Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Hubris of Daas Torah

“The concept of Daas Torah is firmly rooted in the recognition that Hashem ‘looked into the torah and created the universe’ (Breishis Rabbah 1:1). The torah provides history’s agenda, past, present and future, and encompass the world’s every secret. Those who have merited to acquire Torah thus possess the best credentials for effectively addressing the world’s problems, and those who doubt the Torah leader’s ability to ‘understand politics’ thereby redefine the meaning of Judaism.”

This comment presumably self explanatory wouldn’t have been so stunningly audacious, had it been said by a naïve yeshiva bachur or a disillusioned kollelnick. Unfortunately, this was written years ago by the late Rabbi Sherer of Agudas Israel as part of an article entitled Torah in the Proper Place, which I stumbled over while researching the theme of authority and dissent in Jewish tradition.

Daas Torah, a term of fairly recent origin, is understood to mean that through intense Torah study and the rigorous practice of the mitzvoth, one will have a greater understanding of God’s will. Daas Torah can be a compelling ethos for people in search of guidance, when they voluntarily seek it out. However, when dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated as in Rabbi Sherer’s vision and description of Judaism and the stature of the gedolim, than we have the makings of a cult, controlling people through peer pressure and charismatic leadership. Sherer says in the same article that “it is the responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the fact that our gedolim are the foremost experts not only in matters of Jewish law, but in social and political issues as well.”

As a side bar, it should be noted that in Europe, prior to the modern period, lay leaders functioned under the general guidance of rabbinic leadership in areas relating to social and political issues. However, then lay leaders weren’t educated. The rabbis weren’t understood to be infallible, but were viewed as default leaders. With the rise of modernity, the positions of authority in areas outside of religion were challenged by those with education and expertise.

The gedolim spend their lives immersed in Torah study. They do not study systematically the advanced sciences, political and social theory, philosophy or mathematics. Thus, it would appear that their scope is limited to what they know best – Torah. To place them in a position of authority beyond that narrowly defined area is dangerous and irresponsible, because they can negatively impact on those who place all their trust in them. Prior to World War II, when the Gedolim in Eastern Europe had a virtual monopoly on the hearts and minds of its adherents, they in a sense became inadvertent enablers of the anti-semites seeking to destroy Jewry. A case in point was the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi, I. Rocheach., who forbade his Chassidim from departing Europe to America or Palestine.. There is a documented case of one of his shamashim, who defied his P’sak and left for Palestine in 1937. This shamash confided to me, how he begged his Rebbe for a Heter, but was answered in the negative. And so it was with many of the gedolim (with the exclusion of the Gerrer Rebbe) at that time. A Heter couldn’t be given, wouldn’t be given to allow a member of the community to emigrate to the godless America or to Palestine run by atheistic Zionists. Daas Torah, at the time subscribed to the dictum Shev V’al Ta’aseh - remain in Europe. Interestingly, in 1944, the very same Belzer rebbe who forbade his Chassidim to leave Europe for America or Palestine was smuggled out of Europe and brought to the safety of Palestine where he reestablished the Belzer dynasty years later. So much for their political saavy.

The gedolim claim to have enormous expertise in the area of social/economic issues as well. As things have evolved in the haredi community in the United States and Israel a growing number of B’nei Torah can barely eek out a living. Instead of learning skills or acquiring professions they spend their youth in yeshivot and kollelim which can’t give them any marketable skills. In most cases they couldn’t even be effective rebaim because they haven’t studied and mastered pedagogical skills. In the past these b’nei torah sought out shiduchim that had an economic incentive. Either the brides family was wealthy or they owned a business into which he could be integrated. However as their proliferation grows exponentially, there are fewer shiduchim available that carry an economic incentive. “There are only so many to go around”, as the song goes. The days of the corner grocery store are over where the wife ran the cash register and the ben torah sat in the back learning another blot. In effect, the gedolim and their nuanced Daas Torah has created a generation of b’nei torah on the poverty level, who in turn will be raising a generation subscribing to the same values put forward through Daas Torah and thus remaining in the cycle of poverty. Being a member of this new underclass has given rise to a new phenomenon: pride in receiving welfare because this enables the ben torah to continue the study of Torah. Values once revered have been trashed, Jewish pride and culture demeaned, standards lowered, spousal abuse, drugs and the loss of shalom bayis, the foundation of the Jewish life.

An additional by-product of Daas Torah is the cultural shift of the kollelnik. There was a time, not long ago, when a promising and talented yeshiva student was encouraged to join a kollel. Many of these kollel students attended college at night and graduated on to law schools, medical schools or pursued other professional degrees. There was nobility in this. Those times are over. Torah U’madah doesn’t mix. As amatter of fact, it is discouraged. As a result, and due to their inability to compete in the new economic paradigm there is no place to go. As a result there is a proliferation of kollels, most of which are substandard institutions but serve a nobel purpose – a place to warehouse a growing number of “déclassé” Jews.

The hubris, in espousing the kind of Daas Torah described above, oddly enough, is responsible for the state of the haredi community. They were so preoccupied and obsessed with opposing the haskalah and its institutions that they threw out the baby with the bath water. The popular refrain of Rabbi Sofer (a late 19th century Godol) was Chadash - Asur Min Hatorah. Why hadn’t the Gedolim encouraged their students to study Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed? In the introduction, writing to his pupil, Joseph Ibn Aknim, Maimonides underscores the absolute necessity of mastering astronomy (science), mathematics and logic, in order that the student will gain the skills of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is anathema to Daas Torah. They seek to undervalue individual rights, independent thinking, and the ability to make an informed and intelligent decision. Daas Torah doesn’t allow for dissent. It is noble for a faith based Jew to consult with his spiritual mentor for guidance always with the option for accepting or rejecting that advice. Daas Torah, however, seeks to control the individual and thus the community, molding it into its own image, squashing dissent and undermining free will by manipulating peer pressure in order to insinuate its singular control and presence.