Response to Line of Fire 15
In the October 31 2013 edition of his radio show, Dr. Brown presents one of his old arguments against Judaism. Dr. Brown points to the passage in Exodus 23:2 that charges the courts not to follow a majority to pervert justice. He then takes the Talmud and Maimonides to task for using this verse to support the principle of following a majority. Dr. Brown argues that if Maimonides was able to take a verse out of God’s Bible to establish a principle that directly contradicts that very same verse, then we cannot accept Maimonides as any spiritual authority. Dr. Brown goes on to explain to his audience that the Jewish rejection of Jesus is rooted in the Talmudic misconstruction of this verse.
I have communicated extensively with Dr. Brown over this very verse. As a postscript to this article I will attach a letter that I sent to Dr. Brown back in the spring of 2003. That letter was the final communication that we had on this subject after an extensive debate. Since then Dr. Brown has not responded to my arguments on this subject. I have also publicized some of my arguments relating to this verse, both in Supplement to Contra Brown https://yourphariseefriend.wordpress.com/supplement-to-contra-brown/ (V 33) as well as in Response to Line of Fire 4 https://yourphariseefriend.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/response-to-the-line-of-fire-4/ . So it is disappointing to see Dr. Brown still using his original arguments without acknowledging that he has been made aware of a Jewish response to these arguments.
Perhaps Dr. Brown believes that the Jewish responses are so irrelevant that there is no need to mention them. It is his right to maintain this belief but it is the audience’s right to know what those responses are and make the decision themselves. Are the responses so ridiculously irrelevant so as not to be worthy of mention?
Decide for yourself; but let your decision be educated.
What is this all about?
Exodus 23:2 reads as follows: “Do not follow a majority to do evil; do not speak in a cause to incline after a majority to pervert [justice].”
The basic message of the verse is that one should not follow a majority to pervert justice. The Talmud and Maimonides both point to this verse as evidence to the legal concept of having the court’s verdict follow the decision of the majority of judges.
Dr. Brown cries out in righteous indignation that the entire point of the verse is NOT to follow the majority. How then did these rabbis conclude that this very same verse teaches that we should follow the majority? Dr. Brown claims that the rabbis clearly trampled on the plain meaning of the verse and as such should not be considered authoritative teachers of God’s Law.
Dr. Brown takes his accusation one step further. Dr. Brown maintains that the reason that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus is because the majority of rabbis did not accept him. It is this “misinterpretation” of Scripture that is at the root Israel’s rejection of Jesus according to Dr. Brown.
The truth is that the oldest Jewish teachings on this verse; teachings that predate the advent of Christianity, head off Dr. Brown’s objection. The Targum Yonatan interprets the closing phrase of this verse as an admonition to one who is involved in judging or advising a legal procedure. The verse is telling this person to speak his mind and not use the legal regulation which would have a verdict follow the majority as an excuse to remain silent. In other words; imagine if there are 23 judges discussing an accusation against a person for having murdered his neighbor. The majority of the judges are pressing for a guilty verdict. At some point in the discussion judge #21 feels that the man is innocent. He may say to himself; listen, the verdict is going to follow the majority in any case so why should I voice my opinion? Let me speak as does the majority so as not to annoy my fellow judges. In this situation the Scripture is warning this judge; speak your mind! Do not speak about this case to slide after the majority where you see their opinion as a perversion of justice.
This is the oldest Jewish interpretation of the verse. This interpretation accords with the grammatical and contextual construction of the verse. What emerges from this interpretation is that the Scripture assumed as axiomatic that the final verdict will follow the decision of the majority of judges. The verse is warning the individual judge not to use this legal axiom as an excuse to participate in what he sees as a perversion of justice. But it is clear that the Scripture accepted the system of rendering the final verdict after the majority of judges.
Thus Dr. Brown’s attack on Maimonides and the Talmud is completely unfounded. Maimonides recognized that the primary message of the verse is that we not follow a majority or a multitude to pervert justice (Laws of Sanhedrin 10:1). But he also recognized that the verse implies in a clear way that the general court procedure is to have the verdict follow the decision of the majority of judges.
Dr. Brown misrepresents the Jewish position on another count as well. Dr. Brown tells his audience that the Jewish rejection of Jesus is rooted in the Talmudic teaching on following the majority. According to Dr. Brown, the reason individual Jews reject Jesus is because the majority of leaders rejected him.
This accusation is false. The entire principle of following the majority only applies in the limited setting of a legal discussion. When a group of qualified judges debate a matter of Torah Law or an application of Torah Law then we have the final verdict follow the majority. But this does not apply to basic matters of faith. God Himself taught us who to worship (Deuteronomy 4:35). No one, not even a majority of judges has the right or authority to overturn God’s explicit teaching. Even if the majority of Jews would fall into idolatry, the individual Jew is still enjoined to remain loyal to God. Our rejection of Jesus has nothing to do with “following a majority”. Our rejection of Jesus is rooted in our obedience to God’s direct command.
