Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reversed Wisdom: Daas Torah vs. Daas Baalei Batim

Guest Post by Rabbi Yossi Ginzberg

The following is a lengthy but important post which I believe expresses the frustration of many responsible people in the Orthodox world. Although I sympathize a great deal with much of what the writer expresses, it does not necessarily reflect my views. - HM

I have sat on this for over a week now, afraid to send it and yet afraid not to.

I’ve had it reviewed by a dozen people whose judgment I trust, and most say to publish it. Even those against it say that it would be a wasted effort unless I could get it on a site like VIN, YWN, Hamodia or Yated, which won’t happen.

Yet I can’t swallow my outrage. Unsure of whether I am fulfilling the rabbinic edict of “B’makom sh’ein ish” or just emulating Don Quixote tilting at the barely animate, I must speak my piece.

I’m not eager for abuse, nor do I have any desire to start a fight, and certainly not with Gedolim who may see themselves implicated here. Still, to publish anonymously as most bloggers do would dilute the urgency I feel in this message.

The pro-publishing faction makes a good point: Those with the power and ability to change things are affected by the printing of such things. Whether they see it directly or whether it is reported to them later, it’s easy to see that revelations and suggestions made online are having a strong and direct effect on the pronouncements of the Gedolim. Thus it pays to risk publishing, even if it involves potential mesiras nefesh, just to perhaps influence someone to take action and do something.

Some will see this as a shot across the bows at some particular target. It’s not. It’s simply a call for restored sanity, because it’s time to stop letting the ignorant and the proven corrupt steer Judaism. In industry, inept leadership is fired: In politics, revolutions occur. What can or should happen in a religion? I am passionate about the religion, I have taught and written about it for many years, and those in the front lines of Judaism outside Boro Park & Lakewood are seeing the results of the many scandals: the OTD trickle has turned into a large flow, and the non-Frum and non-Jewish attitudes have become borderline anti-Semitic thanks to the constant flow of unpleasant news about the Frum world.

Something must be done, and a few speeches at a “convention” aren’t enough.

(Even before starting, let me apologize to those whose feathers I may ruffle. I have to wonder how it is that the situation has deteriorated to such a point that bloggers and gadabouts like myself have more credibility than alleged Torah scholars.)

An oft-repeated idiom in the circle of those who follow the pronouncements of today’s Gedolim is “Daas Torah is hepech daas Baalei Batim”. Loosely translated, this conveys the idea that a lay opinion is not only invalid; it is the polar opposite of true Torah wisdom.

Allegedly a quote from the S”ma (a commentator on the Shulchan Aruch), it seems to be more of an urban myth, a somewhat misquoted version of something else that he said, and also seems to be intended to convey an air of papal infallibility on the Gedolim of the generation. Whatever the source, the line is being quoted more and more frequently as issues of Torah concern more and more frequently hit the news.

This idiom is important because of a basic tenet in Halacha: If the Gedolim of previous generations enacted something, we must abide by it, irrelevant of the current state of knowledge.

Application of this principle is the problem, though. Things are different now than they once were.

For example, Ezra and his Bet Din at the time of the rebuilding of the Temple were highly vocal and outspoken about issues of concern at the time, such as intermarriage and the return to Israel. They preached, coerced, and even cursed (at least according to some) those who didn’t listen.

Yet when they saw that perhaps their enactment requiring mikvah for men was too onerous and had been enacted too hastily, they retracted it. Sadly, today’s Batei Din rarely retract anything, no matter the issue and the collateral damage of chilul Hashem. Most often, it is likewise for the grave pronouncements of the Gedolim.

So we as observant intelligent Orthodox Jews have to weigh between following the “Daas Torah” opinion of the Gedolim automatically or rejecting it and following one’s own opinion, based on the failure of the system to be self-correcting. A tough choice indeed, for one raised to revere the established rabbinate.

In that light, is the “Daas Torah is hepech Daas Baalei Batim” statement correct and applicable nowadays?

