Thursday, May 31, 2012

Daas Torah and Mistakes

Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, ZTL
One of the most interesting things to emerge out of the Asifa is the extent to which Gedolim are seen as the infallible arbiters of public policy. Not that this should surprise anyone who adheres to the concept of Daas Torah or who reads this blog with any regularity.

This was highly evident in Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman’s exhortation to follow the Psak that 60,000 plus attendees were about to receive from one such Gadol, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner – also known by his Sefer, Shevet HaLevi. His by now famous Psak was that the Internet is Assur to have in one’s home under any condition. And that even for work it is only permitted with filters. That was followed by his directive that Yeshivos should bar admission to any child whose parents have the interent in their homes for any reason.

This was pretty much the policy of many right wing Yeshivos heretofore. But now it is official. No school who considers itself a card carrying Charedi one can knowingly allow students like that into their schools. Furthermore, I would assume that those who have been in those schools and whose parents refuse to remove the internet from their homes – should be expelled. That is Daas Torah. And it must be followed on penalty of losing your Olam Habah (…at least according to the way Rabbi Wachsman characterized Rabbenu Yona’s Teshuva on such things.)

But is it really Daas Torah just because a Gadol of Rav Wosner’s stature said so? What if he made an honest mistake? Not possible? I am here to tell you that not only is it possible, but that it happened to me.

I had occasion to ask Rav Wosner a Shaila about an issue relating to my father's illness over 20 years ago. His Psak that was surprisingly very Machmir. I walked out in somewhat of a daze - very concerned about telling my father the bad news until it occurred to me that Rav Wosner may have misunderstood my question - perhaps I didn't describe the situation in enough detail. I returned immediately and re-asked it in greater detail. After hearing the more detailed explanation of the circumstances he Paskined very differently - L'Kula.

That episode makes me wonder just how often people receive an erroneous Psak based on their own inadequacy in expressing the Shaila. It also underscores the fact that Askanim can indeed manipulate a Psak out of a Gadol by simply asking the Shaila in a way that will certainly elicit the desired Psak. That may be obvious to everyone by now... but what happened to me is personal evidence to me of that.

It is quite possible that when R' Wosner phoned in his Psak to the Asifa - it was based on an incomplete understanding of what the circumstances in America are for lack of anyone explaining them to him in great detail. This does not mean that Rav Wosner’s level of Torah knowledge is deficient. What it does mean is that he can only Paskin based on the information he is given. The result may then very well be an erroneous Psak. To one who is Chareid L'D'Var HaShem and the recipient of that Psak, it will be the final word. Daas Torah. Not to be contradicted on pain of losing one’s Olam Habah. 

Any suggestion like mine that perhaps he was not fully informed will be treated as an affront to the Gadol. How dare anyone say that a Gadol Paskined without being fully informed?! How dare I have the audacity to suggest that a world class Gadol like Rav Wosner would Paskin without knowing all the facts?! And yet it can and does happen, more often than we would like to believe. All you need is a trustworthy person to relate the facts to him and he will tell you what the Psak is based on that.

This happened to Rav Elyashiv. Twice. Once with Rabbi Natan Slifkin and once with Rav Nosson Kaminetsky. Rav Elyashiv Paskined based on information he received from trusted advisers who he knew to be religious Jews dedicated to the welfare of Klal Yisroel. I’m sure they were. But it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Rav Elyashiv was misinformed by his advisors because of the way they presented information to him.

Is it the fault of these elderly Gedolim for not doing their own research before they Paskin? One can debate whether it is or not. But the truth is that even the most knowledgeable Poskim will occasionally have to resort to information supplied by others. And once you rely on others, you are at their mercy. And their possible biases. Biases which can affect the Psak.

So I can't really fault them for Paskening without doing their own research given the limited time they have even if they were not elderly.

But what this does tell us in my view is that whatever their Daas Torah is, it may very well not be applicable to the reality of the situation. It is only true that it is applicable to situation as presented.

When a Gadol who lives in one culture is asked to Paskin for another culture that is 7000 miles away and so radically different from his own, it compounds the problem even further.  And yet the Charedi world sees the Psak as rock solid. Let the chips fall where they may – Daas Torah has spoken.

What are the repercussions of this? One example can be found in a blog called, Oceans of Joy. The (apparently) Charedi blogger tells the story of her experience in speaking to a principal of the school she thought would be a good fit for her daughter. Here is an excerpt: 
To start our conversation, she said, “Tell me, do you have the internet?”  To which, naturally, I said, “yes”.  (I know, some of you are banging your heads at my idiocy since I’ve repeatedly been told to lie about this question.)  I explained to her that my husband works from home using the internet, that I write online, and that our children Skype their grandparents in the US before Shabbos.
 I also told her that I had been told I’d have to lie about this for my child to be accepted, and that if my daughter can only be accepted under false pretenses, that it’s not the right fit for us.  She appreciated my honesty and then told me that in the past (ie until a couple of weeks ago), they would probably have allowed in a family like us who uses the internet in the way that we do.  But now, since a famous rabbi said at the recent asifa that schools aren’t allowed to accept students from homes that have the internet under any condition, they can’t go against the ruling of the leading rabbis of our generation. 
Need I say more?

Is Daas Torah like this so sacrosanct that it denies anyone the right to even question how that Psak came about? When Gedolim are put on too high a pedestal they are seen as infallible regardless of their claims to the contrary. Honoring them requires never questioning a Psak… or the circumstances in which it is obtained. Thus their pronouncements have the effect of being inviolable.

So we end up in a situation where there are two realities. One is the reality of unquestioned institutional fealty to the Psak of a Gadol. And the other is the reality that many of the people the Psak is aimed at ignore it… and in many cases lie about it to those institutions.