Daas Torah – Modern Discussions

In our exploration of the role of the laity in psak, and that the balance of authority and autonomy in the Halachic system, I spent a shiur (here) exploring modern positions on Daas Torah.

In many ways, the different positions that are offered as to what Daas Torah is and to what extent it exists and is binding map onto the positions presented with regards to Lo Tasur. Of course, as we noted, the very notion that Lo Tasur/Rabbinic power extends to mundane or political matters is not obvious. Thus, it is important to keep in mind the topic of Lo Tasur generally as we attempt to map out the positions about Daas Torah.

R. Dessler is the most emphatic that Lo Tasur includes rabbinic authority over non-Halachic issues. He also asserts (as many did by Lo Tasur) that their authority is derived from the fact that they are infallible. The Chofetz Chaim actually says that there authority is so great in non-Halachic issues because they only involve themselves in Torah. Thus, as they are totally pure, without any external influences, they are granted special abilities to weigh in on all issues. It their non-involvement in the mundane world that gives them authority over it.

Others, however, while granting rabbis authority over non-Halachic issues, do not claim that rabbis are infallible. Rather, as we saw by some Rishonim in the context of Lo Tasur, they assert that we follow the rabbis because they are the best option – knowing that they, like all people, will make mistakes.

Many Modern Orthodox thinkers, Lawrence Kaplan probably being the most forceful, simply reject the notion that rabbinic authority extends beyond Halacha (and Hashkafa?). From the narrow topic of Lo Tasur, this is very likely correct.

However, other Modern Orthodox thinkers, while rejecting the notion Daas Torah in the way R. Dessler and others present it, do argue that rabbis should have some authority in non-Halachic matters. R. Klapper likes summarizing this as follows – the Charedi community thinks its Gedolim should not be involved in the world, and yet think they have authority in politics. It is ironic, however, for Modern Orthodox people to believe their rabbis should be worldly, and then say they have no right to speak about worldly issues. Do we not believe that Torah has something important to say about value laden questions? If we have leaders who both understand the world and Torah, shouldn’t we at least take their opinions seriously on worldly issues?

This is the starting point for R. Lichtenstein – he argues that it is obvious that if rabbis understand the realia – they should have some level of authority in pointing out proper political directions. Torah is not limited to narrow halachic issues, so neither should Torah scholars. Of course, the authority is not the same as the authority they have in Halachic issues. Furthermore, I would argue that we can suggest that rabbis can often offer direction as to what issues should be considered when making a political decisions, without actually claiming to know which political decision will best further the Torah’s goals. R. Carmy argues, I think compellingly, that the Rav had a view that went in this direction as well.

[I spoke above mostly about political issues. I think in truly mundane issues, the famous position of the Baal HaTanya – that rabbis just have no reason to be involved – is correct. There are positions that seem to argue, but I don’t really understand the logic behind it – so I cannot discuss it coherently.]

One other issue that arises is the questions of Emunat Chachamim. This may have nothing to do with our issue – as it may mean that we should have faith like the Chachamim do. However, if it does mean that we should have faith in the sages, it still can be taken in different ways. People who believe in a robust notion of Daas Torah often argue that Emunat Chachamim is synonymous with Daas Torah. However, the Siridei Esh, and in this he is followed by R. Nachum Rabinovitch, argue that the opposite may be true. The Siridei Esh notes that the same Beraita that says one needs Emunat Chachamim to be Koneh Torah, also says you need Pilpul HaTalmidim – i.e. independent thought by students – something that seems to be in tension with acceptance of authority. He argues that Emunat Chachamim does not mean blind acceptance, but rather respect and the belief that scholars have something important to say. If you start with that assumption, then whenever you are faced with something that seems wrong, you will expend mental energy to figure out what it means and how it might make sense. Sometimes, you will agree. Sometimes, you will understand where they are coming from, even if you don’t agree (my addition). Either way, Emunat Chachamim for him is specifically not meant to encourage blind acceptance – but rather a well thought out critical approach to authority. At any rate, this issue is one that is always quite heated in modern discussions, but I just wanted to present a range of positions to help clarify the issue.

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