Finally, Dr. Brown’s assertion that we should reject Maimonides as an authentic teacher because his teaching circumvents the Law of Moses is somewhat amusing. On the one hand we have Maimonides who wrote 14 scholarly volumes explaining and elucidating the Law of Moses. On the other hand we have Dr. Brown who doesn’t observe the Law of Moses himself. And we are yet supposed to believe that it is Maimonides who is “circumventing the Law”?
The following message was sent to Dr. Brown in the spring of 2003.
I appreciate your patience in trying to get me to “see the light”, I can reciprocate only by sharing the light that I perceive.
1) the words “follow the majority” have several connotations. One is to follow a crowd because it is socially comfortable to follow a crowd. Two is to speak as the majority speaks even if one’s conscience tells him that the majority is wrong. The breath of God in our nostrils tells us that these two are wrong and evil – and the rabbis agreed wholeheartedly – quoting this very verse in Exodus for support. The third connotation of the words “follow the majority” is that in a situation of a hung jury, the court ruling should be according to the opinion of the majority of the judges. This is what the rabbis meant when they said to follow the majority – this and no more. To imply that the rabbis meant that the crowd be followed is incorrect.
2) a fair and honest reading of the Mishna in Sanhedrin is only possible if one has a familiarity with the way the Rabbis use scripture. To take the Mishna in Sanhedrin (or any other Rabbinic quotation of scripture) and present it as is – is wrenching things out of context.
3) even if the Rabbis misunderstood the verse – it has nothing to do with a Christian believing in the alleged messiahship of Jesus and then misusing a verse in the Jewish scriptures to fool ignorant people into believing in Jesus. The people the Rabbis were speaking to accepted the authority of the Rabbis before the Rabbis started speaking – the Rabbis do not quote this verse to get anyone to change their opinion about something – at worst they quoted it to show where they believed that a concept that they knew to be true was hinted at in scripture – just as they tried to show how the word “ve’shochat” serves as some hint to the laws of Shechita which were unanimously accepted and not open to question to the people that they were addressing. (Chulin 28a) or where they (mis)quote the proverbial “al Taseig gevul Ol(i)m” to serve as a hint to laws which are obviously included in doing what is straight in the eyes of God (Pe’ah chapter 5 and again in 7) – incidentally, the proverbial use of “acharei rabim lehatot” does not necessitate the confusion of lehatot and lintot. The way I understand it (and please correct me if I have erred) is that lintot means to lean, to slide, or to stray, in a passive sense – this is happening to me (or to the person or object) under discussion. An English parallel would be “to slide off the path” in the sense of the sliding being something that happened to the person. The word lehatot means to turn or bend something in an active sense – I (or the person under discussion) is doing it to someone or something else (perhaps even to oneself, but actively so). An English parallel would be “to turn the donkey back onto the road”. Indeed the general scriptural usage of “lehatot” especially in a context of court cases and judgment is in the sense of bending the judgment or the ruling (verdict) from the path of true justice – because the path of true justice is where the ruling is assumed to belong. But technically it can mean to actively bend the ruling from confusion or nonconcurrence towards a specific and decisive verdict. In other words Rabbi Saadiah and Rambam did not read the proverb “acharei rabim lehatot” as speaking to the individual judge and telling him to follow the majority (to stray or slide after the majority). But rather, they read the proverb as speaking to the court as a whole and telling them to bend the verdict (or bend the mishpat from a position of indecision) after the majority. This is how I see that Onkelos put the proverb into the verse – he wrote “basar sagi’ei ashleim dina” (or “sh’lom dina”) meaning to render a final and decisive verdict after the many. He did not write “azal basar sagi’ei” which would be speaking to the individual judge (or to the minority of judges) and telling him to follow, or to slide after, the majority.
4) however you explain the verse, it does not mean the opposite of what the rabbis said, because the rabbis never believed in following the majority to pervert justice – they only believed in following the majority in situations where qualified judges had a scholarly debate and could not come to a unanimous decision.
