Maimonides on the "Decline of the Generations" and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority
By Menachem Kellner
State University of New York Press, 1996, 137 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 30, 2010
Menachem Kellner, in his important and very clearly written book Maimonides on the "Decline of the Generations" and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority, explains that Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) rejected this notion of the decline of the generations out of hand. Maimonides was convinced that the ancient rabbis were ordinary human beings possessing no supernatural intellectual powers and that their decisions were not based on divine revelation. Maimonides recognized the authority of the earlier rabbis and accepted their decisions only because each of their rulings "derives from the role they played in Jewish history." Maimonides was thus expressing the belief that the rabbinic decisions were not correct per se, but, since the majority of Jews had decided to accept the early rabbis' halakhic decisions, they became authoritative.
Kellner compares the ancient rabbis to the eighteenth-century framers of the United States Constitution: "the framers of the US Constitution have a kind of authority which, in normal circumstances, cannot be limited or overturned." Although they were human and did not differ from all other people of their generation or people today, their authority derives from "the system of law accepted in the United States." Thus, the focus is not on the intellectual ability of the framers, but on the practical decision made by American citizens to accept what the framers wrote.
Nevertheless, Maimonides teaches that the acceptance of rabbinical statements applies only to halakhah, rules relating to behavior, but not to rabbinical opinions on non-legal matters. The reason for this conclusion should be obvious. The early rabbis' views usually relied on the science of their times, and these primitive conclusions inevitably led, at times, to error on the part of the rabbis. Therefore, Maimonides insists, one is free to analyze and consider the opinions of the rabbis and then accept, reject, or modify them; in fact, this is the very purpose for which God granted humans intelligence: to study and evaluate.
Maimonides records his assessment of the ancient rabbis and other sages of the historic period in the introduction to his Mishneh Torah. He writes that the legal component of the "Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel … because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel." Thus, only the "customs, decrees and institutions," the legal elements, received "the assent of all Israel." However, the non-legal opinions did not receive that assent and thus are not obligatory.