A Time To Defer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A student of Jewish texts quickly finds disputes on a wide variety of subjects. This evidence clearly indicates that a qualified scholar may disagree with his colleagues, but what about with his teachers? A Torah student is expected to devote himself to his teacher with awe, accepting the authority of his personal link to the Jewish tradition. Does Jewish law permit a scholar to disagree with his mentor?

Ostensibly, disagreeing with your Torah teacher seems forbidden. The Talmud (Kiddushin 31b) includes in the list of forbidden ways of relating to your father or Torah teacher deciding against him (makhri’o). Rashi explains that if your father or teacher disagrees with another scholar on a matter of halakhah, you may not say that the other scholar seems correct. This is a forbidden demonstration of disrespect. However, the long list of counter-examples suggests that the parameters of this prohibition are highly limited.

The Minchas Elazar (4:6) lists many Talmudic figures who disagreed with their father or mentor. R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi states that his own words are preferable to his father’s (Eiruvin 32a) and elsewhere (Bava Basra 109b; Yevamos 64b; Kesuvos 95b; Bava Metzi’a 48b) offers a view contrary to his father’s. R. Ushia disagrees with his father, R. Chama (Bava Basra 59a). R. Yossi Bar Avin disagrees with his father (Zevachim 9a). Rava disagrees with his father (Shabbos 121b, see Rashi sv. shelamtinhu). R. Elazar disagrees with his father, R. Shimon (Zevachim 24b; Kiddushin 38a; Shabbos 44a; Beitzah 19b, 33a; Rosh Hashanah 4b) and R. Yossi Bar Yehudah disagrees with his father (Eiruvin 14a; Menachos 63b). Shmuel disagrees with his father (Bava Basra 42b). These are just the examples the Minchas Elazar cites from the Babylonian Talmud. He also quotes from the Tosefta, midrash and Talmud Yerushalmi.

The She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah (Kiddushin, ad loc.) offers several Medieval examples of scholars ruling contrary to the positions of their fathers or mentors. Rashi himself (Kesuvos 3a sv. shavyeih and elsewhere) explicitly disagrees with his mentors. Rashi (Zevachim 15a sv. i tanya) states that R. Eliezer disagreed with his father. Tosafos is full of examples of Rashi’s grandsons, Rashbam and Rabbenu Tam, disagreeing with him and, in turn, Rabbenu Tam’s nephew and student, Ri, disagreeing with him (see also Tosafos, Nidah 14b sv. mai lo). The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shechitah 1:66) permits a case that his father forbids and elsewhere (Hilkhos Sheluchin 6:5) strongly disagrees with his teachers. Similarly, the Taz (Yoreh De’ah 240:3) points out that the Tur occasionally disagrees with his father, the Rosh.

Three approaches resolve this conflict between text and practice:

  1. The Tosefos Ri Ha-Zaken (Kiddushin, ad loc. sv. ve-lo makhri’o) states that the prohibition against disagreeing with your father or mentor only applies while he is alive. This view does not seem to have garnered much support, although the Shakh (Yoreh De’ah 242:3) suggests it tentatively.
  2. The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 240:2) rules that you must only refrain from disagreeing in your father’s or mentor’s presence, a higher level of personal disrespect than merely expressing a contrary conclusion. The Taz (ad loc., 3) agrees but the Shakh (ad loc., 2, 242:3) disagrees and states that you may not disagree even away from their presence (although in one of the places the Shakh suggests that you mat disagree in your mentor’s presence if you do not mention his name). Interestingly, the Minchas Elazar (4:6) points out that the Shakh himself (Yoreh De’ah 6:8) disagrees with his father.
  3. The Terumas Ha-Deshen (1:238) offers an entirely different approach. He states that if you believe that you can disprove your father or mentor based on textual proofs then you may disagree. This is, he claims, the standard method of Torah study and progress. However, he still forbids a student from disagreeing based on conjecture or theory. You may not reject your teacher’s rulings or explanations without textual proof. The Radbaz (Responsa, vol. 1 no. 495) adopts a similar approach but only allows a student to dispute his mentor in private debate and not in public. Significantly, the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 242:3) follows the Terumas Ha-Deshen and permits disagreements based on textual proofs.

The upshot is that you need not (should not) check your brain at the door when studying Torah but you must take care to relate to your mentor with respect. Exactly what that entails is debated. I suspect that it might also differ by personality, with some demanding less deference than others. The Gemara (Chullin 111a) tells how one of R. Nachman’s students refused to eat the liver served in the teacher’s home out of concern for the view that liver is forbidden even when broiled. When R. Nachman realized what was happening, he used colorful language to instruct the other student to force the reluctant student to eat the liver. He would not allow a student to follow a different view, to disagree with him, at least in his home. I suspect that most Torah teachers are more tolerant of individualistic behavior.