5) the Rabbis fully agreed to what you consider the plain meaning of the verse – and believed that God wants us to follow it – (as the Rambam quotes tannaitic sources in chapter 10 of Sanhedrin – who quote this very verse) they just believed that there is another layer of meaning in the verse which is not contradicted by the plain meaning of the verse. Do you realize that in order to bring across the plain meaning of the verse – less words would have sufficed? The end of the verse could have read “lo ta’ane al riv lehatot (mishpat)” and the meaning would be the same – “don’t speak up about an argument to pervert justice” – the fact that there are extra words in the verse which describe the motivation that one might have to pervert justice (acharei rabim), or the setting in which the perversion of justice may be taking place, is entirely unnecessary – why would I think that in any particular setting, or that for any given motivation, a perversion of justice would be OK? (Alternately, the verse could have read “lo ta’ane al riv lintot (min hamishpat)” – do not speak up about an argument to stray (away from justice). The words “acharei rabim lehatot” are totally superfluous, as are the words “lo tihyeh acharei rabim lera’ot”. Nothing is added to the plain meaning of the verse by adding the first and last phrases of the verse. The middle phrase of the verse contains the complete message in and of itself.)
6) the verse clearly supports the concept of following a majority – how else do you understand the words “lo tih’yeh acharei rabim lera’ot”? However you translate “lera’ot”, the implication is that if it is not lera’ot – you should be after the rabim.
7) two of the oldest commentaries we have on this verse – namely the Targum Yonatan and the Targum Yerushalmi (all of the versions that I could track down) – explain the verse according to its simple meaning and at the same time give the implication that in a normal situation (not a situation where there is a question of perverting justice) the procedure would be to follow the majority – as I presented from the Malbim in my previous letter.
In light of all of the above I cannot honestly concur with the conclusion you have arrived at – namely that the authors of the Mishna did not know Hebrew or that the Rambam could not read Hebrew – incidentally, there is quite a bit of evidence that these two (the authors of the Mishna and the Rambam) were quite proficient in Hebrew.
To explain the mishna in Sanhedrin according to the way I understand the Rambam would be as follows; after the Torah already went out of its way to imply that we ought to follow a majority (by telling us that for evil we ought not to follow a majority – implying that in a normal situation the majority is to be followed) – then why did the Torah have to waste words to imply the same thing at the end of the verse (by telling us not to stray after a majority to pervert justice – implying that if no perversion of justice is involved then we should follow a majority). For this question the Mishna gives an answer according to the system of drasha that there are different rules of bending the decision after a majority for a verdict of death than there are for any other verdict.
To illustrate, I will try to set down the various scenarios and an analysis of each one;
A) (I don’t think that you subscribe to this one – I just want to give the full range of scenarios.) The rabbis were corrupt and dishonest. They had no compunctions about consciously presenting distorted arguments to further what their own corrupted minds saw as truth, or idealistic, or simply to serve their own best interests. When the question arose as to how to decide arguments in matters of law, they realized that there was a dilemma here, because up until that point there was no accepted method of dealing with this rare and unusual situation. They applied their corrupt minds and found the verse “acahari rabim lehatot” – and decided that it meant to follow the majority (wether they decided this knowing full well that this is not the meaning of the verse or if they never discovered the true meaning of the verse because they did not care to know it – is not relevant). Using all of the political, military and social power at their means they quickly forced this ruling on every court in the land and silenced every voice of opposition.
Analysis; If I were to accept that such a scenario could have occurred, I would not accept scripture. I would still accept the oneness of God as revealed at Sinai, because that is something that did not go through the rabbis, it went through the body of the nation, I would perhaps accept some of the basic points of the law – those points that the nation interacted with on a regular basis – but any other issue that the Rabbis could have corrupted – such as the text of scripture, or any matter in which a decision of religious leadership would be required – such as the acceptance of a book like Esther – no way.
I cannot accept such a scenario for a few reasons – One is that I do not believe that God would allow His message to be so corrupted, two is that I know the rabbis better than that, and finally – I know the Jews better than that.
B) the rabbis were great people, they were just a little stupid – not totally stupid, in fact they may have been great physicists, artists, musicians, sportsmen, whatever – it is just that they didn’t know Hebrew so well. Still, they were the best that the Jews could come up with in that generation. The question comes up – how do we issue a verdict in that rare and unusual situation where the Rabbis cannot agree with each other? Not having any tradition to rely on (being that this situation is so unusual and rare), they applied their happy little minds as best as they honestly could to reading scripture. They came up with the verse “acharei rabim lehatot” and they all understood it to mean “follow the majority”. So that was their unanimous decision concerning this issue and they all live happily ever after (except for Rabbi Eliezer – who incidentally never disagreed with Rabbi Yehoshua’s novel interpretation of acharei rabim lehatot, with all of his miraculous powers he never saw the true meaning of the verse – I guess – lo bashamayim he).
