction which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from that which they tell you, to the right or to the left. – Deuteronomy 17:11

The word for “instruction” is Torah. Torah is often translated as law. The root of Torah is identical to that of the word translated as “instruct” just two words later. It is the same as the root for “teacher” – moreh. But many Christian translations have this word as “sentence” (KJV, NKJV), implying that the meaning of the verse is not a requirement to obey laws enacted by the rabbis but is limited to acceptance of the ruling in a court case. This interpretation is based on the context of the verse.

If a matter of judgement will be obscure (beyond) for you, between blood and blood, between judgement and judgement, or between blemish and blemish, matters of dispute within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 9 And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall tell you the statement of judgment. 10 You shall do according to the statement which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they instruct you. 11 According to the instruction which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from that which they tell you, to the right or to the left. – Deuteronomy 17:8-11

(The Hebrew word for “blemish” here is nega, referring to leprous spots that must be evaluated by a Kohen-priest. As recorded in Leviticus 13-14, these blemishes needed to be assessed by a priest to determine their status as pure or impure. This explains the instruction to go to “the priests, the Levites” in addition to “the judge.”)

Because this passage can be understood as referring to specific cases that are brought before the court, the aforementioned Christian translations read verse 11 as mandating acceptance of the sentence in a specific case rather than as a blanket requirement to adhere to all legislation and instruction of rabbinic authority.

The problem with this understanding is twofold. First, if this were the meaning of the verse, it would render it redundant. The previous verse, verse 10, already stated:

You shall do according to the statement which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they instruct you.

“The statement which they pronounce upon you” sounds like a requirement to follow the ruling in an isolated case. What is then added by the following verse? We have already been told to listen to the verdict. The next verse must be teaching us something else. The second issue is that the word Torah does not mean “verdict” or “sentence.” It is never used this way. 

But why is it so important to listen to the rabbis? Why is there such an obligation at all? Why not simply allow each person to read the word of God and interpret it to the best of their own ability? What is wrong with different interpretations? I’d like to offer two answers.

Consider the following law:

Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. – Exodus 35:2

The Torah mandates the death penalty for anyone who does any work on the Sabbath day. But what is the definition of work? To say that the interpretation of the law is up to each individual renders this law impossible to follow. Leaving aside the matter of the death penalty for Sabbath violators, something that is alien to our modern way of thinking, how would this ever be implemented?

Imagine someone brought before the court for “working” on the Sabbath day. Say, for example, this person was witnessed moving furniture in preparation for a large Sabbath meal. Is that “work”? Or someone mowing their lawn, or doing their taxes, or discussing a business deal. It’s one thing to say that each person has his own definition of “work.” But the Bible mandates a death penalty to be implemented by the court for such a violation. How could any case ever be adjudicated? Clearly, to have a death penalty for work on the Sabbath day, there must be a universally agreed upon and legislated definition of “work.” And if we have agreed upon definitions of work that are legally binding on everyone, voila! we have now accepted the authority of rabbinic interpretation.

This is merely one example of a larger point. The Torah is written is such a way as to assume that there will be an authoritative body that interprets and implements the laws. There is no way around this. 

The second answer is that the Bible itself prophecies that the people of Israel will spend many generations in exile. This means two things. First, the nation will be scattered and separated from each other for a long time. Without a unified interpretation of the law, it would have been a certainty that the Jewish people would, over the passage of the centuries, have become separate peoples and separate religions. The glue that kept the Jewish people together during the exile is the adherence to the same set of laws, the rabbinic law.

Second, during the centuries of exile the practice of Torah law built around the Temple, the sacrifices, and many of the other laws that are only applicable in the land of Israel were impossible to keep. Without rabbinic laws mandating all manner of worship and ritual observance beyond what is written in the Torah, there would be no way for the Jewish people to maintain any kind of cohesive religious identity. 

Simply put, without the steadfast commitment to rabbinic law, the Jewish people would not have survived the exile. Rather than being a burden as it is often portrayed by Christians, rabbinic law is critical to God’s plan for the survival and flourishing of Israel.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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By: Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

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