How does orthodox Jews see rabbinic disagreements and on what basis do believers determine which school of thought to follow? Does majority decides what is truth, and since even today there exist many different branches of rabbinic interpretation; how can we decide when there is no majority decision for settlement exist when the dispute began. And if Rabbis have authority to overrule God's testimony, doesn't that make them above God and his scripture?

For example, we read in Baba Mezi'a 59b that Rabbi Eliezer was wrongfully condemned and excommunicated due to losing in a dispute from majority voting. Was such excommunication permanent or short term punishment? It says that the majority were defeated him by overruling scriptures, denying God's own testimony, arguing that "one must side with majority" by twisting Exodus 23:2 which says the opposite. The footnotes says he took the punishment of mourning in his humility and peace loving nature. (Was his submissive decision right?) Then how can we decide majority decision of the council or rabbis is always right, and they have not perverted God's words in their tradition, or broke the chain of interpretation? How can rabbinic tradition, interpretation and authority can be trusted in such instances where men prove to be sinful and imperfect? And if were right then it shows the council of majority have authority to overrule God's words; can even change the Torah.

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    I think you missed part of the story. God agrees with the majority's decision.
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 13:52
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    @Michael16 On the basis of their being a earthly majority. God accepts their decision and respects it. He doesn't get angry at them or punish them. He gave us a legal system and this is how it works. It's like how in US law, you can't account for certain kinds of evidence if they were found without a warrant. God made the rules of what evidence is permitted, so rejecting impermissible evidence is what we're supposed to do according to God. God is happy when we follow his legal procedure to determine the law.
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:01
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    Great, though not new question. We say "eilu v'eilu" --These and those are words of the living G-d. In other words, both rabbis-who-disagree are right :)
    – SAH
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:03
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    You've misunderstood the incident in that g'mara. It's an interesting case, though. Perhaps consider making this question about that, rather than asking the broader, probably-duplicate question. (Saw your latest comment after posting this one. That title edit would not be offensive IMO.) Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:19
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    I would advise against trusting anything that an anti-Jewish site like that says about Judaism. Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:50

2 Answers 2


Pirke Avot 1:1 begins:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.

The men of the Great Assembly are the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic body whose deliberations are recorded in the talmud. So the first point is that God gave them the authority to interpret halacha.

In the "oven of Achnai" incident in Bava Metzia, R' Eliezer offers various proofs of his position that are not "kosher". Halacha provides rules by which the rabbis can interpret and expound torah and halacha, and they do not include carob trees walking across the field or streams running backwards. R' Eliezer was trying to follow different rules and the majority voted him down because of it.

As you note, the rabbis went on to excommunicate him. (They also rounded up and destroyed vessels that R' Eliezer had declared kosher, as his interpretations were now suspect.) If you read on in the g'mara, though, you'll see that God does not seem to approve of their actions either. On R' Eliezer's account the world was smitten (crops died). And when R' Eliezer prayed to God for relief, his prayer was granted. None of this means the majority was wrong to rule against R' Eliezer; their error was in how they treated him after. (I attended a fascinating lecture on this on Shavu'ot night and wrote up some notes after.)

Now, finally, we come to the question you led with:

How does orthodox Jews see rabbinic disagreements and on what basis do believers determine which school of thought to follow?

Individual Jews don't decide. We have a system of authority. If I don't know what to do in a particular situation I ask my rabbi; if he doesn't know either he researches it, seeking authoritative rulings from other rabbis. We don't have the Great Assembly today, but if we did it would act as a sort of "supreme court".

Individual Jews do study halacha and torah more generally. But we don't presume the authority to rule for ourselves or to decide in our own communities that, hey, we kind of like bacon so we're going to declare it kosher (or whatever). Halachic interpretation is based on established processes, processes that God gave Moshe on Sinai and that were passed down from there. Arguments such as those recorded in the talmud are the application of those processes which, like modern science, don't always produce only one interpretation.

When the rabbis responded to the bat kol, the heavenly voice that had said "he's right", saying that the torah is not in heaven, God agreed with them and validated their process.

  • do you think the underlying principle working here is that majority is always right, coz they are divinely inspired? Though here we see they were not totally right afterall! do orthodox or rabbinic Jews still would blindly submit to their rabbis mainstream or majority views?
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 17:38
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    A majority following the process correctly has the authority to make rulings. They're still humans and could make mistakes, but God permits that. You're talking in absolutes and it's more nuanced than that. There's also nothing blind about it; if I want to know why my rabbi rules a certain way I have only to ask and he'll show me the sources he used. Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 18:03
  • the story seems to teach that majority decides truth (even tho their decision was not totally divinely inspired and correct); and common believer is left confused whose interpretation to follow when there is no way of determining majority interpretation, such as concerning prophecies, and sacrificial system etc.
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 18:15
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    The "common believer" doesn't decide, as I explained in this answer. Christian ideas about the nature and role of "inspiration" are different from Judaism's (and no, I am not going to try to explain that further). Please reread my answer. If my explanation is unclear please tell me where so I can fix it, but if you want to discuss your perspective, please take that elsewhere. Thank you. Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 18:26
  • I was saying you indeed have to form a decision on which interpretation to follow among the varying branches or schools. That remains personal decision indeed. Here as an example Rashi's interpretation of the Exodus verse differ from Rabbis and onkelos.
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 18:37

Orthodox Judaism views rabbinic disagreements as differences of opinion regarding how to apply the divine principles given us by G-d, not arguing against any of them.

Maimonides states in his Introduction to the Talmud that the Torah has three categories of laws: recieved, derived, and legislated. He says that every commandment that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave to Our Teacher Moses was given with its explanation. Sometimes this was different from the way that an uninformed reader might interpret it, or involved details not mentioned in the text, so it was necessary that this explanation be passed along with the text. This is the recieved law.

However, not every detail in every possible situation was passed on. A system of 13 rules for deriving laws from the wording of the text was included in the explanation, so that the traditional explanation could be checked for transmission errors against the original text, and new details could be gleaned that were not stated explicitly. G-d so designed the text of the Pentateuch to lead to these conclusions by way of the special rules. Maimonides writes that there have never been rabbinic disputes regarding either of these first two categories.

The third category is that the Pentateuch explicitly granted the rabbis the mandate to create legislation to safeguard and standardize the observance of the commandments. Legislation enacted on the basis of this mandate is binding by force of G-d's command as well, since it says to follow the rabbis' words whatever they will tell you. It is only in this area that disputes arise.

Exodus 23:2 says not to follow the majority for evil, implying that if the majority position is valid, one should follow it. Rabbi Eliezer was able to get heaven to validate him because G-d had left the disputed question of law undecided and both sides of the dispute had valid arguments. Therefore, when Rabbi Eliezer refused to accept the majority vote, he was going against the stated will of G-d.

To delve further into this fascinating system of Torah law, please see:

  • so what decides whether this majority was doing right or wrong is their usage of Exo23:2? are we to understand had Eliezer responded with a better verse and argument, he would've proven right instead of the majority? Or is it a larger assumption working here that majority is always right? thanks for the ans.
    – Michael16
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 17:20
  • Majority is not always right; Maimonides writes that truth is not a democracy. This case had no precedent in Torah law, so that in terms of objective truth, both positions were valid. It fell to these rabbis to rule on it, and the procedure since Moses instituted the rabbinical courts in Exodus 18 was to rule by majority opinion, as per Exodus 23. Mystical powers did not help R' Eliezer win the dispute because Deut. 30 explains that Torah is an egalitarian system available to all. He needed to convince his colleagues by logical argument.
    – Baruch
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 23:47

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