Analysis; if this were the situation, I would say that the decision was valid for that generation. Being that God gave the Torah as a book of instructions for His human children, if they try their honest best to read it – they open their minds to all arguments – and just don’t get it, then that is how God wanted them to read it. If God didn’t want them to read it that way He should have written in a way that their dense minds can see it – or He should have given them better minds. A valid question would be, why should we today not overturn their erroneous decision? See below for the answer.
C) the same stupid rabbis, again not the bad type, but the jolly sort of people that never seem to get things straight. This time though they did have a clear-cut tradition of how to deal with situations of courts that could not come to a unanimous decision. Being that this would be a fairly common occurrence, even they (in their blissful stupidity) had it down pat – they followed the majority without thinking twice about it. For these people you see, the fact that their fathers did it, along with the understanding (rightly or wrongly) that this was a continuous practice from the days of Moses (or at least from Ezra), and that they had no knowledge of any claim that this was not the right way to do things – this was enough authority for them to go by and not to question. One rainy day when they got bored of playing bingo, they decided to see if they can find a scriptural support for this practice of theirs. They searched the scriptures as diligently as their simple minds allowed them, and they found the verse “acharei rabim lehatot”. Not knowing any better, they assumed it to mean “follow the majority” so they happily coined the proverb “acharei rabim lehatot” never realizing that this was not the direct intention of the verse. Perhaps some of them did suspect that this was not the direct intention of the verse, but being that this scriptural search was not very important to them – this practice was going to continue with or without scriptural support – so they didn’t make a fuss about it, they wanted to get back to the bingo anyway.
Analysis; this is certainly a more likely scenario then the previous ones – there is no record of any question about, or deviance from, the widespread practice of deciding matters by a vote of the qualified members of the court – so it makes sense that the rabbis believed that they had an authoritative tradition about the matter. If this were to be the case then the scriptural misquote is not an issue. The issue would be the authority of tradition, but the rabbi’s misunderstanding of scripture is not relevant – even if they would have understood the verse correctly – they would still go on with their tradition without any scriptural support. (Again, the plain meaning of the verse does not contradict the procedure of having the court’s decision based on a majority vote.)
D) this time around they got it right. They understood the simple meaning of the verse – either because they were proficient enough in Hebrew, or because they read the Targum Yerushalmi or Yonatan. They also saw the implication that when the situation is not lera’ot , then a majority is to be followed. Furthermore, they have a clear-cut unanimous tradition about the procedure of deciding court cases – a one judge majority is necessary for most cases, and a two judge majority is necessary for cases in which the death penalty is being considered. Being that the Rabbis found it important to coin phrases from scripture to serve as handles for various laws – they chose this verse to serve as the framework for discussion about these laws – recognizing full well that the plain meaning of the verse is not directly instructing anyone to follow a majority. A parallel would be when the Rabbis quote the verse “ve’yorash osah” (Bamidbar 27:11) as a handle for the law of a husband inheriting his dead wife, when the verse clearly talks of a man inheriting an inheritance (which is female in Hebrew) (see bava basra 111).
Analysis; this is the Ibn Ezra’s version
E) again the Rabbis got it right – they read the verse correctly – even quoting it as a support for the obvious law of a judge not sliding after a majority against what he thinks to be the truth, and also for the law of a judge not sliding after people greater than himself against what he thinks to be the truth (both the majority and the great ones are possible connotations of “rabim”), still, they realized that there are extra words in the verse. If all God wanted to say with this verse was not to stray after a majority against what you think to be true, then all it had to say was “lo ta’aneh al riv lintot” (or “lehatot”) – the rest of the verse is superfluous. So they understood that God is hinting at additional information – the beginning of the verse was put there to give the message that when the situation is not lera’ot then the majority ought to be followed, and the end of the verse implies that when it is not a situation of lintot (or lehatot) then the majority ought to be followed, so on the level of implication, we also find a repetition. For this the rabbis said that God meant to imply two different shades of following a majority – one for capital crimes and one for other judgments.
Analysis; this seems to be the Rambam’s understanding.
Aside from scenario A), there is nothing “grave” about this issue. I think you would concur with me that scenario A) is quite unlikely.
There is more to talk about here – for example the difference in the way the Malbim sees the connotation or implication in the verse (the verse seems to imply that if you want to successfully pervert justice the way to do it is by following the majority – because that is the assumed court procedure) and the way the Ibn Ezra sees the connotation (that if it is not lera’ot or lehatot then the majority may be followed). Furthermore there is the difference in connotation between “lo tihyeh” and “lintot” (the first could be read as a commandment not to render a decision based on a majority of the court, while the second cannot be read that way). But I think this will suffice for now.
Lately I’ve been busy with preparations for Pesach, so the writing is going slower. I don’t see how we’ll be able to learn by phone these two weeks – I am looking forward to continuing after Pesach.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Your Pharisee friend
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal