Maimonides rejected Jewish theocracy on the grounds that it would corrupt rabbis, and insisted on an independent Exilarch. His messiah and king is also not a rabbi. But he presumed that an Exilarch acts within Jewish law. If a country is governed by religious law, then rabbis effectively dictate policy to the Exilarch. Rabbis hold legislative power, while the Exilarch is the chief executive. In our times, that means a rabbinical Knesset and a popularly elected prime minister. When the state and religious powers are not separated, the rabbinical establishment has to become conformist, as it can condemn neither the “Jewish land – for peace” deal, nor the liberal assimilation of American Jews. Secularization benefits religious Jews by allowing them unreserved religious practice.

Nor is theocracy or monarchy practical today. A Jewish monarch has to be recognized by rabbis, and has to be Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. Such a king would channel national tax revenues to support an unlimited number of religious adult schools and their lifetime students. In a mixed religious-atheist society, theocracy or monarchy would translate into exploitation of economically productive atheists, which they would not accept.

new Jewish fundamentalism

The Rabbis’ reference to several commandments to justify their authority is dubious. Deut17:10: “Do as they tell you” refers to judges, including priestly ones, not to rabbinical legists. The preceding verses speak of civil and criminals cases with no implication whatsoever about the setting of religious laws. Oddly enough, v.11 speaks of “teaching and judgments,” though the context is unrelated to teaching. It is not impossible that this phrase is late similarly to v.15, which allows Jews to set up a king, even though centuries later the prophet Shmuel had no idea of this permission when he lambasted Jews for demanding a king. Allowing for the authenticity of v.11, it requires judges to speak from the Temple (v.8 ), obviously to unify the case law rather than to invent new laws.

Tens of thousands of halachic authorities dispersed throughout the world lack the power allotted to the Temple judges. Looking at the hair-splitting and often vengeful halachic disputes, it tests credulity to impute divine authority to the rabbis.

The biggest question is whether rabbis are the judges mentioned in Deut17. Why them, rather than the Sadduceans, the temple priests? Deut33:10 explicitly allocates the power of teaching to Levites, the priests. 2Chron31:4 relates of legal studies by Levites, and Mal2:7 confirms that they engaged in legal interpretation. In 2Chron19:8, judges are apparently equated with clan elders, and even much later Jer18:18 records for the “wise” only the power of counsel, rather than binding power of ruling.

The rabbinical legend of the Temple-based Sanhedrin defies common sense. The Temple was ruled by priests (Sadducees) who were nominal descendants of the High Priest Zadok. Sadducees rejected the Oral Law and persecuted Pharisaic rabbis now and then. Why would the priests allow the rabbis to sit in court in the Temple and apply the Oral Law which they, the priests, thought to be fake?

It is impossible that the rabbis were so popular that the priests could not refuse them a chamber. Priests blocked even Herod the Great’s reconstruction of the Temple until he reached a compromise with them by training Levites for the construction works, lest the Temple be polluted.

Why would the priests defy the Oral Law, had it been given on the Sinai? The rabbinical explanation of the priests’ malice cannot stand: there is no imaginable reason for them to reject a sound and profitable body of legislation. By embracing the Oral Law, the Sadducees would have displaced the competing Pharisees and re-assumed the power of religious legislation and civil jurisprudence. It cannot be that tens of thousands of Levites were all evil atheists who purposely rejected the divine word.
Rabbis were the layman’s priests, anti-establishment preachers not unlike the founder of Christianity and the later Franciscans. Indeed, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus’ teaching is a carbon copy of the rabbinical doctrine, with every one of his synoptic pronouncements directly paralleled in the Talmud. He praised rabbinical teaching: “Do as they teach, but not as they do, because they don’t do what they teach.”

Even if one accepts the purported powers of rabbis under Deut17, the two classes of rabbinical legislation are entirely without scriptural basis: the power to enact protective legislation (“a wall around the law”) and the power to abrogate commandments. Regarding the latter, Maimonides only accepted temporary suspension and only to avoid greater evil, including a threat to Judaism (Hilkot Mamrim 2:4). Almost none of the abrogations pass that test: rabbis rejected womens’ obligation to observe the commandments, the blue tzitzit, ad nauseam.

Rabbis advance another argument for the truth of their teaching: it has survived for two thousand years. That’s a bad benchmark because Christianity has survived for the very same length of time, and indeed has become more widespread. The earth-is-flat theory was also around for thousands of years. The triumph of Pharisaic rabbis over Sadducees is entirely due to the Temple’s destruction: the Levites could not adapt to the Temple-less world. Radical Sadducees joined or constituted Essenes, a monastic order, and lingered on for centuries after the Temple’s destruction. The rabbinical victory over Karaites was due to the rabbis’ better control over their flock, which was bounded in halacha; more flexible Karaites assimilated. This shows that rabbinism is not bad at all, it benefited the Jewish nation greatly. But regardless of its utility, rabbinism does not equal Torah Judaism.

We may lobby to change the rabbinical laws, but as long as those laws are efficient (they have preserved Jews for a long time), valid (somewhat rooted in the Torah), commonly accepted (by many doubtlessly Jewish people), and not massively opposed (by the people who honestly wish to live Jewish lives, rather than atheists) we must adhere to them. It’s similar to driving at 65 mph because the law says so, while lobbying to change the law in favor of increasing the speed limit.

The clearly oppressive laws might not be obeyed: someone who lives on the 50th floor can hardly be forced to observe the dubious rabbinical prohibition against using the elevator on Shabbat.

The existing rabbinical laws should be observed until changed—unless they are clearly oppressive.