Friday, March 05, 2010

Just the Facts, Mam!

Sergeant Joe Friday has nothing on Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky.

One of my favorite Charedim has once again demonstrated why he deserves the accolades I give him. Jonathan Rosenblum has published an article in Mishpacha Magazine (available at Jewish Media Resources) that deals with how one rabbinic organization in Los Angeles has successfully dealt with many of the problems facing Orthodox Jewry. What struck me most, however, was the opening paragraph:

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once told someone who came to consult him, "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher, der "facts" muz min hubben" – which might be loosely translated, "Daas Torah or not, one needs the facts." Those facts, unfortunately, are too often lacking from our communal deliberations. Bring up any important issue, and you are likely to hear a wide variety of opinions, each supported by a number of "proofs" from personal experience. Those proofs inevitably bring to mind the old saw: the plural of anecdotes is not data.

How true this is. And that it was said by one of my personal heroes of the last generation of Gedolim makes it all that sweeter for me. In essence what R’ Yaakov did is give a very strong admonition against ‘seat of the pants’ Takanos. This very important warning was not heeded by his own son R’ Shmuel.

Just to be clear, I honor the Philidelphia Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Shmuel Kamintesky. He is a true Talmid Chacahm and Ohev Yisroel that works tirelessly for the Jewish community. Nor is this in any way an admonishment to him. If there is anyone that is more principled and intellectually honest then he, I’d like to meet him. He is a defender of justice and right and will go against the grain to do it.

He was in fact one of the few Charedi rabbinic leaders who refused to go along with the ban on Rabbi Slifkin’s books when it was first issued – even though the ban was made in the name of Rav Elyashiv. He later withdrew his support for his own reasons but he refused to succumb to what must have been tremendous pressure by colleagues and others to sign on to that ban. So even though in the end I disagreed with his decision on Rabbi Slifkin’s books, I respect his intellectual honesty and salute his courage.

But by his own admission, he failed in one very important aspect of leadership, the very one his father had admonished his own Askan about, "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher, der "facts" muz min hubben".

I am referring to the incident from a couple of years ago where he signed on to a ban of a Lipa Schmeltzer concert – a ban that included a general ban against all concerts similar to one issued at the time by rabbinic authorities in Israel. He later found out that he was misled and admitted that he should have done more research. He apologized publicly for jumping on the’ ban wagon’ so quickly. And explained that Askanim he trusted advised him that time was of the essesnce. The ‘dangers’ of the concert were very serious and allowed his name to be signed on to the ban as an act of precaution without fully knowing the details.

R’ Shmuel was entirely L’Shem Shamayim when he did this and in no way intended to ‘disobey’ his father’s admonition. But in essence he did. He did not say to his own Askanim , "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher, der "facts" muz min hubben".

Daas Torah as it is seen and utilized today versus how it was seen and utilized in R’ Yaakov’s day is radically different. The very phrase , "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher" tells me something about R’ Yaakov. He did not worship the concept of Daas Torah the way it is today. I think that is one of the major differences between the Gedolim of yesteryear and the Charedi rabbinic leaders of today. As far as many in the Charedi world see it - the minute you say ‘Daas Torah’ today, you might as well be saying the Shem HaMefurash - the Tetragrammaton - God's ineffable four letter name whose special pronunciation was reserved for one day in the year on Yom Kippur by the Kohen Gadol. No one today would ever dare say anything like , "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher” .

The bigger problem is that many who speak for Daas Torah do not bother to research all the facts. This is something that Rabbi Moshe Tendler spoke about as a scholar in residence at HTC over a decade ago. He was asked to speak about his father in law, Rav Moshe at the Seudas Melave Malka. He said that one of the main distinctions between the way Rav Moshe Paskined Shailos and many lesser Poskim of our day is that R’ Moshe made certain that he completely understood all the facts of the Shaila.

In matters of human biology Rav Moshe would ask a PhD, his son in law, to explain in exact detail the biological aspects of the Shaila. Only then would he Paskin. Rabbi Tendler noted that many Poskim simply Paskined without the facts. They thought they knew them but they often did not and issued erroneous Psak because of it. This is what Rav Yaakov meant when he said "Daas Torah ahin, daas Torah aher, der "facts" muz min hubben".

Without facts there can be no ‘Daas’ anything!

Today we live in a time where bans are issued because of anecdotal evidence presented by Askanim. Even a man I admire, Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky by his own admission fell prey it. And of course he is not alone. One need only see the plethora of bans and edicts coming out of Israel and the vehemence of the opposition to the things banned to see that R’ Yaakov’s admonition is completely ignored. As has Rav Moshe’s example of getting the facts first before Paskining.

This is why many of the current bans are being ignored by the very people who so venerate the Gedolim who issued them. Most people understand why certain bans – like the one against the internet – are issued. But they also realize – whether they admit it or not – that those bans are based on incomplete information provided by Asakanim with ‘personal experience’. As Jonathan Rosenblum puts it:

Bring up any important issue, and you are likely to hear a wide variety of opinions, each supported by a number of "proofs" from personal experience. Those proofs inevitably bring to mind the old saw: the plural of anecdotes is not data.

Couldn’t agree more.