Keeping up a weekly chevruta can be tough. Skype will never replace a real beit midrash. However, the benefits are so clear to me, as I try to continue seeing relevance and meaning in Judaism’s canonical texts. Today was no exception.
Studying Sanhedrin 5a, the topic at hand was that of ‘expert judges,’ people so well-versed in Jewish law that they had the authority to adjudicate monetary cases on their own, without requiring the usual court of three. The discussion then turns to how we determine who exactly is an expert judge. Is it based on whether the litigants accept his authority, or is it authority conferred from the highest judge, the exilarch in Babylon or the Nasi in Israel? The conclusion is that it is the latter, and so the conversation turns to whether such a status can be employed abroad. In other words, if the exilarch approves a certain individual as an expert judge, will his status remain unchanged in Israel (and vice versa)? For the writers of the Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud), it was clear that such a status could cover boundaries, but less clear that an expert judge appointed in Israel could count as such in Babylon.
Given the bias of the authors and redactors of the text, I am not taken in by the logic that Babylon was the seat of Jewish authority, compared to Israel’s ‘lesser’ status, even if that was the case historically. Instead, I see this Gemarah as a caution against overstepping the bounds of our expertise. There is a good reason why I would need to sit the bar exam a second time if I moved countries from where I attended law school. Too often, though, as we are seeing in the news now, our leaders are not mindful of this. A centuries-old text reminds us that, no matter how well we might think we know a situation, weight must also be given to listening to the opinions of the concerned parties themselves.