Rabbinic Authority

Rabbinic Authority

Rabbinic Authority

Rabbinic Authority


The Rabbis of the first five centuries of the Common Era loom large in the Jewish tradition. Until the modern period, Jews viewed the Rabbinic traditions as the authoritative contents of their covenant with God, and scholars debated the meanings of these ancient Sages words. Even after the eighteenth century, when varied denominations emerged within Judaism, each with its own approach to the tradition, the literary legacy of the talmudic Sages continued to be consulted. In this book, Michael S. Berger analyzes the notion of Rabbinic authority from a philosophical standpoint. He sets out a typology of theories that can be used to understand the authority of these Sages, showing the coherence of each, its strengths and weaknesses, and what aspects of the Rabbinic enterprise it covers. His careful and thorough analysis reveals that owing to the multifaceted character of the Rabbinic enterprise, no single theory is adequate to fully ground Rabbinic authority as traditionally understood. The final section of the book argues that the notion of Rabbinic authority may indeed have been transformed over time, even as it retained the original name. Drawing on the debates about legal hermeneutics between Ronald Dworkin and Stanley Fish, Berger introduces the idea that Rabbinic authority is not a strict consequence of a preexisting theory, but rather is embedded in a form of life that includes text, interpretation, and practices. Rabbinic authority is shown to be a nuanced concept unique to Judaism, in that it is taken to justify those sorts of activities which in turn actually deepen the authority itself. Students of Judaism and philosophers of religion in general will be intrigued by this philosophical examination of a central issue of Judaism, conducted with unprecedented rigor and refreshing creative insight.


As a general field of inquiry, philosophy of religion is not new. Starting with the Greeks, thinkers, both within religious contexts and outside them, have sought to clarify and explicate the central concepts of religion: God, God's relation to the world, the relationship of human beings to God, the ultimate end of things, to name but a few. To be sure, philosophical reflection about religion has ebbed and surged over the centuries, at times being of only peripheral interest, at others, of genuinely central concern to philosophers. Nevertheless, within Western culture, the field has been conducted almost exclusively within a Christian orbit, seeking either to challenge, defend, or simply analyze Christian belief and doctrine.

Since the middle of this century, there has been a self-conscious effort to reflect philosophically about the nature of religious thought and practice in the same way that philosophy of science and philosophy of history discuss questions of the thought and practice of scientists and historians. Using the tools and insights of analytic philosophy, philosophers -- religious and nonreligious alike -- have again turned to treat issues in religious thought seriously. More recently, some philosophers have turned to explicating specific concepts, practices, and doctrines in religion such as atonement, prayer, and life after death. Although several religious traditions share some of these concepts, these treatments tend to reflect the Christian context in which most of this inquiry takes place.

While a substantial number of the discussions admittedly cut across denominational lines, at least with respect to monotheistic traditions, two consequences emerge from the overwhelmingly Christian orientation of the discipline.

First, certain concepts are simply absent in Christianity. Two examples will suffice. While Christianity acknowledges certain places as "holy sites," it would be inadequate to characterize the Land of Israel as a very large "holy site" for traditional Judaism. The land not only possesses intrinsic holiness, but it is seen by many Jews to be the land promised to them by God since the time of Abra ham . . .

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