Identifying the Teachers of the Law
This brings us to the final function that Eternal Israel performs in relation to the Law, namely the identification of her leaders. The teachers of the Law serve as a crucial component in Israel’s relationship with the Law. These leaders are the arbitrators of the Law, and their judgment enables the nation to apply the Law to living situations. These leaders guide Eternal Israel in dispensing her duty in the realm of preservation of the Law. It is these leaders who set forth the Rabbinic enactments that serve to perpetuate the Law. And it is these leaders who direct the ongoing living discussion, preserving the authenticity of the discussion so that the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4) is passed on the way it was received.
The first body of arbitrators of the law was established by Moses (Exodus 18:25, Deuteronomy 1:15). Since then, the nation always had people to whom they can turn with their questions relating to the Law. The leaders of each generation recognize their responsibility to provide guidance for the next generation. The imperative to educate students who can shoulder the mantle of leadership is a major element in the lives of Israel’s leaders. The chain of leadership passes on from one generation to the next through the academies and study halls of Eternal Israel.
The system of choosing Israel’s leaders is not a formalized process, it is a living process. Scripture informs us that even when Israel was enslaved in Egypt she possessed identifiable leaders (Exodus 3:16, 12:21). It is doubtful that as slaves under Pharaoh that the people had any formal election system. The straightforward reading of these passages implies that these leaders attained their position through a natural process. These were men who had earned the respect of their brethren and whom the society turned to for leadership. When Moses established a more formal system of leadership, he did not override the nation’s natural system of leadership, instead Moses appointed men who were already acknowledged by the nation as her leaders (Numbers 11:16, Deuteronomy 1:13).
From the times of Moses until today the leadership of Israel is chosen by a spontaneous and natural process. Within the parameters of any given community which lives the Law, some people will necessarily stand as examples to their peers. As the nation participates in the ongoing living discussion, proficiency in the Law stands as a very valuable commodity. Eventually, some people will gain the confidence and respect of society as representatives of the spirit of the Law, and as experts in understanding the Law. This process occurs on many different tiers. Someone with little or no background in study of the Law, will be incapable of determining the precise caliber of his friend’s Torah acumen, but he is certainly qualified to voice an opinion concerning his friend’s character. People with more Torah knowledge will be able to offer a limited evaluation as to the quality of Torah knowledge of their peers. Those proficient in Torah knowledge will be capable of gauging the abilities of their contemporaries with greater exactitude. Each segment of the population looks to the appraisals of those more proficient then themselves with much respect. The opinion of those who have already proven their mastery of the Law will certainly carry the most weight, but the nation will want to see for themselves.
As long as the nation remained in geographical proximity, and the living discussion was united and cohesive, certain individuals or groups of individuals were able to gain the collective respect of the nation as a whole. These men constituted the bodies of central leadership, and in these men resided the nation’s collective authority. The natural process worked in synchrony with a formal ordination process through which the mantle of Torah leadership passed from one generation to the next. It is only with such universal authority that decisions could be made on behalf of Eternal Israel. The establishment of the national holidays of Channuka and Purim was only possible when the nation was collectively united under one body of spiritual leadership. Central leadership was a necessity for the institution of the Rabbinic decrees. And it is only a body of leadership empowered by the nation as a whole, who has the authority to accept a book into the corpus of Jewish scripture.
As the nation dispersed, and the national living discussion fragmented into local circles of discussion, the power of the central leadership went into decline. The people still looked to a central body of leadership for the monthly and yearly decisions pertaining to the calendar, but that remained the only function of the central leadership. In fact, the last act of Eternal Israel’s contiguous assembly of central leadership was the arrangement of a permanent calendar. Before the Byzantine persecutions stamped out the last vestige of the nation’s high court, Hillel the Prince (not to be confused with Hillel the Elder, his ancestor), established the calendar we follow today.
