Friday, October 23, 2009

Daas Torah Revisited

During my stay in Israel I had occasion to have a conversation with a Charedi Mechanech about Daas Torah. Without my soliciting anything from him he volunteered the following.

The only real Daas Torah is that of an individual whose education was not tainted by outside influences of any sort. Only one whose education was Kulo Torah -exclusively Torah - could claim to represent Daas Torah. If on the other hand one had any secular education at all – especially a university education – his views are tainted. The more educated - the more tainted, no matter how intelligent… or Frum …or Ehrlich.

To bolster his argument he pointed to Dr. Abraham Twersky who has said that about himself in print. Dr. Twersky said that during the course of his education he accepted certain things that were not Torah based. And that tainted his view. He therefore could never fully trust that his own views expressed real Daas Torah – no matter how much he tried. Only someone like … say Rav Moshe Feinstein had this capability. According to this view Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik could not be trusted to express Daas Torah at all.

This view is of course counter to the Torah U’Mada Hashkafa. We do not view the study of Mada as inimical Torah at all. We see it as an enhancement of Torah. This is one reason we value someone like Rav Soloveitchik whose level of Torah knowledge goes unchallenged even by his biggest critics. And yet his Hashakafos are considered Krum - not straight up - by Charedi standards. If I am not mistaken Charedim generally do not consider it in any way Daas Torah.

The Mechnaech I spoke to held this to be gospel. I think once one understands this difference one can better understand the Charedi Hashkafa.

So what is Daas Torah - really? Read on.

One of the brightest lights in Orthodoxy today is Professor Lawrence Kaplan. Perhaps the most influential book I have ever read (or better said – studied) is Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. The version I read is that of Professor Kaplan. He translated it from the original Hebrew (Ish HaHalacha) in collaboration with the Rav. I believe it stands as the only authoritative translation. I am therefore quite honored to mention that he is a reader and an occasional commeter here.

Needless to say, I am a big fan and it is my pleasure to refer my readers to the Seforim blog, where there is a lengthy interview of Professor Kaplan by Baruch Pelta. The subject is Daas Torah. This important subject has been discussed here many times in various different contexts. I believe Professor Kaplan pretty much nails the subject.

Daas Torah is used as a hammer by the right to insist that their views of Torah are the most authoritative in every sphere of life. When questioned about a specific Hashkafa of theirs they might respond that this is what Daas Torah says about it. End of discussion.

What they mean is that their Gedolim - who they believe know the most Torah - have expressed the quintessential views of the Torah on any subject on which they have expressed an opinion. The rest of us - no matter how well versed we are in Torah knowledge - do not come anywhere near their Gedolim in Torah knowledge. So our views don’t mean much. In some cases our own differences of opinion with their Daas Torah may even be looked at as Kefira – heresy! This became obvious during the Rabbi Natan Slifkin controversy.

But is this truly the end of the discussion? I have repeatedly said that it is not. There is a lot more to the story. Professor Kaplan does an excellent job in explaining why that is so.

I have expressed views similar to his but not as well or as extensively as he does. I believe that this is essential reading for those who firmly belive in Daas Torah as well as those who have issues with it. It is important to know exactly what Daas Torah is and how it is used by those who use the term most before one can actually criticize it. I think Professor Kaplan does a magnificent job in doing both.

Here is a pertinent excerpt:

The idea of Daas Torah, as a charismatic notion of rabbinic authority, is something different. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, so it’s not yeish me-ayin. But, as I and others see it, it is an expanded view of traditional conceptions of rabbinic authority, precisely because of greater challenges in the modern period to rabbinic authority. And the classical sources which have been cited as support for it don’t seem to prove the larger claims made on its behalf.

One such source is the notion of Emunas Chachamim. But it must be said that the phrase is very general; what it means is not so clear. The meaning attributed to it by the exponents of Daas Torah seems to be a late nineteenth century development, imported from the Hasidic view of the Rebbe.

The source cited most often in support of the notion of Daas Torah, and which I focused on most in my article, is Lo Sasur. As I pointed out, according to most authorities it applies only to the Beis Din Hagadol. I further pointed out that the view of Afilu omrin lekha al yemin shehu semol is that of the Sifre. The Yerushalmi is the other way, that only if they say yemin is yemin and semol is semol do you have to listen to them. In my article, particularly the Hebrew version, I went through all the different ways how different scholars try to reconcile the two sources.

The authority who seems to be the key figure for the exponents of Daas Torah is the Sefer HaChinuch -- he’s the one who applies the Sifre generally to Chachmei HaDor. But the Sefer HaChinuch’s view is more of a practical view; you have to submit to the authority of Chachmei HaDor not because they necessarily have such great understanding, but just because otherwise you’re going to have chaos and anarchy. So it’s a more practical view.

So what I suggested is that the modern view of Daas Torah – again, I’m not saying it was made out of whole cloth – is arrived at by taking the idea of the Sefer HaChinuch applying Lo Sasur to all Chachmei HaDor and combining that with the view of the Ramban who talks about the Beis Din Hagadol’s great understanding and how God will protect them from error, etc [7].

Part of the problem in writing a critique of the concept of Daas Torah is that it is a moving target; people keep on defining it differently. When people are oftentimes defending it, they define it more modestly: it’s a limited notion, we’re not saying the "gedolim" are infallible, maybe there’s a plurality of views that are Daas Torah, but obviously rabbis should have some say on broader communal issues, etc.

There was an exchange in The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society between me and Rabbi Alfred Cohen -- where if I understood him correctly, he proposed this type of scaled-down notion of Daas Torah [8]. And if that is all that is meant by it, I’m not sure if I would necessarily disagree that much.

But what I find is that when it’s actually used in the rhetoric of the Haredi world, it’s used to make rather extreme claims. First of all, despite the idea of the plurality of Daas Torah, it’s pretty clear to me that originally within the Agudah circles, it was used to legitimate the Haredi world and to delegitimate the Modern Orthodox.

Updated: Sunday - October 25, 2009 8:47 AM CDT