Certainly most formal organizations have clearly-stated stances on this. Agudath Israel’s proclaimed raison d’être is to represent the daas of the Gedolim, or at least those they proclaim as Gedolim. Likewise most other rabbinic organizations, including for example the one headed by an ex-con columnist and the one headed until just last week by a ultra-right-wing self-proclaimed “defender of the faith” and author of a book about avoiding sexual temptations.

Pondering this last weekend, I couldn’t help wonder at the basic premise. Is, in fact, Daas Torah the hepech of daas Baalei Batim? I came to the conclusion that it is, based on the following:

When a certain rabbi persuaded others to ban a learned author for expressing minority opinions on the age of the universe, a long list of rabbis signed on, creating a Chilul Hashem in the guise of protecting authentic Judaism. Yet when that same rabbi was arrested and convicted of a huge multi-million dollar mortgage scam, they were silent. Even when it emerged that the man had authored a torah book, and had previously served time for fraud, not a word was heard. Now we learn that his second, another zealot for alleged “Torah values”, has been adding entirely new dimensions to the term rabbinic abuse.

Daas Baalei Batim (of those I spoke with, anyway) was to laud the first author for his work, recognize that his work brought some people to torah belief, and encourage him to insert in subsequent editions that his opinions did not reflect all facets of the Orthodox spectrum. The same daas also strongly and harshly condemned the felonious instigator of the ban, as well as those who ignored his previous criminal record and allowed him to represent Orthodox Judaism vocally and in writing. About the second…there’s both too much to say, and not enough. Disgust is far too mild a term. His apparent silent admission to the charges would lead me to ban him from even entering any holy place, let alone lead a yeshiva. Daas Baalei Batim would also follow the money trail, no matter where it leads, and remove all those rabbis who were obviously bought with dirty money.

When a corrupt yeshiva faculty for years protected a molester, a certain very prominent rabbi refused to get involved because it was “outside his neighborhood”, by about a half-mile. Yet to lend moral support to an admitted felon caught red-handed in one of the biggest chilul Hashem cases of the decade, he flew hundreds of miles. (And he is not one of the rabbis who flew to lend moral support to Jonathon Pollard.) Lest the good rabbi feel offended, might I add that another 25 rabbis also felt the need to fly out there to lend moral support, not counting the many from his own sect, who actually correctly belong there.

Daas Baalei Batim was to condemn the Flatbush molester and all those who abetted him, and to stay as far away as possible from the Midwestern court carnival. Also to support the Markey bill (This allows the victims to sue, even many years later. It is opposed by those who worry about the schools potentially being forced to close after losing lawsuits), even though it might put that family business- and several others-at risk.

When a major yeshiva honored one of the last of the old-timers, a “Rabbi” who made his fortune in nursing homes and had been arrested along the way in a Shabbos-day bust leading to TV coverage of him being dragged out of shul, not a word was heard.

Daas Baalei Batim was to not honor anyone who’d ever been in prison, at any time and for any reason. Not at a dinner, not with a seat on the Mizrach wall, not with anything.

When a leading Mechaneches and founder of several girls schools was headlined with sensational accusations against her husband- that he had tried to poison her- not a word was heard. The scandal merited a dozen pages in an NY magazine! Nor was a word heard when she abandoned those claims and returned to him, presumably unafraid.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to have pity on her, but still remove her from any position dealing with impressionable girls as quickly as possible. Didn’t her return prove that either she lied, or she did something dangerous & stupid? Either way, is this person one that should be mentoring young women?

When the Gedolim were presented with “facts” about singer Lipa’s supposedly risqué (or at least envelope-pushing) behavior and stage presence, they immediately banned his concert from happening, without corroborating evidence and without consultation. This led to huge financial losses to the promoter, the singer and to the charity that promoted it, as well as a huge chilul Hashem as the media gleefully reported it.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to wait until after it was over, investigate properly and thoroughly, and at that point, if necessary, ban future events featuring him.

