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Can Our Rabbis Be Wrong?


A classic story found in the book of Shmuel deals with the sin of King David. According to the simple interpretation of the text, David, upon peering at a nearby rooftop, saw a beautiful woman bathing. Despite the fact that she was married and her husband was in battle fighting for Israel, David invited her to his castle and had relations with her. The woman, whose name was Bat-Sheva, became pregnant.

In order to cover up his misdeed, King David recalled Bat-Sheva’s husband, Uriah, from battle. If Uriah renewed relations with his wife, it would be assumed that the baby growing inside Bat Sheva’s womb was his. When Uriah returned home, however, he refused to see his wife. How, he asked, could he be with his wife when the soldiers of Israel were in battle?

David eventually sends Uriah back to the front lines with a secret message to his general, Yoav. In this note David instructs Yoav to abandon Uriah in the heat of battle, leaving him alone on the front lines to face certain death. Yoav follows the order and Uriah is killed. When the news reaches King David, he immediately marries Bat Sheva with the hope that the child Bat Sheva was carrying would be attributed to him. But Natan the prophet rebukes David for his sin, and the child born to Bat-Sheva and David dies after only a short time.

The Talmud in various places deals with this issue. At times our sages justify King David’s behavior and posit that anyone who believes David sinned is wrong. Such a theory obviously goes against the simple meaning of the text. Indeed, there are counter-statements arguing that David was punished numerous times for this sin.

So, then, can our leaders ever be wrong? Do we have an obligation to always portray our sages as infallible – almost God-like – figures?

As an extension of those questions, if our gedolim express an opinion regarding science or medicine, must they always be right? While we recognize the authority of our religious leaders when it comes to issues of Jewish law, do we also extend this to the fields of science, astronomy and medicine?

There was a great dispute a couple of years ago over the publication of the book The Making of a Gadol. The argument was centered on the portrayal of a certain gadol when he was young and impetuous, before he made his tremendous impact on the Jewish world. In short, a portion of his life was described in a less than favorable light.

The book was recalled and the original put in cherem (excommunication). A new copy was published with the unfavorable depictions of the gadol safely deleted.

In a more recent book, Mysterious Creatures, author Nosson Slifkin examined a number of creatures described in the Talmud and cited apparent contradictions with modern scientific thought. This book also was placed in cherem, ostensibly because our sages in the Talmud can never be wrong, even when dealing with questions of science or medicine.

When I study of the experiences of King David or the challenges of our gedolim when they were young, I gain more respect and admiration for them. To me, it is refreshing to learn that even our great leaders had trials in their lives yet were able to withstand their inclinations and develop into the great people they ultimately became.

The Talmud is replete with stories of sages whose pasts were questionable. The great Rabbi Akiva is described as an unlearned person who had little respect for the rabbis. The Talmud describes his inability to comprehend even the most elementary aspects of Judaism. Yet he aspired to become a most learned rabbi, a leader of the Jewish people.

About the Author: Rabbi Mordechai Weiss is principal of the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford. Any comments can be e-mailed to him at Ravmordechai@aol.com.


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