Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.
It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.
We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.
This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.
So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!
One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.
And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.