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Throughout ages, our Sages engaged in Halachic, scientific and philosophical arguments between themselves and with other nations' philosophers.

We hold that the truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages' exceptional intellectual superiority. However, I don't see how that can be seen from the text of the Talmud itself.

What sources support this assertion?

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    We hold that the truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages' "Tradition" ("Mesorah") of the absolute truth. – IsraelReader Dec 2 at 16:38
  • "We hold that the truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages' exceptional intellectual superiority" - do we? I would argue that once Chazal are recognised as having Sanhedrin/Sanhedrin-like status we automatically defer to their rulings - 'לא תסור וכו. This is never made dependent on having "exceptional intellectual superiority", especially not when compared to non-candidates gentiles. – AKA Dec 2 at 20:16
  • ...That's not to say they weren't wise, and maybe the wisest, and I'm sure you can find sources for that as well. But the basis for this assumption stated in the question is not accurate. – AKA Dec 2 at 20:17
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    In this answer, Alex explains how Gersonides (Ralbag) disagreed with the sages, writing, "an utter falsehood from which it is fitting for every man of intelligence to flee". This supports the view that the sages are not infallible. – Turk Hill Dec 4 at 5:39
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Throughout ages, our Sages engaged in Halachic, scientific and philosophical arguments between themselves and with other nations' philosophers

This statement isn't historically correct. Our sages for most of history didn't voluntarily engage in Halachic, scientific and philosophical arguments between themselves and with other nations' philosophers.

We hold that the truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages' exceptional intellectual superiority.

I never heard anyone say that the truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages' exceptional intellectual superiority.

However, I don't see how that can be seen from the text of the Talmud itself.

As the Kuzari says a superficial understanding of Torah certainly wouldn't lead to the conclusion that those who wrote it were smarter than some of the brilliant non-Jewish philosophers.

What sources support this assertion?

None because it isn't correct. The truthfulness of Talmudic discussions relies on our Sages knowledge of the Mesorah and their ability to apply it to specific situations.

BUT if you want to know how we know they were smarter:

Think of the last generation and people like Rav Moshe Feinstein who knew all of Shas and Rishonim word for word by heart and in great depth. Such an intellectual feat would be unthinkable to obtain today. Yet he looked at the generation before him as dwarfing him in knowledge and understanding. Keep going back until you reach the time o the Gemorah. Just imagine what they must have been like.

There is an old saying "Someone who thinks he can argue with Abaya is an apikorus. Someone who thinks he can argue with the Rashba is an idiot"

  • Thank you for your effort. 1. Do you mean they didn't at all or didn't voluntarily? 3. I would agree that memorization is one aspect of the human intellect, but I don't see where the Gemmorah discusses Sages' memorization abilities, to the contrary, many times they miss important sources and are corrected. 2. Have you heard of intellectual ירידת הדורות in Judaism? 4. I would prefer to hear that from non-Jewish sources. 5. I don't infer from R' Moshe to Tannayim. – Al Berko 2 days ago
  • "Such an intellectual feat would be unthinkable to obtain today." That's just not true. There are some really smart people out there today too. I'd be willing to wager big money R Chaim Kanievsky knows more Torah sources by heart than R Moshe Feinstein did (not that there's any way to prove it one way or another). – Double AA 2 days ago
  • 6 I didn't understand the "saying". Many argued with Abaye and many Geonim dismissed his views - so what? Same with Rashba. Did your Rabbi say that and limited it to our generation? – Al Berko 2 days ago
  • It should be noted that it is hard to asset Tannoyim's memory as besides Tanach there were almost no written sources. Each later generation has to memorize all of the previous generations' works. – Al Berko 2 days ago
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Possible sources for the theory of the decline of the generations

It is possible that the source for the idea of the decline of the generations, as made plain in the question, could be attributed to the Chazon Ish, which insists on the need to follow the majority, however, the Sanhedrin is longer functioning and the Sefer HaChinnuch does not extend to include the rabbinic authorities of every generation, and the position of the Sefer HaChinnuch is a minority view at best. Not to mention that the criteria required therein are generally not fulfilled.

Deuteronomy 17:11 and “right and left”

Another possible source could be from Rashi's commentary to Deuteronomy 17:11, where Rashi states:

“even if he [the rabbi] tells you regarding the right [hand] that it is left, or regarding the left that it is right, and certainly so [you must obey the rabbi] if he tells you regarding the right [that it is] right, and regarding the left [that it is] left.”

Put differently, Jonah of Gerona (Ran), writes:

“even if it is crystal clear to you that what the court [or rabbi] tells you is wrong, nevertheless obey them, for this is how G-d, may He be blessed, commanded that we should behave towards the Torah and its commands: do as they decide for us, whether it is true or false.”

