Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Who Is the Captain of Your Ship?

Guest Post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman

Rabbi Landesman has submitted this – his valuable insight on the concepts of Daas Torah - What it is and what it isn’t. Who represents it and who doesn’t. It is a bit longer than my usual posts but provides an important perspective. It is unedited and taken entirely from his soon to be published book, There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven. - HM

A recent news item revealed that in the course of refurbishing the sewer system alongside the Tiber River in Rome, strands of copper wire were discovered running just under the street level. After much deliberation, the determination was made that these wires were the remnant of a communications system dating back to the times of the Caesars. The Italian government immediately laid claim to being the inventors of the telephone.

Not to be outdone, the Greek authorities ordered that digging begin in Athens. Amazingly, the workmen discovered thin strands of glass under the streets near the Acropolis and submitted their findings for examination to a group of neutral and distinguished archeologists who concluded that it would only be fair to conclude that the ancient Greeks were the inventors of fiber optics.

The Israeli government met in emergency session. A special cabinet committee decided that it was simply incomprehensible to assume that either the Greeks or Romans could have been technologically more advanced than the nation which had been ruled by King Solomon.
Consequently, they unanimously voted that funding be made available for massive archeological digs near the Citadel as well as adjacent to the Temple Mount, the sites where both David and Solomon had constructed palaces. The usual bureaucratic delays were steamrollered as work began.

Despite censure by the United Nations for violating the status quo and in the face of threats issued by the Moslem Wakf that promised purgatory to all who would cause potential damage to the third holiest site in Islam, the digging proceeded. But nothing was found! The digs were expanded to include the entire Old City of Jerusalem. Pavements and roads were ripped open while volunteers sifted frantically through the rubble for some sign that the ancient capital of Israel could also lay claim to a modern means of communication. However, no matter where they dug, nothing was found – not in the Cardo, not at the site of the palaces of the Hasmoneans, not at the remnants of Chizkiyahu’s quarries. The only logical conclusion was that the ancient Israelites must have invented wireless communication!

The truth of the matter is that we did have a means of wireless transmission of information long before there were cellphones. It was called the chatzotzrot – the trumpets – which the Torah, in parashas B’ha’alotcha, ordains Moshe to fashion. A tekiah was sounded on both silver trumpets to summon the people to assemble for instruction. When the purpose was to summon the nesi’im alone, a tekiah on one trumpet was blown. If the purpose was to announce that the nation was to break camp and move, a tekiah, teruah, tekiah were sounded. On Rosh Chodesh and the Holidays, a series of tekiot and teruot were sounded and in case of war there was a combination of different blasts. The chatzotzrot were also sounded daily in the Beis haMikdash.

Ohr haChaim raises an interesting point. Why was it necessary to sound the trumpets when it was time to break camp and resume the journey to Eretz Yisrael? The Torah clearly states that the movement of the Jews in the desert was controlled by the pillar of cloud that accompanied them. When it moved, they moved and when it remained static, they made camp. The sounding of the chatzotzrot seems to have been superfluous, for the people needed to do no more than watch the pillar of the cloud which provided the necessary information.

Ohr ha-Chaim answers that by making the movement contingent upon Moshe sounding the trumpets, Hashem empowered him as a leader, making it dependent upon Moshe to resume or end the journey. Indeed Moshe’s decision was contingent on a Divine decision that was evident when the pillar of cloud rose and began to move, and it is true that the entire nation was witness to the pillar moving. Nonetheless, they did not break camp until Moshe actually sounded the chatzotzrot. In other words, even though they were privy in this case to the same information as Moshe, they did not act upon that information without receiving express instruction from Moshe through the chatzotrot.

I’d like to take this idea a step further. Take note of the occasions when the chatzotzrot were sounded; when the nesi’im and/or the nation were to gather for instruction, to mark the arrival of the holidays, to break camp and in the face of war. These are completely unrelated tasks – running the gamut of political through spiritual – yet they are entrusted to Moshe who is the sole authority in all fields. While there is a possibility of delegation built into the system – the kohanim were permitted to sound the trumpets in Moshe’s place – ultimate authority was to remain in Moshe’s hands. Hashem, as it were, did not interfere in that decision making process as evidenced by the fact that the people moved based on the sounding of the trumpets rather than the pillar of cloud. There was to be a single voice that spoke to the people, that of Moshe. The same voice that instructed them in Torah also led them into battle.

In many ways, there is no difference between the mundane and the solemn in Judaism; one recites a berachah upon relieving oneself in the bathroom and one makes a berachah before lighting candles to usher in Yom Kippur. Moreover, the Torah does not provide for a division of powers between the political and religious leadership of the nation. Moshe served as Torah teacher, adjudicator of disputes and military leader of the people. True that he was forced to delegate some of that authority; however, that need was based on time constraints rather than on a doctrine of separation of powers.

This is the underlying principle behind a concept that many find exceedingly difficult to accept; da’at Torah – the Torah perspective. Our rabbinical leadership is deemed to be imbued with this da’at Torah and we are therefore bound to follow their instructions in all areas. This is true when we agree and even when we feel that their decisions are wrong and they have misinterpreted facts or conditions! Chazal, in elucidating the pasuk that states lo tasur meihadavar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’smol – you shall not turn from that which they tell you either right or left – explain: afilu omer lecha al yamin shehu s’mol – even if they tell you that right is left!

