Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Daas Torah and Emanuel

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is one of the bright lights in the Torah world. He brings to the table both brilliance and tremendous knowledge of Torah - as he does worldly knowledge. He is a true thinker, a supporter of Torah Im Derech Eretz, and - if I remember correctly - leans towards the Charedi view of Daas Torah.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman is one of my favorite Charedim. While I don’t always agree with him. I find myself agreeing far more often than not. He is unafraid to take controversial positions and indeed calls them like he sees them. He is a man of principle and I honor him.

These two protagonists have been debating the Emanuel controversy. In my view this debate raises a far more fundamental issue. How does one deal with an issue where the Daas Torah of one’s Gedolim is based on information that may contradict the ‘facts on the ground’?

Daas Torah is a term that is almost synonymous with Charedism. I think this concept as understood by Charedim is what separates it from Modern Orthodoxy. In the context of this essay I use the term Modern Orthodox to mean right wing modern Orthodoxy.

One might ask, ‘Don’t we all believe in Daas Torah? Daas Torah after all simply means the ‘wisdom of the Torah’.

The answer is yes, of course we do. But in the Charedi world Daas Torah has come mean the wisdom of the Charedi Gedolim. Charedim are always Mevatel their Daas to that of ‘Daas Torah’. They explain that their Gedolim have the most Torah knowledge and as such - when there is unanimity among them – one’s own views go out the window. No matter what! They do not see with their own limited Torah eyes what their Gedolim see through their superior Torah eyes. The decisions of the Gedolim must adhered to in every facet of life - public and private. So a unified appeal by them will never be challenged.

I see Daas Torah as a primary issue in the Emanuel controversy. Charedi Gedolim both in Israel and in America (as represented by the Agudah Moeztes) have declared it to be a fight for Torah education –specifically a fight against any secular intrusion into it.

To briefly and best of my ability - sum up what has happened to date, Slonimer Chasidim set up their own Beis Yaakov school in the largely Sephardic town of Emanuel. For reasons which are not entirely clear to me - and beyond the scope of this essay - some of the Sephardi parents wanted to send their daughters to the Slonimer Beis Yaakov. Slominer Chasidim set up guidelines for admission that included some of the most severe ‘religious’ restrictions one can imagine and based admission to the school entirely on that.

But those rules were draconian. And worse the students are required to pronounce their prayers in the Ashkenazi/Chasidic vernacular. Nonetheless some Sephardi parents agreed to this ‘blackmail’ and send their daughters there. I believe about 25% of the girls attending that Beis Yaakov are Sephardim – who daven like Chasidim. A concrete fence was however built between the two groups of girls – dividing the Ashkanezi girls from the Sephardi girls.

A Charedi Sephardi attorney who heads an anti discrimination group saw the school's policies as discriminatory and took the school to the Israel Supreme Court. He won the case and the school was ordered to fully integrate.

Parents in the school didn’t like that call and decided to create a ‘new’ school. They hired some of the teachers from the old Beis Yaakov to teach in it. The court saw right through this ploy as their way of circumventing the court order – threatening them with a jail sentence if they did not return their daughters to the original school. Those parents went to jail and all hell broke loose. Virtually all the Charedi Gedolim called for mass protest. They saw it a secular challenge to Torah by a secular anti religious government agency – the Supreme Court. In less than 24 hours – over 100,000 Charedim protested across Israel.

Even if one is Charedi and follows Daas Torah as expressed by their Gedolim - must one assume that they have all their facts correct? Is it a Chutzpah to suggest that they might not? These are fair questions and not a challenge to their status as purveyors of Daas Torah. Must their decisions never be contradicted or questioned? This seems to be the view of Rabbi Landesman.

Rabbi Bechoffer has brought to my attention an example of Ashkenazi prejudice that exists in Emanuel. It is the story of Racheli – a Sephardi teen in that school. It was told by her on a Charedi website in Hebrew. Although it was a difficult read for me as I am not that conversant with conversational Hebrew I believe my surmise is fairly accurate. She and her Sephardi peers were complelety segregated from the Chasidic girls. They were often taunted by them and were called pejorative names like ‘Shechorim’ (The Hebrew equivalent of ‘Shvartzes’). Racheli came home in tears and brought her parents to tears as well.

This is the kind of thing the courts were trying to rid the school of.

I have to ask, is this really a case of fighting government interference in Torah? Or is it a case of ridding discriminatory practices within the school?

It seems pretty clear to me. Prejudice exists in the school even though Sephardi parents attend. And yet if one believes in following Daas Torah how can one side with the secular Supreme Court on this issue?

In my view the answer is the following. It is a question of how to view any government interface with Torah education. The Charedi Gedolim see the slightest interface at all to be interference. They see any interface as a breach of their wall of separation from non Torah secular interference. They may concede the existence of prejudice. But they see it as secondary issue here and irrelevant to the greater good of keeping the secular ‘barbarians at the gate’.

Charedi Gedolim have been told by the Slonimer Rebbe and other Chasidim and Sephardim from Emanuel –that there is no discrimination proven by their daughters being enrolled in the Beis Yaakov. That is all they needed. They see this as a secular government trying to breach the wall of Torah.

I do not fault the Charedi Gedloim for acting on those beliefs. But I also believe that it is very possible that their picture is not fully supported by all the facts and tainted by one sided information.

What if they are missing pieces of the puzzle? What if there is no threat to Torah and this really does involve discrimination and prejudice? Is it then fair to say that an anti discrimination order by a court is really an anti Torah decision? Even when there is no educational policy involved? What if the Slonimer rules are only a disguised form of discrimination? Are the rules equally applied and enforced? Must we assume the Charedi Gedolim went to these investigative lengths?

Does this not at least raise a question about blindly listening to Gedolim – conceding to them an almost infallible status? Even when there is evidence that they might be mistaken?

Most Charedim would probably say that we must assume the Gedolim have done their utmost to determine the truth. That is defacto infallibility. But Rabbi Nosson Kaminetsky has testified that a man whom he considers to be the Gadol HaDor did not do his due diligence. By his own admission he relied on people that he trusted to make a Daas Torah decision. He erred. It is just as legitimate to say that the Charedi Gedolim erred here too.

What should we do now? How do we determine the truth of what is really going on there?

In my view the only solution to this is to appoint an independent ‘blue ribbon’ committee comprised of a wide variety of rabbinic figures that includes Charedim and Daatim from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Let them thoroughly examine the truth about prejudice there.

Let them interview Racheli and her Sephardi peers at the Slonimer Bais Yaakov. The one person that should not serve on that committee is the Slonimer Rebbe. No matter how Ehrlich he may be - he must be recused as partisan. Only then can we hope to determine the truth. That is a far better way of determining it than what has been the case until now.