They are quoting Deut. 17:11:

"Do not stray right or left from all that they tell you"

This is why Rashi cites a Midrash, "Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, you must listen."

But Deuteronomy 17:8–13 it talking about the authority of the levites, priests, and judges when they are baffled. It does not refer to an erroneous rabbinical opinion, it refers to judicial verdicts, requiring litigants to accept the verdict.

“you shall carry out the verdict … observing scrupulously all of their instruction to you…. You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.”

A classic example of this can be found in the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9 where the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Joshua calculate the date for Yom Kippur differently. Although Rabbi Joshua eventually consented, he did not do so because he felt Gamaliel was right. He did so as a means to avoid division in Judaism. Joseph Albo, writer of Ikkarim was of the same opinion when he interpreted Deuteronomy 17. Another reason why Deuteronomy 17 does not refer to the rabbis is that the rabbinical institution did not exist until 70 C.E.

Thus, when Rashi draws his sources from the Midrash Sifrei, “even if they [the rabbis] teach you clearly” – Rashi paraphrases – “concerning right that it is left and concerning left that it is right obey them.”

But the Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 1,1 seems to state the opposite:

“You would think that if they [the rabbis] said to you concerning right that it is left and concerning left that it is right you should obey them, therefore the Torah tells you to go right and left: if they tell you concerning right that it is right and concerning left that it is left [then you obey them, but not if they tell you that right is left].”

The Midrash remarkably omits the words, “You would think” and, “you should listen to them.” Rashi is copying an erroneous statement. Thus, the Midrash contains a scribal error!

However, it is possible that Rashi was aware of the Talmudic view and only addresses the Midrash as an opinion.

Nachmanides quotes Rashi and Sifrei, but takes one more step, writing:

“execute this innocent [a person I know is innocent]” because the Torah “commanded that I perform all His [G-d’s] commandments in accordance with all that they who stand before Him [the rabbis] … teach me to do. He gave me the Torah as taught by them, even if they were to err.”

Thus obedience is imperative. G-d places the words into the rabbi's mouths as he does the Pope. This is illogical, indeed anti-rational, as it leads people to say that the Pope is infallible and only made two mistakes in the history of Catholicism.

Additionally, Yisachar Eilenberg, the author of Tzedah laderech contends that Sifrei and Rashi are focusing on a situation where a person hears a rabbinical decree but is unsure whether they are right or wrong. But that the Talmud is focusing on the circumstance in which a person knows a rabbi is mistaken, and must not agree with him. This is reasonable. Jacob Makelberg, author of Hakhatav v’hakabala is of the same opinion.

An example of this is Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam who felt that the sages were not infallible when it came to science, for example, Rabbi Yaakov Rischer dismissed the scientific claim that the earth is round on the grounds that the Talmud's position is that the world is flat. Even the Chazal were incorrect when it came to science as clearly demonstrated in Rabbi Slifkin's works.

We have seen two approaches thus far. But there is a third approach.

What did Maimonides think?

In his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 1:2, Maimonides writes about Deuteronomy 17 concerning rabbinical laws but avoids the discussion of “right and left” altogether in the Mishneh Torah. In his Guide of the Perplexed he writes that:

“A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in the back.”

Thus, Maimonides agrees with the Jerusalem Talmud.

Summary

We have seen three approaches to interpreting Deut. 17:11. The first approach insists on blind acceptance despite the error of the rabbis. The second suggests that a person should only accept a rabbinical pronouncement if they are unsure of the material out of hand. But they should not accept a rabbi if he seemingly says that black is white or right is left, and if they know he is wrong. The third approach, the position of Maimonides, states that a person should always use their reason, even questing tradition such as medicine.

  • Thank you for your effort, writing such a detailed and informative answer. You should probably move it to the question of authority of our Rabbis instead of this question of their intellect. To rephrase the question's assumption: "we follow them because they were smart". Please address this point. – Al Berko Dec 3 at 17:59
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    BTW: I don't think the Ran's name was Jonah – robev Dec 3 at 18:35
  • Thank you for your comments. @AlBerko I originally addressed the intelligence in the last answer but since it was deleted, I sought a different approach, one which would explain/address the source as asked in the question. Generally speaking, the intellect of the rabbis (the decline of generations theory) and authority go hand-in-hand, as it suggests they have authority because they were smart. Saying that they were not supersmart and incorrect on many occasions should not be mistaken as a declaration to denounce the rabbis. They were certainly (always) correct in matters regarding halakhah. – Turk Hill Dec 3 at 18:58
  • All Maimonideans, and I am one of them, never say that Jews should abandon the commands. The opposite is true, Maimonides says to keep every command. Rationalism should not lead to a slippery slope. Maimonides wrote that we are obligated to keep every command as the rabbis explain them. We just don't have to listen to every non-halakhic matter when in regards to science and when it is wrong. – Turk Hill Dec 3 at 18:58

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