Vayikra: On answering to the highest authority


Leviticus 1:1-5:26

Isaiah 43:21-44:23

Years ago, Michael Brooks, the Hillel director at University of Michigan, told me of three umpires who met after a ball game and boasted of their professional skills.

The first one proudly said, "I call 'em as I see 'em."

"I call 'em as they is," declared the second.

The third responded, "They ain't nothing till I call 'em."

This story requires some analysis. Let us say that the rules of baseball define a strike as a pitched ball which, in the opinion of the umpire, passes directly above home plate at a height above the batter's knees and below the armpits. The first umpire asserts that he makes his decision fairly. The second umpire boasts that his opinion accords accurately with the facts. The third boasts that the facts do not matter, since only he can reveal "the opinion of the umpire."

If the pitch that the umpire calls a strike never entered the strike zone, the first two umpires would call that a mistake. The third umpire would say, "No matter. The question never depended on where the ball went but on what the umpire decided." Unless he lies about his opinion, the third umpire claims, he can never err.

Do not think of this as a trivial point. What, for legal purposes, does any provision of the Constitution of the United States of America mean? Whatever a plurality of the justices of the Supreme Court says it means. The justices can err by misreading the words, by misconstruing the implications, by mistaking the intent of the writers; but they cannot err about what the Constitution means in courts of law because the other law courts must interpret the Constitution according to the opinion of the Supreme Court. From that point of view, the justices become infallible. Like the third umpire, they sit above the Constitution. It "ain't nothing till they say what it is."

We might want to investigate who had legal power to interpret the Torah, whose decisions about the meaning of the Torah would have binding status. They, if anyone, would qualify as infallible. Perhaps the high priest has the power to interpret the Torah; perhaps the heads of each tribe, or later, the king; perhaps the members of the highest Court; perhaps some sort of consensus of the people.

An answer to this question, I believe, lies somewhat hidden in this week's Torah portion. The fourth chapter of Leviticus deals with sin offerings, brought when someone sins in error by doing something that God has commanded not to be done (Lev. 4:2).

The actual offering takes a different form if the high priest commits the error (Lev. 4:312), or the entire community of Israel (4:13-21), or the prince of a tribe (Lev. 4:22-26), or a private individual (4:27-35). The entire community can sin, according to teachers of the Mishnah, if the high court rules inaccurately about the Torah, and the community follows that inaccurate ruling to do a prohibited act (Horiot, Chapter 1). While the Torah grants limited authority to human beings, no human, not the king, not the high priest, not the high court, not any individual, can say of the Torah, "It ain't nothing till I call it."

And who determines the meaning of the provisions of the Torah in modern Judaism?

Orthodox thinkers tend to refer to the wisest rabbis of each generation; Conservative thinkers, following Solomon Schechter, to the consensus of believing and practicing Jews; Reform thinkers, to the autonomy of each individual Jew.

Each one of us, perhaps, has a tendency to understand our favorite candidate for deciding the meaning of Torah as absolute. From the law of the sin offering, we can derive that whatever humans we recognize as authoritative in Judaism, they do not qualify as infallible. They — we — all have to answer to a higher Law.