Today’s Daas Torah

Here’s a theory that I developed recently [when this was posted in its first, much shorter, version on 26-Nov-04]…

The gemara uses the term “da’as Torah” in a sense totally different than today’s usage. It appears once, in Chullin 90b, to ask whether a cited opinion on a halachic matter was from sources, which it calls “da’as Torah“, or whether it is the tanna‘s own conclusion, da’as atzmo. Orthodoxy requires giving rabbis authority on halachic questions. And it’s not overly novel to say that such authority doesn’t come from just formal knowledge, but also having a feel for the material and perspective caused by long exposure to Torah. Otherwise, someone with a good CD should be able to out-pasqen a learned rav who relies on his own memory. But it’s ironic that we call this feel “da’as Torah“, since it is an instance of what the gemara identified in contrast to da’as Torah.

It is also not overly controversial to extend this authority to Torah questions that aren’t halachic, such as questions of philosophy or identifying appropriate areas for going lifnim mishuras hadin (beyond the letter of the law).

Where da’as Torah as meant by the contemporary usage hits shakier ground is when it’s extended in the other direction: pragmatic questions where the unknowns revolve around the facts on the ground rather than the Torah issues. Such as most career or shidduch questions. After all, the gemara advises the rabbinate to leave military questions to the generals. Should we not leave medical ones to the doctors, career questions to career counselors — or at least people who work in the jobs in question?

The extension of da’as Torah from the Talmudic usage is first found in R’ Yisra’el Salanter’s Or Yisra’el. In Mussar, it’s about the role of Torah in personal development. Yes, his formulation justified approaching the rav on non-halachic issues by noting that every decision has impact on which life experiences one has, and in turn on one’s mussar growth. Someone who chooses to consult a rav who knows their personality and in which ways they’re trying to grow, could use the insight.

However, robbed of the connection to Mussar, the original motivation is gone and the term has a totally knew meaning. What’s called “da’as Torah” today often involves approaching a gadol who doesn’t know the asker well enough to give such mashgi’ach-style help. Or even if one’s own rosh yeshivah, it could be done even years after their daily contact. Not at all what Rav Yisra’el was describing.

Rav Yisra’el does ascribe importance to the effect of Torah on shaping the thought of the one who learns it. If I may add, the word da’as is not merely zikaron (memory), but knowledge that both comes from chokhmah and binah, but is also at times replaced by the sefirah of keser which is their cause. Knowledge that comes from thought, and shapes thought.

The current conceptualization of da’as Torah relies entirely on this notion, which Rav Yisra’el cited as buttress for why one should seek about Mussar advice. Without it being about Mussar advice, and fitting in one’s plan to shteig, to ascend the ladder, da’as Torah is a totally new invention.

Yes, da’as Torah should give the rav better ability to analyze questions than the asker, or anyone else whose mind lacks that Torah development. However, does that ability compensate for not having as many of the facts about which to reason — including the da’as (if I may use my own conceit) of the topic at hand? My personal opinion is, rarely. HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein makes this point far more scathingly in a talk to Yeshivat Har Etzion titled “אם דעת אין, מנהיגות מנין?”, available in Hebrew here, and in unauthorized translation by Joseph Faith titled “If There Is No ‘Da’at,’ How Can We Have Leadership?”, here.

So we’re discussing rabbinic authority in three different domains:

  • Pesaq halakhah, where (barring grievous errors discernible to all, mistakes in zil q’ri bei Rav) it is binding.
  • Spiritual guidance, as proposed by Rav Yisrael Salanter. The advice is certainly of value, (not being legal) is not binding.
  • Guidance where the primary question involves unknowns about the logistics of the situation. That if we understood what was involved better, the religious dictates would be obvious.

There is obvious gray area, in fact, I identified a minimum of two:

  1. The line between what is a bad idea in terms of values and what is halachically prohibited is complex. In his famous commentary on “you shall be holy“, the Ramban coins the phrase “menuval bireshus haTorah — disgusting but with the permission of the Torah”, and tells us it is prohibited. But if it’s prohibited, how is it “bireshus haTorah“? His point, following the Toras Kohanim before him, is that not everything that which is permitted by the Torah’s black-letter law is actually permissible in practice. For each person to know when and how to follow the obligation to go lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the black-letter law, is in a way halachic, and in a way aggadic.
  2. When we do not know all the facts of a situation and have to work only with probabilities, we are doing risk assessment. Risk is a combination of both the odds, and the gains or costs if the situation comes to pass — probability and religious merit merged into one. Knowing which risks are halachicly acceptable, and which long-shot opportunities we are allowed to ignore is itself a religious assessment.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel of America’s spokesman, described the mechanism of da’as Torah in the terms I described above in an article in the the New York Jewish Week:

Da’at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters. What Da’at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews – just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice.

I would have thought that this yeshivish conception is to be distinguished from the chassidic belief in the ru’ach haqodesh (holy inspiration) Hashem grants tzadiqim, so that their decisions even in non-Torah matters is of value. One is about the quality of mind, the other about Divine Aid given people who carry their kehillos‘ burdens. There it’s from Hashem, the rebbe‘s own knowledge is irrelevant so this objection wouldn’t apply. One either believes the help is granted freely, or less so. However, here is how Rabbi Bernard Weinberger describes da’as Torah back in the second issue of Jewish Observer (1963). To him, da’as Torah is:

a lot more than Torah weltanschauung or a Torah saturated perspective. It assumes a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they ‘really’ are, and apply pertinent Halachic principles. It is a form of ‘Ruach HaKodesh,’ as it were, which borders if not remotely on the periphery of prophecy.

(According to the Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed 3:36, one might be justified in identifying the two. Prophecy is a natural faculty of an intellect developed enough to receive it. But then, today’s da’as Torah has come out against learning the Guide… ☺)

But even among Chassidim, the near-prophetic version of trust in rabbeim was originally resisted. Here is the Tanya’s description, from Igeres haQodesh #22 (notice the contrast between the close of this quote to the last words I quoted from Rabbi Weinberger):

Has such a thing ever happened in days past? Where indeed have you found such a custom in any of the books of the early or latter sages of Israel, that it should be the custom and established norm to ask for advice in mundane matters, as to what one ought to do in matters of the physical world?

[Such questions were not asked] even of the greatest of the former sages of Israel, such as the tannaim and amoraim, the authors of the Mishnah and the Gemara, “from whom no secret was hidden,” and “for whom all the paths of heaven were clearly illuminated,” but only of actual prophets who used to live among the Jewish people, such as Samuel the Seer to whom Saul went to inquire of G-d through him about the donkeys that his father had lost.

Why, indeed, were sages of stature such as the tannaim and amoraim not asked about mundane matters? For in fact all matters pertaining to man, except for words of Torah and the fear of heaven, are apprehended only by prophecy.

The other issue that is different than R’ Yisra’el’s original formulation is a shift to an all-or-nothing. Something “the gedolim” have that the rest of us lack. Rather, it ought to be relative. Whomever learned more Torah should be more shaped by it; whomever less, less. This artificial division into have and have-not has returned back to affect the core of Torah questions, halakhah. The local shul rav lost most of his authority, both in his mispallelim‘s eyes and in his own, as he’s from the have-not class. Many local rabbanim are merely conduits, forwarding all but the most trivial questions to their rashei yeshiva.

By making such a class, “the gedolim“, as opposed to speaking of relative greatness, the community is subtly guided toward believing that da’as Torah is monolithic. And with a bit of unconscious circular reasoning, this is made true. The definition of da’as Torah is made to be the conclusion of the gedolim and the definition of who is a gadol is restricted by who agrees with the accepted answer.

This is so well accepted that authors and publishers can not put out histories that disprove such unity of thought. If it’s told that the Netziv read the newspaper on Shabbos, or allowed secular studied in Vilozhin, or that fellows in Salbodka argued issues like Communism, Freud, or the other hot topics of their time, the hoi polloi will question the rav‘s greatness, which raises problems of shemiras halashon. Even when from an unimpeachable source, like the Torah Temimah or R’ Noson Kamenetzky. It’s not a judgment of fiction, but of inappropriate truth.

There is another way in which absolutism is turning today’s da’as Torah into something new. Hyperbolic retoric has pronouncements of da’as Torah introduced as pesaq. For example, a poseiq told an audience of tens of thousands that he pasqened that non-business use of the internet was assur. But then days later spoke about the need for filters in the home. Relative authority between halachic pesaq and aggadic guidance is gone, and the masses increasingly think both are legally binding.

Without the core notion of having a Mussar plan, one can’t transplant the notions that depend upon it. Such drastic transvaluation of terms is inevitable. Having a moreh derekh, a mentor providing religious guidance in the areas beyond black-letter halakhah is one thing. Abdicating difficult decisions, perhaps to a gadol who can’t know you or the side-effects of his advice due to you life situation, and then saying the answer is a pesaq that must be followed, is something new entirely.

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  1. “After all, the gemara advises the rabbinate to leave military questions to the generals.”

    where is the source of this?
    Thank You

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