Da’as Torah: What It Is and What It’s Not

Rabbi Maryles has a recent post where he calls into question the legitimacy of the Haredi view of “Daas Torah”. His understanding is that Haredim view their rabbis as infallible and he wonders how that can be so, given that they have clearly erred in the past. He cites personal experiences in which rabbis based their advice on the erroneous circumstances presented to them and therefore cannot accept that their rulings must be correct, considering that they may be based on subjective and biased information.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is reported to have once told an atheist that “the G-d you don’t believe in I don’t believe in either”. In that vein, the “Daas Torah” that Harry rejects, Haredim reject as well. That rabbis can err? Of course, Moshe Rabbeinu erred! That they rule based on the information they receive, which is often incomplete and inaccurate? That’s not news either. Daas Torah, to the Haredi Jew means something else entirely.

Let us step back for a moment to lay the groundwork for this topic. There are two aspects to Daas Torah: 1) How Haredim relate to those we believe possess it. 2) How Haredim relate to the guidance and direction of Daas Torah. [An important caveat: the following does not apply to every person who carries the title of Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva or Rav in Haredi circles. It applies to exceptional individuals, few and far between, who are recognized as Gedolei Yisroel possessing Daas Torah. How that determination is achieved is a subject for another day.]

The Haredi Relationship To Gedolei Yisroel.

Haredim relate to Gedolim with the utmost respect, reverence, love and awe. This approach is nothing new. It’s source hearkens back to the Talmud and continues forward through the codes and responsa. It was Chazal who taught us that “The fear of your teacher should be as the fear of G-d”, That “one cannot cleave to the consuming fire of G-d’s presence and should therefore cling to Sages and their students”. It is Chazal who require us to help our Rabbis before our parents, being that our debt of gratitude is greater to them. The sources are numerous and varied, practiced and perfected by all streams of Torah Jewry throughout the millennia.

How Haredim relate to the guidance and direction of Daas Torah

Now we get to the burr in many an Haredi critics’ saddle. Contrary to persistent myth, Haredim do not believe their rabbis to be infallible, not even the greatest. We are not part of the Catholic Church and our rabbis are not popes. We also do not believe that we may not harbor opinions of our own, both before and after Daas Torah has spoken.

What we do believe is that it is our obligation to subordinate our personal opinions, beliefs and desires to the guidance and dictates of Gedolei Yisroel, even when we KNOW they are wrong. This is our tradition and there are many sources for it. An early source is the Midrash (beginning of Ruth) which chastises the Jews of the time for “Judging their Judges” even while admitting that their Judges were worthy of their criticism!

This approach is explained in great detail in the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 496). He explicitly enjoins us that we ought listen to our leaders in every generation , even when they are mistaken. Why? “To prevent the destruction of our faith and nation entirely” (paraphrased, see his enlightening words in their entirety. He makes it clear that he is elaborating on the spirit of the law, although some understand his words as relating to the letter of the law as well (Lo Sosur).)

To the Haredi Jew, a Gadol is akin to the captain of a Navy ship. As commander, he is the ultimate arbiter of behavior aboard his vessel, his word law, his order sacrosanct. Prior to issuing a decision, he may consult subordinates, choose to hear opposing views or accept lobbying on the behalf of one position or another. But once the die has been cast and the order given, it must be completely and totally obeyed, even if it is unquestionably wrong. Anything less is mutiny, often punishable in the most severe manner. And it must be so. Were a captain’s order subject to dissent, he would no longer be captain, his crew would die a death of a thousand opinions and chaos would reign. There is always recourse to appeal to the captain to reconsider, but so long that he doesn’t, his decision stands as is.

However, the captain analogy only goes so far. Although the captain may have risen to his high rank due to many years of hard work and commitment and while he may exhibit great leadership qualities and sterling character traits, his decisions are the product of a frail human mind. Gedolei Yisroel on the other hand, are believed to posses an additional dimension, an aspect of Divine guidance absent from normal human consciousness.

Once again, we turn to the Sages of the Ages, Chazal. R” Meir is one of the first to highlight this phenomenon stating that one “who learns Torah for it’s own sake, is privileged to receive”, among many other things, the ability to help others with “advice and salvation” (nehenen mimenu eitzah vetoshiyah). Granted the ability to peek behind the curtain of Heaven, Chazal tell us that “A Tzaddik can decree and G-d will fulfill, while G-d can decree and a Tzaddik can nullify”. They urge us to avail ourselves of the prayers of a Chochom  when there is a sick person in our households r”l, because those prayers have special potency.

As with all matters spiritual, indeed matters temporal as well, the abilities and limitations,  freedom and constraints, indeed the very nature of this Divine gift is hazy and unclear. But it exists and is possessed by the bnei aliyah (men of stature) G-d has bestowed upon each and every generation. (Yoma 38b.)

It is with all of the above in mind that Haredim approach our Gedolim. As with leaders of any substantive entity,  the questions that make it to the top are the ones not easily decided, often the ones with opposing views of equal legitimacy. We bring these dilemmas and complexities to them knowing that they are human, and therefore endeavor to equip them with whatever we can to aid their decision making process. Nothing less than the Urim Vetumim itself filtered its response through the prism of the question it was asked (see pilegesh bigivah), we would be foolish not to take that into account.

Gedolim, for their part, do not seek to “rule the peasantry” from on high. Most of their decisions are a result of extensive research and consultation with all manners of experts, advisers and laymen. At some point, however, deliberations must conclude and a decision reached. Constant “inner struggle” may work for academics and writers but the real world demands that one side be chosen, often reduced to the lesser of two evils.

It is at that point that “Daas Torah” comes into being. Whatever we thought, think and will think now plays second fiddle to our duty to adhere to the Divinely-inspired guidance we have been given. Even when said guidance leads to less than desirable results, we are comforted by the dictum of Chazal, “Stiras Zekeinim Binyan” (The destruction of the Elders is in itself an act of building). It is only through the acceptance of the supremacy of our Sages and leaders that the ship of Judaism has survived the rough waters of exile and Haredim are honored to continue this hallowed tradition.

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16 thoughts on “Da’as Torah: What It Is and What It’s Not

  1. The cricitism of “Daas Torah” isn’t of the classic understanding of the term. It’s critcism of: The Gadol said it so it must be true because he has “Daas Torah”.
    Or the following interchange:
    Chareidi: Of course Gedolim can err.
    Non-Chareidi: So did your Gadol make a mistake?
    Chareidi: Chas v’shalom that you should think that!
    No one has a problem with saying that a man who spends his every waking moment for decades learning Torah isn’t a wellspring of wisdom and information that should be heeded in Torah matters. People do question how learning Torah entitles one to give political opinions or to speak on other subjects unrelated to Torah.
    Finally, people criticize how “Daas Torah” is used as a trump card in a losing argument. To wit:
    Chareidi: “x” is forbidden.
    Non-Chareidi: But authorities A, B, C etc all say it’s muttar.
    Chareidi: “Daas Torah” says it isn’t so they don’t matter.

          • No, the Titanic was the result of stupidity. The captain, at the demand of his employers, sailed the ship far too fast through waters far too northerly leading to the encounter with the iceberg. None of the crew protested because of their sense of loyalty even though they knew he was taking a chance with their lives.
            Or in Yeshivish, the Gadol, at the demand of his handlers, continued to insist on policies that didn’t work for many of his followers. None of the askanim protested because of their sense of loyalty even though they knew he was taking a chance with their religious lives.

            • No gadol (except for an elderly or sick one) is led by handlers. It’s a media myth you’ve bought into hook line and sinker. Can you provide any evidence of this? Ah “If not how come these silly decisions”. Break out the circular reasoning.

              Garnel, I’d think you’d be able to differentiate between what truly goes on by us as opposed to what the media says about us. We’re the Israel of the jewish world. Look at news reports about Haredim as you do news reports about Israelis.

  2. Very good…
    Let me offer a partial defence for you against your critics… Rav avigdor miller was told to know the new.t and koran by his rabbanim in lita in order to save those trapped there… Perhaps you also…

  3. Didn’t the haredi gedolim say that Internet is assur? How can one be haredi and continue to post blogs on the Internet? Is Daas Torah only true when it is convienient?

  4. I think this is a good presentation of one view of Gedolim erring. See Rav Dessler discussing the Holocaust which seems to imply that even when it seems they were wrong, they weren’t really and we can’t understand, like Mordechai looking wrong at his time.

  5. I have a question. Hundreds of short videos showing major rabbis at simchas, conducting a tisch and giving speeches are available on the internet. Rebbe.com is an example. http://www.rebbeclips.com/sites like Rebbe.com. It is impossible not to know the event is being videoed and posted on the internet. Many are quite short, a minute or two, and hardly suitable for a movie theater. Is it the intent of the charedi gedolim to stop all this, or are they pleased that these events are being shown to the larger public? Will this practice continue? Also will those defending the charedi world, not just you but Agudah spokespersons and the like continue to post articles on the internet?

    • I can tell you that the video clips and the like are unauthorized. There is no way to stop someone who takes a video and then uploads it on youtube.

      As for the rest, it depends. If it is essential that it be on the internet then it would fall under the business category. Otherwise, i presume it won’t be.

      • “essential on the Internet”

        Please elaborate. It would be helpful to know when it is not assur to be on the Internet. It would help me with my guilt and shame of having been on the Internet ( and I have even posted on blogs) even after the rabbanim said that it is completely assur. Perhaps even my viewings and postings are essential. I must have missed the part when they listed the exceptions that fall under the bidi’eved business. When else is it essential?

      • Perhaps the hundreds and thousands of people at these events might ask the guy with the video camera to leave, and if he refuses call the police. Are you telling me if the Satmar Rav did not want his tisch videoed, the gigantic crowd could not handle one man with a camera?

        On another note, are the many charedi newspapers essential, and if yes, could you say what they are essential for. Are any blogs essential? Has there been a psak about this? I note that if a blogger is not essential he is pasul for edus, no less than any other user of the internet for things other than business. Wouldn’t you agree?.

  6. Navy captains can be removed if they are shown to be incompetent, make bad decisions that have severe repercussions, etc.

    On a separate note, why are you blogging, if it is forbidden for you? Unless, this is your livelihood? Blogging from work? An answer was promised, yet nothing has been forthcoming

    ??

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