[Avodah] Questioning Authority

Akiva Miller akivagmiller at gmail.com
Wed Oct 11 06:41:32 PDT 2017

I have no hidden agenda here. This post is my response to the current "OU
paper" thread, and to many other threads we've had over the decades, where
we have wondered how any given posek could hold a certain way on any
particular question. It is also relevant to threads we've had abput
*becoming* a posek, and the importance of shimush in addition to book

This is something I would not have written, or even have thought of, until
about 10 years ago or so. But as I have matured, I have come to see things
in a new perspective. Becoming a parent, and a grandparent, has given me a
tremendous insight into Hashem's relationship with us.

I have always felt that it is (or ought to be) possible and permissible to
*question* authority without challenging or rejecting authority. It is very
natural to want to understand the reasons behind the rules that we must
live by. Wanting to understand those rules is not the same as rejecting
those rules. Wanting to understand the rules, I believe, is a major
component of the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, and is thus highly commendable.

A chavrusa once challenged me to explain my position on a certain subject.
He said to me, "If you can't explain it to me in simple terms, then you
don't really understand it well enough yourself." I accepted that rule
wholeheartedly, and used it myself for many decades. But recently have I
begun to see the cracks in that rule.

A parent tells the child to do something, or to not do something. The child
asks why, not out of rebellion, but because he sincerely wants to
understand what's going on. Sometimes, the parent cannot give an answer
better than "Because I said so." The child now thinks that the parent is
being arbitrary, and sometimes, the parent might even agree.

But frequently, the truth is that the parent has very good reasons for what
he says. It's just that he's unable to put those reasons into clear words.
He can't even explain it to himself in simple terms, because it is simply a
gut feeling that he has, based on experience and intuition, he sees that
this is the action or inaction which must be followed in this particular

I think this is analogous to Torah leaders and Torah followers. When the
leaders tell the followers what to do, or what to avoid, it is entirely
reasonable for the followers to request explanations from the leaders. This
is especially so, if the explanation will help them comply with the
directive, or teach them how to apply the directive to other situations.
But these requests must be made respectfully, carefully, and only up to a
certain point.

Consider when a parent explains himself to the child, and the child
responds with a dozen reasonable challenges to the parent's logic.
Sometimes the parent will realize that he was in error, and back down.
Sometimes the parent will realize that he was in error, but will stick to
his guns as a show of power (rightly or wrongly). But sometimes, the parent
will understand that - despite the child's persuasive comments - the
directive must still be followed, because ... Well, the parent himself
might not be able to articulate his reasoning, not even to himself. But he
relies on his understanding and his experience and his common sense, and he
knows that this is how it must be.

So too, our leaders adopt certain positions on certain issues, and often
they will attempt to explain themselves to us. Sometimes those explanations
may appear flawed to us, maybe even severely flawed. Like the child who
thinks his parent's explanation is nonsense, the flaws do not necessarily
invalidate the leader's conclusion or his decision.

Of course, none of this suggests that our leaders (or parents) are
infallible. And they can certainly benefit from reviewing their positions
among their peers. The only point I'm trying to make in this long post is
this: Similar to a Chok from the Torah, sometimes our leaders issue
pronouncements that we are not capable of fully understanding, and we
should not let that stand in the way of following them.

Akiva Miller

NB: A critical word in this post is "sometimes". The difficult (sometimes
impossible) task is to figure out which times are which.
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