July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Da’as-Torah—the idea that there is a “Torah view” on everything—has taken hold of the Orthodox world.  And how can it not?  If indeed the Torah, the revealed (and unrevealed?) word of God is all encompassing, all embracing, all comprehending, it then follows, ineluctably, that the Torah encompasses contemporary public-affairs as well.

There is no secret about my personal view of this phenomenon in American Jewish religious life, regnant in some circles: it’s an unhealthy phenomenon.

Da’as Torah,” the “Torah view,” was developed in the 19th century in some Eastern European Yeshivot (some historians maintain that it was in the twentieth century) as a panic response to the liberalization of Jewish life.  Now it is not at all obvious that there is a Da’as Torah—a “Torah view” that is decisive—for every development in Jewish life.  This idea that Talmud masters were to be unquestionably followed not just on ritual matters but on communal policy as well—or on anything, for that matter—has led to a situation in which yeshiva deans, often cloistered from the complexities of public life, were making the kinds of practical decisions and setting public policy, that for centuries had been in the hands of communal rabbis and lay leaders.  By the 1960s Da’as Torah had taken hold big time.  Da’as Torah is one of a number of dynamics that characterize the dropping out of an Orthodox “center,” and is of a piece with the revisionism of the teachings of rabbinic leadership over the past hundred years, including those of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Da’as Torah is, at bottom, a modern concept of rabbinic authority that asserts that every conceivable issue, be it historical, psychological, social, or public affairs, needs to be framed in a halakhic manner and has a halakhic solution.  Historically, Da’as Torah in all likelihood emerged  as a response—some suggest as a panic response—from late nineteenth-century Agudath Israel leadership, concerned about defending the interests of Orthodox Jewry in a challenging and often hostile modern environment.  The traditional Jewish community became more self-consciously “Orthodox.”

Let’s probe this a bit.  Today, Da’as Torah is a complicated matter. One of the better reviews of the Da’as Torah issue is Lawrence Kaplan’s Daas Torah:  A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority (Chapter 1 of Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, Moshe Sokol, ed., The Orthodox Forum Series, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992).

The term “Da’as Torah” does appear in early Rabbinic literature—Kitvei Chazal; but we find it used only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to designate a specific notion of rabbinic authority, the idea that (in the words of the Chofetz Chaim) “The person whose view is the view of Torah can solve all worldly problems.” (Haffetz Hayyim al ha-Torah. Ed. Rabbi S. Greineman (Nnei Broak, n.d.), 30.)

While today’s sectarian Jews—the haredim— trace the roots of their contemporary identity to the traditional form of Judaism practiced by their forebears, academics have taken an altogether different view. Most scholars of the Haredim regard today’s haredim as an essentially new phenomenon, one that evolved over the last two centuries as a reaction against the Haskala and the integration of Jews into Western society. For proof, they point to a series of beliefs and practices adopted by today’s haredim that developed, or became decidedly more pronounced, over the course of the past century. Most scholars conclude that these principles and behaviors have had the unintended effect of changing the very way of life they sought to preserve, and leading inadvertently to the creation of an entirely new community.

And where did the gedolim, the rabbinic leaders of the twentieth century, stand on Da’as Torah?  An exemplar is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

As is often the case, the Rov was in two places—but not at the same time (unusual for the Rov!).  In 1940, in one of his best-known addresses, a eulogy delivered at the second Agudath Israel of America conference for Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski—the great Rav Chaim Ozer of Vilna—Rav Soloveitchik articulated an eloquent expression of Da’as Torah.  Using as metaphor the artifacts of the High Priest, he asserted that halakhic scholarship and policy decisions on communal issues (“all current political questions”) needed to be united in one person.  The Rov did not use the term, but it is clear that he was talking about Da’as Torah.

His position took a 180-degree turn as result of the experience of World War Two.  At war’s end, it was clear that many of the gedolim, who had urged their flocks to wait out the storm—with disastrous results—were wrong.  “History is a posek,” said the Rov.  And indeed, through the post-war decades Rav Soloveitchik was consistent in his assertion that issue after issue—the Viet Nam war, for example—were not issues for p’sak, for halakhic decision-making. Rabbi Soloveitchik asserted, in effect, “Get the mumchim [the experts] in the field to guide us.  Poskim [decisors of halakha] should not interpose themselves in areas in which they have little expertise.”

It is not at all obvious that there is a Da’as Torah—a Torah view that is decisive—for every development in Jewish life.  Our analysis too often takes place at a very high level of generality, and is often the result of a wanton use of anachronism in search of political satisfaction.

Yeshivas, roshei-yeshiva, and yeshiva bochrim, take note!

By Jerome A. Chanes

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