Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Daas Torah - Is there Really Strength in Numbers?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, President Emeritus of Yeshiva University
Gil Student calls it a ‘cheap shot’. I suppose you can look at it this way.  Former Yeshiva University President Dr. Norman Lamm wrote an essay a while back in which he discusses Daas Torah. Therein he says the following: 
I have always been uncomfortable with the institution founded by Agudath Israel, the Mo’etzet Gedolei haTorah, “The Council of Giants of the Torah.” What man, with any measure of normal humility, will allow himself to be inducted in a group which announces itself as “giants” or greats?”  
On the surface, I suppose that is not such a nice thing to say. But that pales in comparison to how Dr. Lamm was treated by the leader of that august body at the time. The head of the Agudah Moetzes tore into a speech he gave.

Rav Elya Svei, ZTL, long term head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah
Without actually mentioning Lakewood by name in comparing them to YU students, Dr. Lamm referred to Lakewood type students as ‘men of the cave’. This was a reference to the dispute among sages about the value of full time Torah study. He was subsequently erroneously accused of calling Lakewood students primitive cavemen. He of course clearly did no say that. If one heard or saw the speech in context they would realize it. Nonetheless he was branded an enemy of God for it. Dr. Lamm was likewise criticized for many of his decisions. Hard to blame him for his reactions.

But let us look at his statement on its own merit. Is there not just a little bit of humility lacking when one accepts an invitation to join a body with that name? I do not mean to cast any aspersions on the rabbinic leaders that comprise the Moetzes. Nor do I want to God forbid imply that they are in any way Baalei Gaavah. On the contrary. As I have said many times in the past I have a great deal of respect for them. I should add that there were men of great humility that were invited and accepted membership in the Moetzes. R' Moshe Feinstein, R' Yaakov Kamenetsky, and R' Avrohom Pam come to mind. But I still think it is a legitimate point to be made.

But to call it a cheap shot without taking into context what Dr. Lamm experienced and what he continued to say in the rest of his essay is also unfair. He in fact does respect the concept of Daas Torah. What he does not respect is the way it is interpreted today as something akin to infallibility. This is something that I have difficulty with myself.

Prior to the creation of the Agudah Moetzes, I do not believe there was a group of Rabbinic leaders so identified. Even the Vaad Arba Aratzos did not label themselves as ‘The Gedolim’.  After the demise of that group, there was no such governing body until the Agudah created it. They existed as Gedloim independently – becoming so because they earned rabbinic and public respect for their great Torah knowledge and leadership abilities. They were not ‘invited’ to join a ‘Gedolim’ society. For me, it says a lot about who they were that they did not need to join an organization that identified them as a Gadol.  

They would not have dreamed being afraid to speak their minds for fear of losing their title - as was the case reported by Jonathan Rosenblum about one unidentified Moetzes member a few years ago. As individuals, they could speak their own mind without worry as to what their fellow Gedolim would say. 

If there was disagreement among them… well Elu V’Elu.  Great rabbinic thinkers are entitled to reach their own conclusions on both matters of Halacha and matters of public policy. And not be forced to acquiesce to the majority for purposes of unity and greater influence. If I recall correctly this is why Rav Chaim Soloveichik refused to join.

Daas Torah is based on the concept of Emunas Chachamim as outlined by the Sages. From Dr. Lamm’s essay: 
In Avot 6:5 we are told of the various ways in which Torah can be acquired–one of them is emunat hakhamim, faith in the Sages… 
We are indeed required to have faith in our rabbinic leaders. But it should not automatically mean blind obedience. It means respecting and valuing what they say. One must respect rabbinic authority. But rabbinic views on public issues of the day should be considered along with other factors and not bind people to their decisions. Especially when we know that unified opinions can still mean there was internal dissent. 

I have a problem identifying that as Daas Torah. If there is dissent, I want to know about it. It ought not be covered up.

Another problem is when the perception is that all members of a group called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah agree - it adds to the public perception of their infallibility. So that even if in theory they can be wrong, they are treated as though they can’t be. The logic is as follows: We have no one better to make decisions for us than a group that tells us in unison what they believe God wants from us.

There are further repercussions to this. Those who might ask questions about a unified statement from this august group of rabbinic leaders, are treated as heretics. It is therefore small wonder that there is such an extreme devotion about what the Gedolim say. 

Recall what Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman said upon introducing Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner of Bnei Brak at the Interent Asifa a few years ago. He quoted Rabbenu Yona who said that when Gadol proclaims an edict to the assembled masses, those who disobey it lose their portion in Olam Haba. Can one then even begin to image what it means to disobey an entire group of Gedolim who all say the same thing without revealing any dissent?

There is no way of knowing whether any of their decisions were made with any dissent or not. Unlike the Supreme Court, there are no written dissenting opinions.  For me, instead of strengthening their positions with numbers, it weakens those decisions for me to know that this may not have been what they all were thinking. Especially when my own intuition (based on the teachings of my own Rebbeim) tells me they might have made a mistake. This is not to say I am smarter than them or know more Torah.  Obviously I don’t. But neither does it mean that my views and those of others like me have no value and should be ignored.

I think Dr. Lamm’s analysis of Daas Torah is just about right. Here is what he says: 
Unquestionably, religious authority in Judaism is not unquestionable. But it is equally true that there is authority.Emunat Hakhamim, faith in the wise, means that those individuals are authoritative. It commands us to have reverence for religious authorities even if we do not feel we can accept their opinions. It means to follow them even though we often do not agree with them. At all times it means that we must have respect, simple derekh eretz.