In an era when strict interpretations of Jewish Law are in vogue, and when Orthodox rabbis who render decisions with a broader perspective face withering personal and professional attacks, we would do well to revisit the concepts of freedom of thought and the right of dissent within the realm of Jewish Law. Is there room within the Jewish legal system for individual freedom and conscientious objection to majority opinions?
For guidance, let us look at the model of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. To what extent did the sages of that august legal body admit pluralism into the halls of their debates? In truth, the Sanhedrin always encouraged dissenting opinions, even beginning their judicial inquiry with the views of the youngest and least learned to encourage everyone to state his opinion without being intimidated by the views of more senior colleagues.
But there are limits to this pluralistic spirit. For instance, a member of Sanhedrin must not oppose the authority of the judicial majority. One who does is categorized as a rebellious elder (zaken mamreh), and his offense is considered a capital crime [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 87a], assuming that he proactively attempts to influence others to defy the court in practice.
However, the law of the “rebellious elder” is shaded with subtleties. The aforementioned passage in the Talmud points out that one is not condemned as a zaken mamreh if the disagreement is limited to verbal preaching against the decision, while accepting the ruling in practice. Furthermore, not only does one who disagrees have a right to do so, he is obligated to explain the reasons for his disagreement. If he is correct, he may eventually convince others to see things his way.
What happens, however, if the dissenter is a “conscientious objector”? Fascinatingly, the first mishna in Tractate Horayot forbids a scholar from performing an act that the Sanhedrin permitted but that he believed was prohibited, noting that if a recognized scholar knows that a decision of the Sanhedrin is incorrect, but he nevertheless acts in accordance with the majority, he has committed a transgression and must bring a sacrifice. In other words, not only may he go against the majority, but failure to do so is a sin.
A sage must follow his conscience when he is firmly convinced of the correctness of his position. If he ignores his own knowledge as to what constitutes a correct practice, his transgression in following the incorrect view of the Sanhedrin obligates him to bring a sacrifice.
As long as wisdom and reverence for God motivate your decisions, you dare not mute your individual conscience when you enter the courtyard of the Holy Temple of Jewish law.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.