The decline of the power of the central leadership was a slow process and did not move entirely downhill. Throughout the period of decline, the central leadership underwent two major peaks of resurgence. The brief respite from persecution that the nation experienced in the times of Rabbi Judah the Prince, and again in the times of Rav Ashi enabled the nation to reassert a measure of unified authority. During these two time periods (approximately 175 CE and 400 CE respectively) the leading scholars of each community were able to convene under the leadership of these two Torah giants. These conventions of scholars were recognized by the nation as incorporating the collective authority of Eternal Israel. With possession of this measure of power these two assemblies were able to ratify the Mishna and the Talmud as anchors and foundations for Eternal Israel’s ongoing living discussion.
Since then, each community identified their own leaders. With the passage of time, the various communities interacted with each other and learned to appreciate the leaders of localities other than their own. In this way the nation was able to come to a consensus in the evaluation of national leaders. In the lifetime of Rashi the Jews in Iraq might not have heard of him, and they certainly didn’t know enough about him to properly appreciate his contribution to the living discussion. As Rashi’s books spread, the collective Torah wisdom of the nation was able to come to a consensus in their evaluation of Rashi. The same living process repeats itself, and continues to repeat itself as the dispersed nation continuously calibrates her evaluation of various scholars and their written works. In this way, Eternal Israel continues to discharge her duty towards the Law by identifying the leaders who embody her spirit and who know her letter.
Just as God entrusted Israel with the task of identifying the arbitrators of the Law, so did He charge Israel with the duty of recognizing His prophets. The process of authenticating the verity of a prophet is legislated by the Law (Deuteronomy 13:2-6, 18:18-22). The nation, under the guidance of her arbitrators of the Law would be required to determine the legitimacy of any claim to prophecy. This process was far from smooth. More often than not, God appointed the prophet to deliver stinging words of rebuke. The harshest criticisms were frequently directed at the most powerful people in the society. There was a tremendous motivation to silence the prophet or to dispute his validity. In most cases the rulers of Israel absorbed the censure of the prophets without moving to silence them (1Samuel 3:18, 13:13,14, 15:24,28, 2Samuel 12:7-10, 1Kings 20:42, 21:27, 2Kings 20:17, Jeremiah 26:18,19, Haggai 1:12, 2Chronicles 12:5,6 19:2, 20:37). In some cases the rulers persecuted the prophets (1Kings 12:4, 18:4, Jeremiah 20:2, 26:21,22, 29:25, 36:26, 2Chronicles 16:10, 24:21). The general society of the nation was also upbraided by the prophets on a regular basis. In many cases the populace recognized the prophet’s authority to administer the reproach (Judges. 2:1-5, 10:11-16, 1Samuel 12:19, Jeremiah 26:17, 38:11, 2 Chronicles 28:9-5) while in other situations they actively opposed the prophet (Jeremiah 11:19, 18:18, 26:11, 38:4). The hostility towards the prophets was generally instigated by corrupt arbitrators of the Law, and by men who had falsely laid claim to prophecy (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:8-11,14:13, 23:13,14, 26:8, 27:14, 28:1-4, 29:8,9,21, Ezekiel 13:1-16, Amos 7:10-13). In the confusion generated by the heat of the immediate situation many elements in society fought the prophets tooth and nail. But as the dust settled and time went on, the voice of those loyal to God was eventually heard and embraced. The people were able to sort out the genuine prophets from the frauds and to distinguish between the corrupt leaders and those who truly represented God’s Law. That is how we have scripture today.
Although we no longer have prophets to lead us we still have leaders who guide the nation in matters of the spirit. In many situations these men are the same leaders who arbitrate the Law, but in some situations the spiritual leaders did not make a particular mark as arbitrators of the Law. These leaders rebuked, encouraged, and provided guidance in our general relationship with God. As with the prophets before them, some of these teachers encountered opposition amongst various elements of the population. And as with the prophets before them, with the passage of time, the nation came to appreciate the greatness of these holy men.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal