Sunday, June 03, 2012

Whither Daas Torah

It seems like HaGaon R’ Shmuel HaLevi Wosner (pictured) has moderated his views with respect to his Psak about the internet. I imagine that many Rabbanim Chashuvim, among them perhaps those who organized the Asifa as a solution to internet use in an era that increasingly “can’t live without it”.

His new approach is indeed more in line with that idea. What has all this wrought? Unfortunately it is not good.

First let me make clear that R’ Wosner is a Gaon Atzum. His knowledge of Torah is immense! He is a Zaken and a Gadol with few peers. And he deserves the kind of respect that such individuals should entail. Any reference to him in terms less than that is an affront to the Kavod HaTorah.

That said this entire episode leaves me with a fear that it has in fact just done that. Kavod HaTorah has been lessened because of what happened here. The irony is that the organizers and supporters have been saying exactly the opposite. That the Asifa was a Kiddush HaShem!  How is that possible?  How can some see this as a Kiddush HaShem and others see it as much less than that?

I guess it depends what one focuses on… and who is doing the looking. From the perspective of those who worship their rabbinic leaders as near infallible icons they see the massive attendance of people listening to the words of their icons as a Kiddush Hashem. But to those of us who see the broader picture…  well I am reminded of a scene from Fiddler on the Roof.

In that scene the elderly respected rabbi was depicted as a well meaning but doddering old fool who was barely aware of what was going on just around him let alone the rest of the world. I remember being outraged that a rabbinic leader was depicted that way.  I felt this unfair and distorted depiction of a rabbinic leader was disgusting. But I suppose that is how Hollywood writers see our Z’keinim.  So they wrote the character that way. And yet I fear that this is the image that some may have gotten from what has occurred.

I listened to that portion of the Asifa where Rav  Wosner spoke. The entire over 4 hour Asifa can be viewed on line in its entirety on YouTube. It was professionally recorded and uploaded to the internet almost immediately. . I’m not going to comment on the absurdity of an anti Internet event being uploaded to the internet… other than to say that it is absurd.

When Rav Wosner spoke, you could feel the electricity in the air. He spoke in slow and halting tones indicative of how serious he was about what he was saying. Anyone who listened to it had to be impressed that a Gadol was Paskining on a serious matter of public policy about which he had given serious deliberating thought.

In his address he basically banned the internet in any form entirely from the home and permitted it for business only with filters. He forbade people from entering the homes of people who do have it and said Yeshivos should not accept children from those homes! Adding to the seriousness of his Psak was the introductory remarks by Rav Ephraim Wachsman who used the writings of Rabbenu  Yona to inform the attendees that if they didn’t listen to R’ Wosner’s Psak they would lose their Oalm Habah. You cannot get more serious than that.

After such a serious moment where Daas Torah seemed to be expressed, the Psak has suddenly changed. What happened to all that deliberation R’ Wosner had? How could he say the things he did at the Asifa and now just a few days later so quickly change his mind?

I think the answer is as follows. It is because he was misinformed albeit with the best of intentions. I can just imagine how the entire internet situation was presented to him from day one. Rav Wosner probably never saw a computer in his life. Those who first informed him about it, certainly did not present it in any positive way. I’m sure the picture they painted was that a medium has infiltrated our community that in a single moment can take you to the worst Smut available in the world. Although it does have some good uses, it has nevertheless already destroyed lives and caused many divorces.  Many children have been ruined by these images. It is almost impossible to avoid them.

If I had never seen the internet and had no clue what it was before that, I would have Assured such a thing  a long time ago. Rav Wosner Paskined based on that information. Realizing that the smut available on the interent is not automatic, he realized that it can be accessed quickly and easily. By adults as and by children. Filters he was told help, but are not foolproof. To him it was a no brainer. No matter what the positive benefits might be, the fact that smut is so easily accessible and that it has already caused so much devastation… it was an easy decision for him to make.

He probably felt that if he emphasizes the Issur strongly enough, painting it in the most dire of terms it would take hold. His Psak that no child whose home had the internet would be allowed into a religious school would surely be met by compliance after such a presentation. But what he had really accomplished is a requirement to prevent thousands of students from Yeshivos whose parents were not about to so quickly give up the internet. That many did give it up after the Asifa is a drop in the ocean.

After being informed of the impossibility of such a Psak being carried out…  he probably realized that the ‘cure would be worse than the disease’. And he backed down from his very severe Psak.

What does this say about Daas Torah as it is understood by the Charedi world?  I think it has to diminish the view of it. It has to say to them that what a Gadol says is not necessarily Daas Torah. If he is ill informed his pronouncements can - and sometimes will - be wrong.

In this case R’ Wosner corrected himself very quickly. But what about those instances where a Psak based on incomplete or erroneous information is not corrected? Where Askanim got their Psak based on a skewed description of the reality of a situation. Or a presentation that is incomplete in order to secure the Psak they want. If I were a serious Charedi I think it would seriously challenge my confidence in the concept of DaasTorah as it has been presented to me.