Torah study without respect is blasphemous, a diminution of the transmission process. If we fail to respect the oral sources of our tradition, we will lack appreciation of the weightiness of its oral nature. Sometimes we must defer to those greater than we, acknowledging our limitations and our obligations.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

19 comments

  1. R’OY on the subject: http://209.67.58.104/EnglishDefault.asp?PageIndex=2&HalachaID=2043

    BTW one can’t even agree with his father in cases!
    שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות כבוד אב ואם סימן רמ

    סעיף ב
    איזה מורא, א לא יעמוד במקומו המיוחד לו לעמוד שם בסוד זקנים עם חביריו, או מקום המיוחד לו להתפלל; ולא ישב במקום המיוחד לו להסב בביתו; ב (א) ולא סותר את דבריו ולא מכריע את דבריו ג] בפניו, ד] אפילו לומר נראין דברי אבא;

    KT

  2. “The upshot is that you need not (should not) check your brain at the door when studying Torah but you must take care to relate to your mentor with respect.”

    And what would you say about someone that disagrees with the Talmud? Should he be allowed to respectfully dissent? If not, has he not “checked his brain at the door”?

  3. “disagrees with the Talmud”

    Disagreeing with the Talmud about Talmudic law strikes me as “checking one’s brain at the door”?

    Disagreeing with the Talmud because one doesn’t except its authority is an entirely different issue, it seems to me.

  4. Reuven Spolter

    Interesting post. I remember back in high school, I once attended a shiur delivered in our shul by a well known, respected Rosh Yeshiva, who made a statement that seemed incorrect. When I asked him about it during the shiur, he denied my question and quickly moved on.
    Afterwards, speaking to a rebbe of mine, he explained that even though I was right, because I challenged the rav directly, he would not (or could not) acknowledge that he had made a mistake. Rather, what he suggested that I do was to say that “I didn’t understand what the Rosh Yeshiva was trying to say,” and that I could keep saying that until the rav understood my point.

  5. of course there is the classic r’ybs story of the talmid whose question in shiur r’ybs rejected, then tracked him down in the greasy spoon, told him on reflection he was right and he would rethink the shiur the next day in shiur with the talmidim. i recall my teachers wanting us to challenge them in shiur (but probably not on psak) imho that is the mark of a master teacher.
    KT

  6. The list of behaviors prohibited or proscribed in standard texts (i.e Gemara and Shulchan Aruch and codes)because of honoring one’s parents or teachers strikes a modern youth (and even a child of the 1950’s like me) as stilted and somewhat archaic, or at least that is how it struck my daughter and her classmates when they were studying Massechet Kiddushin last year. Modern society has forms of respect that are excluded, and some of the signs of respect have fallen into disuse. My answer to my daughter was twofold. First, that one had an obligation to both be respectful by current standards (like not texting while your parent or teacher is talking to you) and to practice or avoid the listed behaviors, and, second, that a parent can be mochel his kavod and most parents (certainly her mother and I) did not expect some of the more archaic measures. What do others think?

    The one thing I told her not to do was avoiding the second person pronoun; that is a sign of respect in some languages, but it doesn’t work in English. Even to the president one says “What do you think Mr. President?” not “What does Mr. President think?”. Although maybe that would have changed if Bob Dole had won 🙂

  7. The Gemara (Chullin 111a) tells how one of R. Nachman’s students refused to eat the liver served in the teacher’s home out of concern for the view that liver is forbidden even when broiled. When R. Nachman realized what was happening, he used colorful language to instruct the other student to force the reluctant student to eat the liver. He would not allow a student to follow a different view, to disagree with him, at least in his home. I suspect that most Torah teachers are more tolerant of individualistic behavior.

    You make it sound like R. Nachman was an exception to the rule; that he was intolerant of individualistic behavior. I don’t see any such indication. While the student has every authority to have a different opinion than the mentor, the mentor has every authority to pass judgement about whether the student is coming from a point of reason or simply a lack of trust for the mentor. Maybe we wouldn’t delegate such authority to all mentors nowadays, but R. Nachman was not just anyone. I think his point was to teach a lesson to those students who were being machmir because they had a lack of trust for their mentor or they simply had “issues,” so to speak; not to say that a student may not disagree with the mentor.

    On a personal level, I asked my rav if I am allowed to disagree with him. He said absolutely; it is forbidden to suppress my opinion – אין משוא פנים בדין. He then added that at the same time, if I do not approach him with my argument and ‘have it out’ with him then I have no right to follow my opinion, because an opinion can’t just be a flip of the hand; it has to be well-grounded. I must do my due diligence. How can I assume that my opinion is well-grounded if I hold myself back from presenting my arguments to my own mentor? Am I afraid that he’ll demolish my arguments? But he concluded by reiterating that if I do present my arguments to him and we discuss it and we end up with still differing opinions, I should certainly go with my own.

  8. Anonymous –

    And what would you say about someone that disagrees with the Talmud? Should he be allowed to respectfully dissent? If not, has he not “checked his brain at the door”?

    http://beismedrash.blogspot.com/2012/06/authority-of-talmud.html

  9. Totally off subject. Before we were discussing tvilas keilim. Now the daf is about tvilas keri for men ‘and women’.
    http://dafyummy.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/berachot-22a-immersion-in-mikveh-for.html?showComment=1345729808750#c607968867566124907

  10. Great post. See Avoda Zara 16a-Amar Rav Chanan amar Rav…V’ani Omer … Rav Chanan said something in the name of his (presumably) Rebbe, Rav, and then says “but I say” exactly the opposite. The Gemara does not seem to like that statement, and tries in many different ways to rebut Rav Chanan, but the Gemara doesn’t say “how could he argue with his Rebbe.”

