As I understand it, there is no hierarchy within Judaism, per se. In fact, following a controversial decision by Rav Elyashev, he mentioned to a friend of mine that his rulings really only apply to his congregants, and no one is obligated to follow them. And yet, in Israel and the U.S. we have Councils of Gedolim. If one or more of them bans concerts, books, wigs, vaccines, cell phones, or counting certain Jews in a minyan, what obligation does the average shomer Shabbos Jew have to follow their rulings? What obligation does our congregational rabbi have to follow their rulings? Is it chutzpah or disrespectful to question the sources and accuracy on which the rabbis' decisions are based?
@Micha Berger suggested to differentiate between (1) the need to get our halachic rulings from "the Gedolim" and (2) how much are we expected to listen to them beyond the domain of actual halachic rulings?
On the first question, Dr Eli Turkel wrote a very interesting article on the topic in Tradition (The nature and limitations of rabbinic authority). He writes there (pp. 83-84)
[…] community leaders only have religious authority if they are followed by a majority of the community […] In modern times, no single organization is accepted as authoritative by al Torah observant Jews and, as a result, no group has the right to impose its views on individuals who do not voluntarily accept them. […] Hence we conclude that a modern rabbi’s authority is limited to his immediate community or to those people who ask his opinion. No rabbi has the right to impose his views on anyone else. (see also bottom of p. 86)
In conclusion he writes (p. 95)
We have shown that in the absence of a Great Sanhedrin, a court […] or even a gadol hador can impose their halakhic opinions only if they are accepted by the majority of a community. Even in that case, the decisions affect only that specific community and not others.
On the second question R Aharon Lichtenstein asks in If There Is No Da’at, How Can We Have Leadership? asks whether one can follow gedolei Torah in all aspects of life, based on the verse (Devarim 17:11) "According to the teaching that they instruct you, and according to the ruling which they shall tell you, you shall act, you shall not depart from that which they tell you right or left." He shows there is no basis to broaden the concept of da’at Torah beyond halachic matters and into all areas of life.
He shows based on R Yitzhak Hutner that, beyond halachic mastery, the da’at in da’at Torah is a combination of
- Understanding the world and soul of the person who stands in front of a questioner
- Understanding the reality and the situation at hand
- A true and honest accounting of his own conscience, which obligates him to establish whether he is indeed capable of issuing guidance on a specific issuance, and whether he possesses sufficient expertise regarding it.
R Lichtenstein says too few gedolim today can do as Rashi who writes in more than 70 places in his commentary to the Torah and the Talmud, 'I don't know’. He notes R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was a rare exception, and before him the Rambam and the Noda BiYehuda because “they dwelled amongst their people”.
He notes that unfortunately
Today many of the gedolim build up tall walls around themselves, doors which are bolted shut, in order that nothing which is occurring in the outside world should penetrate, and drip into the walls of the study hall. This is the reality in which tremendous talmidei chachamim who are totally detached from reality are raised. After decades of total detachment, he is drawn out from hiding, and becomes a 'gadol', a leader and guide. Astonishingly, the field of his leadership is not limited to Torah alone, rather he is requested and required to make decisions on the very issues that he fled from in the past, that he hid from for so many years.