I've written extensively about how it can be that so many rabbis would get something wrong, and the responsibility we have to recognize when this happens. One does not need to be an "expert" to observe a fundamental error, even by someone with superior knowledge and credentials. Expertise merely grants the presumption of an opinion worth considering; it does not ensure against laziness, sloppiness, human error, ignorance of relevant information, or corruption. No one gets a blank check.
Nevertheless, some fearful Jews continue to deny their responsibility to recognize falsehood and break from authority figures who make erroneous pronouncements. "Don't we have to listen to the Sanhedrin?" they argue. "The rabbis have ruled that we must follow the Ministry of Health recommendations. Case closed."
Or is it? This week's parsha begs to differ.
We learn of the various types of korbanos [sacrificial offerings] as part of the atonement process (they have no effect if they are not accompanied by actual repentance, a common failing in ancient times). There are special korbanos for three categories of leaders who sin: the Kohen Gadol, the king, and the Sanhedrin. Unlike other systems, which pay lip service to the fanciful notion that "we are all equal under the law" (LOL), the Torah has an openly inequal system. Those with greater power are held to a higher standard, for their sins lead others astray and cause more damage to the nation. Their korbanos are more severe, and a complete atonement for their sin cannot be guaranteed.
The Torah refers to the Sanhedrin as "כל עדת ישראל ", the entire assembly of Israel (4:13). They wield even greater power than the king and the Kohen Gadol, for they determine Jewish law for the entire nation. Their authority transcends the political power of the king and the spiritual supremacy of the Kohen Gadol. A king's decrees are in force only during his reign; the Sanhedrin's rulings outlive those who issued them.
If the Sanhedrin issues an erroneous ruling, and the masses sin because of it, they must bring a special korban, as outlined in the following pesukim. The masses who follow this ruling are exempt from bringing a korban, as they otherwise would. An entire tractate of Gemara, Horayos, is devoted to the halachos pertaining to this section. This section of the Torah and the teachings of Chazal shed great light on the times in which we are living, despite the absence of a Sanhedrin and korbanos.
1. The possibility of the Sanhedrin getting something wrong is real, and the Torah takes it very seriously. The Torah gives no one a blank check, not even the greatest sages, not even a confirmed prophet. Those who argue that we have to blindly follow the so-called “leading rabbis” of today, who themselves are telling us to blindly follow so-called “leading experts”, are making a fundamental mistake. We don't blindly follow anyone, certainly not when they tell us to blindly follow godless people with conflicts of interest and serious integrity issues. The Torah doesn't write about this as a theoretical exercise. It's practical Jewish law.
2. Lower courts are pointedly excluded from these halachos. Only the Sanhedrin is liable to bring this special korban for an erroneous ruling (Horayos 5A). Not only are they not presumed to be infallible, they are singled out for the greatest accountability in the event of a mistake. This is clearly intended to warn us against blindly trusting those who deserve our trust more than anyone else.
3. The entire Sanhedrin must be qualified to give rulings. If even one judge was unqualified, they do not have to bring the special korban (Horayos 4B).
Nowadays, there is no Sanhedrin and no facsimile thereof. The argument that we must blindly follow the declarations of so-called “leading rabbis”, who lack the authority of a Sanhedrin both individually and collectively, and whose qualifications to be judges on a future Sanhedrin are far from certain, is a non-starter. Nowadays one can find a rabbi, or a collection of rabbis, to sign off on virtually anything. Conferring Sanhedrin status on rulings today is an insult to the institution.
4. Only the details of a mitzvah can be hidden from the eyes of the Sanhedrin, not the entire mitzvah. If the Sanhedrin rules to uproot an entire mitzvah, they do not bring the special korban (Horayos 4A).
It is noteworthy that Chazal entertained the possibility of a Sanhedrin being so ignorant or corrupt that they would rule to uproot an entire mitzvah. This is not science fiction or a “conspiracy theory”; it's an actual Gemara, derived from a pasuk, that is consecrated in Jewish law. Furthermore, Chazal also discussed a situation in which the Sanhedrin ruled to permit avoda zara, or declared that one type of avoda zara is not actually forbidden, and this is also concretized in Jewish law.