  11. Menashe (and everyone else)-

    If you’re going to go off topic, do you mind doing it in the News and Links section of this blog? (It makes for smoother reading of this thread.)

    https://www.torahmusings.com/2012/08/news-links-110/

    Thanx.

  12. I would add REW ZL’s famous quote from R Chaim Brisker ZL that the Amora, could conceivably disagree with a view of a Tanna because “Rav Tanna Upalig.” According to RHS, quoting RYBS,and RMS until the Chasimas HaTalmud, an Amora had an equal right to disagree with the views of a Tanna because the TSBP was still being transmitted in its most pristine form orally from Rebbe to Talmid.

  13. I would also add RMF’s famous Hakdamah to IM, where , by dint of his understanding of Halacha, he feels free to disagree with Acharonim and even Rishonim.

  14. Ye’yasher kochakha, R’ Steve Brizel. What are writing is true (as always). At the same time, with your permission I would like to elucidate your words to the effect that you are actually synthesizing the introductions of two books: Iggerot Mosheh, and Ma’aneh la-Iggerot; which is a nice chiddush on your part, and one that is ra’ui la-alot al shulchan melakhim.

    Namely, in the introduction to Iggerot Mosheh, RMF explains that the gemara in Sotah 22a which forbids an individual to render halakhic decisions before reaching sufficient maturity and expertise [and which also obligates those who have reach sufficient maturity and expertise to render halakhic decisions] is to be applied by a different standard to every era. Therefore, asserts RMF, ‘although I am nothing compared to R. Akiva Eger, and indeed in R. Akiva Eger’s time I would have been forbidden to render any decisions, for our era I have sufficient expertise to render a halakhic decision, such that I am allowed and indeed obligated to publish this book’. Moreover, continues RMF (apparently as a “snif le-hakel” just in case one is not convinced by RMF’s credentials) ‘since I enumerate the reasons for my decisions, I am merely teaching a class, which is certainly permissible for all students of Torah’.
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14673&st=&pgnum=3

    Now, in his introduction to Ma’aneh la-Iggerot, R. Yom Tov ha-Levi Schwarz remonstrates that RMF contradicts many Acharonim and sometimes even Rishonim in his rulings.
    http://www.israel613.com/books/MEANE_IGROT-H.pdf

    What you are cogently observing, R’ Steve Brizel, is that “mar amar chada u-mar amar chada, ve-lo pligei”. I think this is a beautiful synthesis of RMF and RYTHS. Perhaps their souls are even now dancing together in the Heavenly Academy…

  15. R Shalom Spira- I don’t think that I deserve a Yasher Koach based on your attempted synthesis of RMF and R YT HaLevi Schwartz. I don’t know of too many talmidei chachamim who take Maaneh LaIgeros terribly seriously.RMF’s hakdamah IMO stands on its own as a superb example of how RMF views himself in the Mesorah.

  16. Rabbi Spira- I am delighted by your delightful words. Do you have something similar for R Kook ZTL and the SR ZTL?

    Please e-mail me
    [email protected]

    Everyone else- I apologize for hypocritically violating my own request earlier in this thread.

  17. Thank you, R’ Steve Brizel and R’ Shaul Shapira, for the honour of the kind acknowledgements and responses.

    Regarding R. Kook and R. Teitelbaum, this is indeed an interesting question. One dimension of convergence I can discern between them is the wholescale rejection of contemporary tzurat ha-petach networks employed to enclose large outside areas for the purpose of establishing an eruvei chatzeirot. R. Kook’s rejectionist position on this is discussed by R. Bleich in Contemporary Halakhic Problems IV, pp. 355-356. R. Teitelbaum’s rejectionist position on this was related to me by R. Mordechai Willig, who recounted how he sought the approval of R. Moshe Stern (author of Shu”t Be’er Mosheh) to establish the Riverdale eruv. R. Willig believed that the major point of contention would be the status of Henry Hudson Parkway. R. Stern responded that the Parkway does not represent the problem; rather the problem is that he [R. Stern] subscribes to R. Teitelbaum’s thesis that it is impossible to build eruvin *anywhere* in the USA (where Jews and Noahides reside as neighbours in the same vicinity), since no homeowner can be summarily evicted from his home in a constitutional liberal democracy (thus differing from the predicament described in Eruvin 65b).

  18. The Minchas Elazar (4:6) lists many Talmudic figures who disagreed with their father or mentor.

    See Dynamics of Dispute,, Chapter 9, “Disciples Disagreeing With Their Mentors,” for many more examples and relevant sources.

  19. Great post. Any idea where that Rambam is where he disagrees with his father? There is no hilchos shechita 1:66 in the Mishneh Torah.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter


The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

Archives

Categories

%d bloggers like this: