Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” states in chapter 6:6: “The Torah is acquired in 48 ways.” This week: Way #23, “Faith in the sages”
Faith in the sages: counterintuitive? If we acquire the Torah in “48 ways” — if all these intellectual and personal qualities are needed for the task — why must we place our faith in someone else?
To acknowledge a Torah sage? Yes. To respect a sage’s superior knowledge? Yes. But to defer to it? That seems to be what faith in the sages means. Yet, if I myself am supposed to acquire the Torah, how can deference to a sage aid in my quest?
The answer is grounded in the impossibility of acquiring the entire Torah, and not just because of its vast reach. There will always be delicate or complicated situations that call out for a ruling of the Torah, but for which no such ruling is readily identifiable. You just can’t look everything up. Some things require judgment (shikkul ha-da’at).
This is where the sage comes in. What makes a sage a sage? Not just quantitative knowledge of the Torah, but the wisdom it bestows. When one bumps up against a quandary in the Torah or in life that eludes a ready answer, the way forward is to consult a sage and have faith that the resultant ruling reflects what the Torah wants in this situation.
Sages see deeper into the Torah than its other students. Faith in their judgment increases our understanding of the Torah, thus facilitating its acquisition.
And yes, even sages need to, and do, defer to other sages.
The 23rd way to acquire the Torah: Faith in the Sages.
Way #1, Study; Way #2, Listen; Way #3, Articulate Speech; Way #4, Understanding of the Heart; Way #5, An Intelligent Heart; Way #6, Awe; Way #7, Fear; Way #8, Humility; Way #9a, Joy; Way #9b, Purity; Way #10, Serving the Sages; Way #11, Interaction with colleagues; Way #12, Exchanges with students; Way #13, Deliberation; Way #14, Scripture; Way #15a, Mishnah; Way #15b, Limited Business Activity; Way #16a, Limited Marital Relations; Way #16b, Portion Control; Way #17, Limited Pleasure; Way #18, All nighters; Way #19, Limited Conversation; Way #20, Limited Entertainment; Way #21, Slowness to anger; Way #22, A good heart