This obviously does not mean to suggest that Chazal – or the da’at Torah of any given generation – are infallible. On the contrary, the very fact that Chazal adjure us to follow the dictates of the rabbis even when they say that right is left clearly indicates that there is a distinct possibility that the rabbis will be mistaken. Nevertheless, I am still bound to follow their decision. Although this pasuk applies specifically to decisions of the sanhedrin, many poskim maintain that this authority extends to later authorities as well.

In order to understand this axiomatic concept, we would do well to first explain what da’at Torah is and what it is not. Da’at Torah is neither prophecy nor is it what we refer to as ruach hakodesh – Divine inspiration. Rather, it is perspective refined by years of immersion in Torah study which allows one who has gained it to view any given question solely through the prism of Torah, objectively to the extent that is humanly possible and without trace of personal agenda or prejudice.

In the case of the sanhedrin it is not difficult to understand why the concept of da’at Torah is so fundamental. The ability of a court to function and fulfill its role is predicated on the people accepting its decisions without question. If room is left for people to reject decisions based on their personal perspectives, the authority of the court will be undermined and it will be subject to the relative power of the litigants which will destroy society’s ability to function. Hence, even at the cost of sometimes making mistakes, the need for a judicial system that has the final say is absolutely necessary. By extension, if this authority is not granted to the sages of each generation, we will undermine their position, not only religiously, but in all facets of our communal lives, for as we have seen, the authority of the Torah extends to all areas of life.

Students often challenge this point and question: “How can one follow a rabbinical opinion in a field in which the rabbi has no experience? Does it make any sense to ask a rabbi about a surgical procedure or about a political decision when the rabbi has never had any exposure to these fields of study? Shouldn’t the generals, diplomats and doctors be making these decisions given that they have the requisite expertise?”

The questions are based on a misunderstanding. No one exercising da’at Torah would or could ever express an opinion about a field of study in which he had no knowledge. Just as a posek would never decide whether or not a mikvah was suitable for use unless he had first mastered the appropriate laws in Yoreh Deah and then taken care to examine the question with all of its nuances and subtleties, so too would he never issue an opinion – hashkafic or halachic – without consulting experts in the field. As we have already stated, da’at Torah is not prophecy nor is it ruach ha-kodesh!

Let me offer an example. My late father-in-law built a new mikvah in his community. Because local sewage costs were extremely high, he came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to filter the mikvah’s waters. Without going into too much detail, the filtering system was potentially problematical halachically, so he decided to consult with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. He made an appointment with Rav Moshe who instructed him to bring the filter with him along with the architect’s and engineer’s plans for the system. When he arrived at Rav Moshe’s home, he found that the posek had arranged for an engineer to be present so that he, Rav Moshe, would be sure to understand the exact manner in which the system worked.

I had a similar experience with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l. A shidduch had been proposed for my daughter, but there were a number of incidents of severe learning disabilities among the siblings of the young man that made us hesitant to continue. My wife and I went to consult with Rav Shlomo Zalman to ask him whether he thought we should proceed. He responded that we first had to determine whether or not the problems were genetic and suggested that we call a certain professor at the Weizman Institute who he said was the leading expert in the field.

Neither Rav Moshe nor Rav Shlomo Zalman would render an opinion on any subject before they were sure that they had all of the facts. This is a critical element of da’at Torah. Had either of them rendered a p’sak without consultation, that could only mean that they felt confident that their previous knowledge in that field was sufficient to be able to make a decision. Elsewhere, I make mention of the extraordinary if not unique medical knowledge of the Chazon Ish. I fully believe that if the Chazon Ish had felt that he was at all deficient, he would have held off issuing an opinion. The integrity of the Torah personality – the person with da’at Torah – is such that to act otherwise is simply impossible.

Many talmidim have raised the question as to how they can determine whether or not a certain rav or shitah represents da’at Torah. Moreover, in many cases – especially in the world of hashkafah – there seem to be so many divergent viewpoints. In essence what they seek is some method of choosing the captain of the ship of their lives. Is there an objective means of measuring greatness in Torah? Should one follow the greatest scholar, the greatest tzaddik, the greatest leader?

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, for indeed there are no means of objectively qualifying or quantifying Torah greatness. Each community has its leader and in an era when we lack the centralized authority of a sanhedrin, there is surely room to allow communities to make personal choices, provided, of course, that it is clear that the choice is not based on convenience. At the same time, if one is faced with a dilemma as to the nature of the community with which he should affiliate, I would contend that you should examine who are the fellow passengers on your boat. Are they people who are meticulous in their observance of Torah and who value its study? Often, the quality of a leader can be measured by the quality of those who choose to follow him.

Whenever my children – or students – manage to convince me to get on a roller coaster, I am terrified that when I reach the crest, a voice will come out of heaven and declare: “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, you fool.” I am therefore careful before getting on to look and see who my fellow travelers are, hoping that one at least will be a tzaddik in whose merit the coaster will be saved. We would do well to be as careful in choosing the Torah leader we choose to follow.