Between Matan Torah and Da’at Torah

Next week, we will commemorate the shloshim of Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovich zt”l, one of the giants of our generation. As we approach Shavuot, I wish to consider the validity of Da’at Torah through the prism of his unique approach, which I discuss at length in my new book “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge –A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”.

Soon after Matan Torah, G-d commanded the Jewish people to follow the words of the majority of the rabbis and obey their authority: “You shall neither follow the majority to do evil, you shall not pervert justice in a dispute; follow after the majority.” (Shemot 23:2) There are different opinions as to whether this rule still applies after the dissolution of the Sanhedrin, but the dispersion of the Jewish community at that time made it technically impossible to count the majority anyway. However, the need to transmit the voice of the majority of the rabbis never ceased to exist, and throughout the generations there have been attempts to find ways to continue that tradition.  

The expression Da’at Torah in its modern context became common in the second half of the 19th century, referring to the opinion of the rabbinical leadership being understood to represent the living words of G-d. This was a reaction to the many social transformations that severely threatened the Orthodox community at this time, such as the increase of secularization and modernization that came with the Enlightenment and the growth of the Reform Movement. These social and religious changes created many ‘cracks’ in the walls of the Torah, driving the rabbinical leadership to build a collective framework to strengthen the status of the Torah and Halakhah in their communities. In addition, the support of some major European rabbis for the Zionist movement encouraged other rabbis who opposed it to separate themselves. They established their status as having Da’at Torah, so their opinion must be followed instead of the other rabbis whose views did not represent Da’at Torah.

The rationale behind the idea of Da’at Torah is the simple belief that the solutions to all of the world’s ailments are found in the Torah.  Only the greatest Torah scholars, who are able to be objective and without personal biases, can reveal this absolute Truth – the Divine will – to the world. The Chafetz Chaim expressed this idea as follows:

“Someone who has Da’at Torah can solve any problem in the world in general and [also] specific cases. However, that is under the condition that his Da’at Torah is entirely pure without any bias. However, if you meet a person who has Da’at Torah but this is mixed with even a small amount of other knowledge, from the marketplace or the newspapers, then his Da’at Torah is muddled, mixed with dross, and unable to fully understand the matter.” (Likkutei Chafetz Chayim p. 30) 

According to the Chafetz Chayim, the lack of academic knowledge is actually an advantage for Torah scholars, because it frees them of any considerations that are outside the scope of the Torah and makes them ‘objective’. According to this approach, a rabbi who achieves the level of Da’at Torah essentially becomes an angel, as the Chazon Ish wrote:

“One who merits to know the Torah walks among people; they think that he is a person, but in truth he is an angel.” (Iggerot Chazon Ish 1:13)

However, like every new phenomenon, it has its downsides.  Da’at Torah is often misused to reject the views of rabbis with a differing ideology, with the claim that their opinion is not valid because they are in some way  lesser rabbis. For example, Da’at Torah  was used as a tool to invalidate other opinions in religious-political disputes regarding the establishment of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. 

Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitz claimed that the use of Da’at Torah in order to create blind faith on public matters is actually the very opposite of Emunat Chakhamim – faith in our sages. Rather, faith in the rabbis is meant to deepen and strengthen discourse in the rabbinic world, and not to silence the opinions of rabbis with different worldviews by claiming they are not great enough to voice their opinions. He wrote:

Emunat Chakhamim is not meant to prevent disputes that are the result of different worldviews and different evaluations of the various considerations. Emunat Chakhamim demands a serious attitude toward all of the rabbis, along with a sincere attempt to understand them. This requires great effort in studying Torah and developing clear Halakhic thinking skills. And if ultimately there is a need to discern between different approaches, Emunat Chakhamim places a great responsibility on the person making the decision to act in accordance with the truth as he is capable of recognizing it . . .

True Emunat Chakhamim demands deep analysis in order to find the reasoning of the rabbis’ words, and at the same time, places responsibility on the learner or questioner to engage in meticulous criticism, to examine whether there is room to disagree. It is obvious that there are reasons behind their decisions, but whether or not these should be followed as practical Halakhah still needs to be clarified . . .

Lately, there are those who use the concept of Emunat Chakhamim in a completely different way, in a way that the Sages did not speak of at all, as if the rabbis have prophetic authority regarding non-halakhic matters as well . . . There are those who term this childish behavior Emunat Chakhamim but this is nothing less than the distortion of a great principle, and rather than acquiring true Torah the people who cling to this distorted Emunat Chakhamim distance themselves from the light of Torah and ultimately do not know the difference between their right and their left.” (Darkah Shel Torah, p. 210) 

Da’at Torah does not demand blind obedience to rabbinic leaders. Instead, it demands that we engage in critical thinking and take responsibility for our actions.  When I quoted Rabbi Rabinovich in my book he was still alive. I’m rewriting these words now with tears in my eyes, as this courageous voice of sense and authenticity is no longer with us. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen some positive examples of the use of Da’at Torah, and also some poor applications. As a relatively new member of the Rabbinical Council of America, I have been very inspired by the courageous and sensitive Halakhic leadership of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig and felt safe in their hands. The American rabbinic leadership has taken the approach that, in order to win the fight against the Coronavirus, it is not enough to be compliant with the instructions of the authorities, but we should be proactive in reducing any possible risk and preventing any form of social gathering. We have seen similar voices in Israel to, including Rabbi Osher Weiss’ call to stop all rogue minyanim. 

At the same time, we have seen unfortunate instances of the abuse of the name of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky by some Haredi activists, who have promulgated his Da’at Torah in a manipulative way. They have presented a distorted picture of Rabbi Kanievsky by misrepresenting his one-word statement that yeshivot and shuls should not be closed, when it is unlikely that he understood what he was being asked. The chaos that we saw in Israel’s Haredi neighborhoods was partly due to the manipulations of rabbinic authority by these politicians, and sadly many lives were lost as a result.

My words are not intended, God forbid, to criticize Rabbi Kanievsky, who was almost certainly not aware of this manipulation. Rather I wish to point out the dangerous power of some Haredi politicians, who took advantage of his situation to push their own dangerous agenda, that has not only endangered the Haredi community but also damaged the reputation of its true leaders.

When we come to look back on the COVID-19 era, it will be interesting to see whether the concepts of Da’at Torah or Emunat Chakhamim and their observance in the Haredi community will have been changed in any way by these events. I personally hope that people will be wary of blind obedience to Da’at Torah, which often has more to do with politics than with Torah.

With all the uncertainty in the air surrounding the implications of the global Coronavirus crisis, one thing is very clear: the courageous voice of Rabbi Rabinovich will be sorely missed. 

May we all soon emerge in good health and with greater wisdom from this ordeal.

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