Regarding the Law, Deuteronomy 17: 8 to 13, but specifically 17:11, tells us:
“According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” (Stone translation).
According to “Rashi” and “Ramban”:
“you must obey the decision of the courts even if you are convinced they are wrong, even if they seem to be telling you that right is left and left is right….”
In context, the term “courts” certainly includes religious authorities (as referred to in verse 9: “… the judge that shall be in those days”), such as “Rashi” and “Ramban” themselves.
Here we have a reasonably unequivocal Torah passage, saying that we must abide by what our leaders tell us, that what our leaders tell us has the force of law and the authority of Torah behind it, regardless of what we may think about it.
That’s one side of the story…
However, Numbers 15:22 to 26, but specifically 15:24 and 25 tells us:
“If because of the eyes of the assembly it was done unintentionally, the entire assembly shall prepare one young bull as an elevation offering for a satisfying aroma to Hashem, and its meal offering and its libation according to the rule, and one he goat as a sin offering. The Kohen shall atone for the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and it shall be forgiven them, for it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, a fire offering to Hashem, and their sin offering before Hashem for their unintentional sin.”
Here is discussed the situation where the congregation has sinned because of being misguided by the leadership.
According to Stone this refers only to idol worship, but according to 15:23 it refers to:
“…everything that Hashem commanded you through Moses, from the day that Hashem commanded and onward, throughout your generations.”
Without much need for interpretation, “everything” does not mean “idol worship”. “Everything” means “everything”.
According to “Ramban”:
“The atonement applies only to those who sinned unintentionally. Although the sin was very grave, the people receive atonement because it was unintentional, and because they brought the prescribed offering.”
But according to Sifre:
“However those who knew that the Sanhedrin had erred, but committed the sin anyway, are not atoned for by the offering.”
In their case, the sin was not “unintentional”. They knew it was a mistake, and they went along even though they knew it was wrong.
So on the one hand, we seem to have the authority for insisting that the leaders “…who will be in those days…” must be obeyed even if we know they are wrong.
On the other hand, if we do that we will sin, and we will not even have recourse to normal atonement, because we sinned intentionally.
This looks like a no-win situation; a Catch-22. Can this really be? Or, if not, how can this apparent conflict be resolved?
The existence of what appears to be a contradiction may convey a subtle lesson about the reality of the world as God created it. In that case, there are potential insights to be gained by considering: Why and how can a person be a sinner when he had ‘no choice’? There were only two options, and neither of them was “good”.
At this point, the interesting speculation finds a foothold on something solid. Tanach (especially the Biblical books dealing with Israel’s history following the Exodus) is full of references to leaders who “made” the people to sin. “Made” the people to sin! It isn’t just poetry. Torah is telling us something, and Tanach gives us examples of it:
1. If we have allowed ourselves to have leaders who lead us in the wrong direction, we will bear consequences whether or not we follow those leaders. After all, leaders are only leaders because (and to the extent that) they are accepted by the community.
If they are the accepted leaders, it is evil to knowingly follow them when they are wrong, since wrong-is-wrong no matter who says so. But it is also evil to not follow them, since they represent and lead the community.
2. The existence of “sin” is enough to create problems for everybody, whether or not they follow suit and even if they oppose it, because opposition disrupts harmony.
3. At that point, when the leadership has gone seriously astray, all we can do is attempt to choose the “least bad” option for the specific situation, and hope for the best.
Don’t the people have free will? Of course they do but, if there is an established and accepted leadership in place, then the time when free-will might have saved us has long since passed. Fat lot of good free-will does when all the choices are bad ones!
If the community’s established leaders go down a wrong path, we can sin by following them, or we can sin by not following them. Those are the options! That’s the practical reality with which Torah is confronting us.
If we have leaders who are leading us down wrong paths, then we have no good options because our “original sin” is in having and accepting such leaders who mislead. After that, everything that follows is essentially inevitable. Torah tells us it would be wise to consider that now, while the future is still a work-in-progress.