Mishpatim: Following the Majority Opinion
A story about Rabbi Akiva, when the famed second century Talmudic sage was a young scholar...
Rabban Gamliel, the head of Sanhedrin, hosted a gathering of scholars in the town of Jericho. The guests were served dates, and Rabban Gamliel honored Rabbi Akiva with reciting the brachah achronah (final blessing). However, Rabban Gamliel and the other sages disagreed about which blessing should be said after eating dates. The young scholar quickly made the blessing - in accordance with the opinion of the other rabbis.
"Akiva!" exclaimed Rabban Gamliel. "When will you stop butting your head into Halachic disagreements?"
"Our master," Rabbi Akiva replied calmly, "it is true that you and your colleagues disagree in this matter. But did you not teach us that the Law is decided according to the majority opinion?" [Brachot 37a]
In truth, it is hard to understand Rabban Gamliel's criticism. What did he expect Rabbi Akiva to do? Why was he upset?
Two Methods to Resolve Disputes
In order to resolve legal disputes, there are two methods a scholar may use to decide which opinion should be accepted as law.
The first way is to conduct an extensive analysis of the subject to find out the truth. We examine the issue at hand, weighing the reasoning and supporting proofs for each view, until we can determine which opinion is the most logical.
However, if we are unable to objectively decide which opinion is more substantiated, we fall back on the second method. Instead of the truth, we look for consensus. We follow the majority opinion - not because it is more logical or well-reasoned - but out of the simple need to establish a normative position and avoid disagreement and conflict. If we are seeking consensus and peace, then the most widely held opinion is the preferred one.
Rabban Gamliel was critical of Rabbi Akiva because he thought the young scholar had had the audacity to decide which opinion was the correct one. Therefore he castigated him, "When will you stop butting your head into these legal disagreements?" In other words, where did you get the idea that you could use your head - your own powers of logic and reasoning - to decide issues that are beyond your expertise and knowledge?
Rabbi Akiva responded that he hadn't presumptuously tried to decide which opinion is correct. Rather, he had simply applied the second method of resolving a legal dispute: deciding the issue by consensus, according to the majority opinion.
- [adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II, p. 176]