Friday, December 22, 2006

Discussions of daas torah generally generate more heat than light. Nevertheless, since some recent comments on this topic seem to me inadequate, I want to at least try to add some perspective.

Roughly speaking, the normative claim is that Jews are obliged to address all questions, even those that are not obviously matters of halacha, to appropriate Torah scholars. This normative claim rests on two empirical claims. First, that great Torah scholars are uniquely qualified to answer questions that, at least to the superficial observer, might appear to lie outside their areas of expertise. Second, that since time immemorial pious Jews have in fact addressed such questions to their Rabbis.

Let us take up each of these claims.

I think it is entirely uncontroversial that great scholars in any discipline often have illuminating intuitions regarding questions in that discipline that they might have never previously considered. A discipline is like a language: fluent speakers get it. This is certainly true of halacha. With regard to questions of halacha, the instincts of a great posek might very well have greater value than the reasoned arguments of a lesser scholar. Moreover, I know a number of poskim – each of whom combines well-developed ethical instincts and keen intelligence with thorough mastery of halacha – whom I have every reason to trust with regard to personal and/or ethical issues that might not have a clear halachic component.

Nevertheless, all the above falls considerably short of the claim that every “gadol” is endowed with well-developed ethical instincts and keen intelligence. Obviously, we can ensure the truth of this claim by (sensibly) restricting the definition of “gadol” to those who possess these qualities. But, here I wish to address those who promote this claim as an observable empirical claim and not a mere tautology. Let me not beat around the bush: by almost any contemporary definition of who is a gadol – having many talmidim, publishing many seforim, being consulted by legions of devotees, signing charamos, having every mention of your name sandwiched by HRH”G and SHLIT”A, dressing the part, having your picture on gedolim cards, belonging to some moetzes, being nin vaneched to one of the all-time greats – the claim is simply false. (I’m stopping here rather abruptly for fear of saying things I’ll regret.)

With regard to the second claim, namely, that Jews have always consulted Rabbis with personal non-halachic questions, well, there have been lots of Jews and lots of times, so go know. But one thing I do know is that we must take care not to conflate two distinct phenomena. (1)There are times when a Jew committed to halacha seeks a ruling from a posek and regards himself bound by this ruling. (2) And there are times when a Jew in distress or in a quandary seeks a word of encouragement (or of warning) from a rov whose advice is meaningful to him. This meaningfulness might be rooted in the rov’s personal charisma or the sense of empathy he exudes, or it might be the result of abiding family loyalties over generations.

The second phenomenon has nothing to do with what is sometimes called daas torah. It reflects an emotional bond, not a cold assessment of the rov’s intellect or even the quality of his advice. Earnest attempts by latter-day observers to place such bonds in the framework of daas torah – with all the attendant assumptions about the constitutive nature of the relationship – reminds me of an old joke.

A woman comes to the Rebbe and says “I have a terrible problem. My husband spends the whole day davening, saying tehillim and doing mitzvos.” The Rebbe says, “So, what’s so terrible? I do that too.” And she answers, “Ober der ferd meint es oif ernst.”


Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

I am afraid that for ignoramuses like myself who don't understand
Yiddish, your joke's punch line is completely lost.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

It means "But the idiot (literally, horse) takes it seriously".

7:11 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Shalom javer.

I am the publisher of Herut, blog in spanish. I invite you to visit Herut and to leaving your commentaries. Excuse me, but my English is very bad. The direction is:

8:31 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Ultimately it boils down to a question of balance. In response to the modern trend to cynically dismiss religious figures as quacks and cavalierly reject their authority, the frum world has moved to the opposite extreme, investing great rabbis with absolute authority. Some happy medium has to be found, whereby we give reverence to our rabbinic leaders while acknowledging their limitations.

7:03 PM  

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