When an Orthodox Rabbi, with what appeared at the time to be permission, co-wrote a book with a famous reform rabbi about Jewish faith, the Gedolim banned not only the book, they barred the author from participating in any of the many scheduled debates between the authors. This led virtually every Jewish community newspaper in the country to publicly comment on how the Orthodox are afraid to debate modernity, and created what was certainly among the most widespread, long-lasting and most-publicized Chilul Hashem's in American Jewish history. The Reform rabbi still made the speaking tour, turning the debates into a victory tour for the Reform movement.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to let the debates happen, to at least attempt to minimize the chilul Hashem. Meanwhile, “Rabbi” Shmuley stages polemical debates with Christian ministers frequently and although most think he usually loses, the Gedolim don’t comment on that at all.

When Israeli police arrested a woman for brutalizing her own child due to mental illness, the Gedolim either (depending on who you believe) promoted anti-government demonstrations or failed to condemn them. Either way, the worldwide headlines certainly failed to bring honor to our people.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to immediately and loudly condemn the demonstrations and make every effort to stop them.

When yeshiva students were arrested in Japan for drug-smuggling, the Gedolim made valiant efforts to have them freed, and signed fund-raising letters proclaiming them “Shevuyim” or, in effect, unjust hostages whose release takes precedence to almost everything else in the Torah.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to publicize the scandal extensively amongst the yeshiva world, where the boys are apparently too naïve to realize that being offered significant payment for simply delivering a suitcase indicates something is seriously wrong. This example would have been a prime deterrent to prevent this from happening again. Essential, because next time it could be something even worse than drugs: It could be explosives.

When “Askanim” presented the possibility that sheitels made from Indian hair might potentially be forbidden to use, an immediate ban was instituted. That led to many humorous articles mocking Judaism, as well as public sheitel-burnings and the inevitable comparisons between the Orthodox and the Taliban.

Daas Baalei Batim would have been to investigate fully and thoroughly before allowing any announcements to be made. In fact, they turned out to be okay, so all the fuss and attendant Chilul Hashem was for nothing.

I could go on and on easily, and it would be tempting to do so if I had a stronger stomach. Mentioning the failure of the Gedolim to act or even usually to comment on Agunos, on metzizah b’feh, on brain death, on organ transplants, on Mondrowitz, on the Lanner cover-up, on the too many cases of Frum fraud, on Rebbes being arrested for fraud and/or money laundering and/or arms dealing and/or drug smuggling and/or for molesting women on airplanes, on the radical burkha ladies of RBS, on the public statements by the Neturei Karta, and most recently of course on the EJF embarrassment, which could serve as the gold-standard example of what “ a shanda far de Goyim” really means.

By the same token, their pronouncements on thrips, on copepods, the internet, text messaging, music, women’s minyans, sheitels and the stores that sell them too close to yeshivas, all indicate a severe failure to comprehend reality.

Is it that they actually believe that “Daas Torah is hepech daas Baalei Batim” is in their favor? Is that why they can enact Takanos that exempt themselves? That Roshei Yeshiva so hostile to each other that they build a wall in their office are entrusted with young men to mold? That one who hijacked a famed Yeshiva name for his own private fund-raising empire got away with it? That self-proclaimed exemption may be tested against the standard of “v’hiyisem neki’im”, that one is obligated to behave not imperiously but rather the opposite. Even a Gadol owes the public an explanation.

Perhaps especially a Gadol.

As every adult knows, the conventional wisdom is usually correct and thus my own take is that in fact, the idiom is correct and Daas Torah is in fact hepech daas Baalei Batim.

It’s just that this correct conventional wisdom is on the side of the Baalei Batim.

Rabbi Ginzberg attended high school at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie and learned in Mir Yeshiva - attending R. Chaim Shmulevitz's Chabura for two years. He currently manages a grant program for Chassidim that want a vocational education.

He also volunteers his time teaching Baalei Teshuva (one of them wrote a book about the experience, the best-selling "the Year of Living Biblically", where he is extensively quoted).

Additionally he is involved with running an emotional support group for people involved in the Geirus process.