Those who say it can't happen or won't happen are dismissing Jewish law and our greatest sages, who took this eventuality very seriously.
5. If the Sanhedrin did rule to uproot an entire mitzvah, every individual Jew who sinned in accordance with this ruling would be culpable. They cannot excuse themselves that they were just following orders and trusting the rabbis. A mistake such as this is so egregious that every Jew is expected to know better and ignore the ruling. If they don't, they are guilty.
The same applies today in the absence of a Sanhedrin. All Jews are expected to recognize egregious errors even by those with superior Torah knowledge – regardless of their number and stature – and to go against wrongful rulings.
Rabbis cannot rule that a drug is safe. It's a metzius; either it is or it isn't, and only a thorough, uncorrupted scientific process can determine that. Even a drug that is proven to be generally safe will be harmful for certain people. Every individual must weigh the various considerations on a case-by-case basis. Rabbis cannot rule that an individual is obligated to take any drug for their own good, let alone for the good of others or society as a whole.
A wholesale ruling that the entire nation must take any drug is tantamount to heresy. Rabbis certainly cannot rule that we must blindly follow the health directives of other people, and essentially allow them to rule our bodies and our lives. The Torah expects us to confidently reject such rulings.
The credibility and competence of rabbis who issue any such ruling must be called into question, as well as that of any organization they officially represent.
6. If one of the judges on the Sanhedrin disagrees with the ruling, the Sanhedrin does not bring the korban, even though this judge is outvoted (Rambam Hilchos Shegagos 13:1).
The presence of even a single dissenting opinion obligates the average Jew to proceed with greater caution, and he must bring a korban if he sins based on the Sanhedrin's ruling. The claim that we must blindly follow “the majority of rabbis” falls away like the fig leaf it always was.
7. If the judge who disagrees keeps his opinion to himself, the Sanhedrin is liable to bring the korban, and all who err based on their ruling are exempt. However, the dissenting judge who self-censored is liable to bring a korban if he sins, since he knew better (obviously this would require the honesty to confess that he sinned on his own). In addition, the average Jew who knows better is always liable for his actions; he cannot claim he was following the Sanhedrin when he was really following his own mind (Rambam Hilchos Shegagos 13:1).
Once again, those who know better cannot excuse themselves that they are just following a ruling. Furthermore, many people who make this excuse nowadays are being disingenuous. They do not consistently live their lives according to the rulings of any rabbi, or the majority of rabbis. They generally decide what they want, then hide behind a rabbi after the fact. They are making cynical use of the Torah to justify their self-serving behavior, and hence they bear full responsibility for their erroneous ways.
The Torah makes it very clear that we are supposed to obediently follow the Sanhedrin in very specific areas. These include determining the calendar, deciding on cases of purity and kashrus, establishing safeguards to protect a mitzvah from abuse, and clarifying cases of doubt that lower courts were unable to settle.
The Sanhedrin has no authority to push pharmaceutical products, segregate the nation based on medical choices, refer to people as criminals or murderers if they decline to take an experimental drug, or obligate people to blindly follow some outside “expert”. Jews are not even obligated to blindly follow the Sanhedrin itself; in fact, Jews are obligated to defy the Sanhedrin if they issue erroneous rulings. Jews are supposed to know better! They are supposed to know when to submit to greater authorities, and when to reject even those with superior knowledge and credentials.
This is fundamental to the Torah and the obligation of every single Jew.
According to the Torah, once someone has testified falsely he becomes pasul l'eidus, he is disqualified from testifying in the future. Liars cannot testify! Hence, the Mafia of Health is disqualified from testifying about the virus, treatments, or anything else. Any numbers, data, or recommendations they give us cannot and should not be trusted. They have no value, and should not influence our opinions or our actions.