Thursday, September 07, 2017

Daas Torah? Or Daas Askanim?

Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk (Wikipeda)
There is a lot of controversy about a concept called Daas Torah. A lot of it is based on misconceptions of what it really is. Because it is such an important feature of the Charedi world – which is by far the fastest growing segment of Orthodoxy, it is important to know exactly what Daas Torah is, and to examine what if any problems there are with it.  There are two definitions of it quoted in Wikipedia. One is by Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudah - an organization defined by fealty to Daas Torah. The other is by Rabbi Pesach Eliyahu Falk, a Posek in Gateshead, renowned for his controversial work on modesty.

Rabbi Shafran: 
What Da'at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews - just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice. 
Rabbi Falk: 
That which Poskim cannot prove from an explicit source, is decided upon by a thought-process which has been tuned and refined by tens of thousands of hours of Torah study (and with elderly Talmidei Chachamim even hundreds of thousands of hours) which enables them to perceive where the pure truth lies. This process is called Da’as Torah - an opinion born out of Torah thought. Their thought-process has not been affected by secular and non-Jewish ways of thinking.  
Bearing in mind that neither definition imputes infallibility to the rabbinic leaders whose opinions are seen as Daas Torah (indeed Rabbi Shafran makes a point of that) – it is nonetheless treated that way. If for no other reason than - as the most Torah knowledgeable people they are in the best position to offer the closest thing to the Torah’s view on all matters. What choice do religious Jews have but to follow their advice – seeing that it is the closest thing to God’s will available to them?!

While I understand where Rabbi Falk is coming from by stating that the best understanding of a Torah response is one that is both learned in Torah - and unhampered by other knowledge, I have to disagree with him.  Clearly knowledge about any subject one is asked about is paramount in giving the right answer. For example, knowing all the Torah in the world cannot possibly tell you how electricity works. In order to Paskin correctly one must know not only Torah, he must know the Mada of the question he is asked about.  This is why Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach studied the science of electricity before issuing his own opinion on how it impacts on Shabbos.

The real Poskim are those that do either what R’ Shlomo Zalmen did, or at least recognize that they do not have sufficient knowledge to issue an opinion. Whether it be on Psak or on other matters. They do not do render an opinion unless and until they get that knowledge. No one exemplified that better than R’ Moshe Feinstein, who knew his limitations and would never issue a Psak on medical issues until first discussing it with his son in law, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler who is an expert in bio medicine.

Unfortunately in our day, the process of getting and disseminating the views of a rabbinic leader (Daas Torah) has been corrupted. First, by the fact that many ‘sub-par Poskim’ do not bother studying the issue about which they issue an opinion. They basically shoot from the hip and sometimes issue an opinion out of ignorance.

But even those Poskim that do the necessary research can no longer be trusted. Not because of anything they have done wrong. But because of how their opinions are obtained and disseminated. I bring this up now since an actual video  exists  (which can be viewed below) about this process that demonstrates this problem far better than I could ever describe. It was first shown on YWN. And the comments there pretty much sum up the reality of why Daas Torah can no longer be relied upon.

Askanim are people that are active in the Jewish community. Among them are people that do so by attaching themselves to - and serving a particular Gadol. While that is a laudable thing to do, they are often zealots in their own right with an agenda of their own. Which they try and forward (either intentionally or unintentionally) by presenting a Shaila spun in a way to elicit a predetermined answer. This is basically what happened to both Nossons  (Rabbis Slifkin and  Kamenetsky). 

Rabbi Kamentetsky’s negative experience (the ban of his book, Making of a Gadol) was described by him in a recorded address he gave in a Shul a few  years ago as one that was completely controlled by R’ Elyashiv’s Asaknim.

Rabbi Slifkin’s experience was far worse. R’ Elyashiv was told that Rabbi Slifkin’s book contained Apikurus - heresy! (e.g. the age of the universe is far more than 6000 years old). R’ Elyashiv responded by banning his books. This was done without any input from Rabbi Slifkin who tried desperately to get an audience with R’ Elyashiv to present his side.  

He was rebuffed by those Askanim who labeled him insolent for even trying to present his side! (Just to cite one example of a possible defense of Rabbi Slifkin could have presented is about the age of the universe being about 15 billion years old. That is well in line with classic sources in the Torah, Kabbalah, the Gemarah, Rishonim, and Achronim. Which was ably demonstrated by a Charedi icon - physicist Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in an address he gave to the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. It should also be mentioned that Rabbi Slifkin was very careful to discuss the ideas in his books with other respected rabbinic leaders who endorsed his books!)

In the YWN story, Rav Chaim Kanievsky gave a one word response to a question asked to him about whether people in Miami should evacuate facing the possibility of life threatening catastrophic results from Hurricane Irma. The word was Sakana (life threatening!).

Obviously his message was that Sakana overrides almost all the Mitzvos in the Torah. This answer does not require Daas Torah. It is obvious. So obvious Rav Kanievsky’s time should not have been wasted with such a question. It should never have been asked. In watching the video, it is almost as if he ignored the question. All he said was ‘Sakana’. The rest is all about the interpretation. 
If one reads the comments to that video, one can easily see why Daas Torah is under attack. Daas Torah is controlled by Askanim. They are the ones disseminating the views of their leaders. In my view, they cannot be trusted to accurately report what their rabbinic leaders actually believe, rendering the entire concept of DaasTorah in our day a questionable enterprise.