Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Listening to Daas Torah

Perhaps the most important difference between Charedi and Centrist Hashkafos is the concept of Daas Torah, a term that was probably invented in the 20th century by Agudah, the flagship institution of American Charedism. Or at least Agudah types. If I recall correctly Rav Ahron Soloveichik said his parents never used that term. Nor did his grandparents.

Let us first define what Daas Torah means. Simply put it is a Charedi concept that Jews should seek the input of Gedolim not just on matters of Halacha but on Hashkafa and all important life matters. They are the possessors of the most Torah knowledge – the source of all truth - and hence are most likely to reflect the wisdom of the Torah on anything that matters.

Charedim will insist that this is not a new concept but an extension of an old one called Emunas Chachamim – believing in the wisdom of the our sages. But that is not how it is used today. Today it is used to refer to the views of a certain set of Gedolim. But saying Daas Torah is the same thing as Emunas Chachamim doesn’t make it so.

Just to be clear, there is no Orthodox doctrine or Rav - no matter how left wing - that will tell you that we need not listen to the Torah’s wisdom. Nor is there any Orthodox Rav that would deny the concept of Emunas Chachamim – the requirement to listen to the wisdom of our sages. That would be ridiculous. The Torah has something to say on every aspect of life. The only question is how we derive that knowledge.

Charedim would have you believe that one cannot trust their own mind in coming to major decisions in life. We must instead always rely on the others - who know much more than us. But that is an absurd proposition. God gave us minds and expects us to use them.

However there are caveats. We may only make those decisions based on Torah knowledge and intellectual honesty. And we must be certain that our conclusions are not sourced in our own personal biases or agendas. That is a pretty hard thing to do, if not impossible.

The way in which Centrists accomplish that is by learning substantial amounts of Torah and thinking in Torah terms. But that is not enough. We need to find unbiased corroboration to ascertain that we have not made the wrong decision because of a personal bias.

But the important thing is that - based on our own understanding - we use our minds and do not blindly follow one individual or sets of individuals. Even though they may know more Torah than we do - we are permitted in fact come to such decisions based on our own learning combined with corroboration of others whose Torah knowledge is greater than our own.

Those with Charedi Hashkafos do not see things that way. Doing so, they will say, is self serving and does not serve the Creator. But nothing could be further from the truth if one follows the above guidelines.

Charedi insistence that we only listen to a single individual or set of individuals is in essence forbidding us to think - to use our God given minds to make decisions. This assumes that our motivation is mostly based on personal bias or agendas. They see it as human nature - an evil that can only be subdued by abdicating one’s brain.

Think about that. Does God really expect us to check our brains - which He provided to us - at the door? I don’t think so. God does not expect us to be robots and not think. He did not make us a chosen people of robots. He gave us a brain. He gave us reason. And he gave us the ability to study and make decisions in the manner I described.

If one has been educated in Torah and has made a study of a specific issue it would be criminal in my view to abdicate one’s thought to that of another with whom he disagrees even if that individual is greater in Torah knowledge - provided his decisions are honest, Torah based, and are checked against the wisdom of others greater in Torah who agree.

The following comment made to me by a Charedi individual demonstrates the Charedi view of Centrist Hashkafa:

And thats the problem with your vision of our religion. You peice it together with whatever fancies you at the moment. You shop around for rabbanim (and) use them as a support for whatever YOU feel is right. You are in essence serving yourself, not Hashem.

This is the way Charedim think. The person who said this would say he is not Charedi. But if this is his view he is Charedi by definition, no matter how much he might protest to the contrary.

Those with Charedi Hashkafos will always view conclusions based on thoughtful processes about what the Torah says - as self serving. They see any rabbinic corroboration we find as shopping around. Our thoughtful analyses are seen by them as feelings. But they are not. It’s not about what we feel. It’s about what is right based on all the above criteria.

To me the most telling phrase of the need to rely on ‘Daas Torah’ is the Yiddish expression. Oif Meine Plaitzes?! – On my shoulders?! - when describing why one asks a Shaila about a major decision.

That says it all. They are so afraid that they abdicate their brains. They call it being Mevatel their Daas. They fear that they lack sufficient knowledge - and that they can never eliminate their own bias. And DaasTorah must always be to the same individual or set of individuals – to prove that they are not shopping.

So that’s the big difference. They think going to Daas Torah on every major decision means having greater Yiras Shamayim. But it’s not.