One of our readers asked about differences between the Torah's rules for
Jewish Courts, as compared to the Torah's rules for Non-Jewish Courts.
Since the Beis Din is highly restricted -- in order to further the cause of
justice, shouldn't the Non-Jewish Court have the same restrictions?
Before we can deal directly with the question, let's start with some basic
An incident is recorded In Tractate Baba Metzia. Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol
debated with the entire Sanhedrin. When they wouldn't accept his ruling,
Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol tried to prove that he was correct by prophetic,
supernatural means. Although many signs and wonders were performed,
nonetheless, the Rabbis paid no attention. Jewish Law (halacha) is a
normative legal system. As such, it cannot be affected by supernatural
phenomena. Perhaps the supernatural is valid, perhaps not; the power of
the prophet must not be allowed to interfere with the legal process.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz brought out another point. Let's accept the idea
that the Rabbis were not going to be convinced by the miracles. Even so,
it's remarkable that they were not in the least bit impressed. All the
wonders had not made any impression upon them whatsoever. Where did Rabbi
Eliezer's power come from? What meaning did it have for the Rabbis? Rabbi
Yerucham Levovitz referred to an explanation from the Ran: Rabbi Eliezer's
miracles were a test for the Rabbis. Would they follow the rulings of the
Torah, or not?
Yet another point can be derived from this story. Following the incident,
Hashem is reported to have said, "Nitzchu Banai" -- "My children have
defeated me!" The implication is that Hashem Himself agreed with Rabbi
Eliezer, although the law was decided in accordance with the other opinion!
The Rishonim (early authorities) discussed and debated the meaning of
According to Chinuch, the legal argument of Rabbi Eliezer was more sound,
thus Hashem agreed with Rabbi Eliezer's view. However, the vote of the
majority of the Sanhedrin is binding, not the soundness of an individual's
reasoning. Thus, even though Rabbi Eliezer was, in theory, "correct,"
nonetheless, the legal process decided otherwise.
Ramban explained in a different manner: The decision of the Sanhedrin, is,
by definition, correct. Even if it seems to you that the Sanhedrin has
erred, you must humble yourself and try to see things in a different light;
they have the authority to decide the laws.
Actually, there may be no real difference between Chinuch and Ramban. Even
though Rabbi Eliezer may have had the stronger logic, logic alone does not
determine laws. Legally -- by definition -- the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin
are indeed "correct."
A recent example of this reasoning occurred during the impeachment trials
in the US recently. A friend of the President argued in a speech to the
Senate, "The President has not committed an impeachable offense."
Commentators pointed out that the statement was incorrect, since the
President had already been impeached by those with the authority to impeach!
Our discussion has not addressed the possibility of error; we have simply
distinguished between opinion and law. In the next issue, b'ezras Hashem,
we will investigate what should occur if the court has apparently erred.