Thursday 22 January 2015

048) Contemporary Daas Torah - Protecting Or Overstepping The Boundaries?

I am always happy to receive a (very occasional and rare) compliment, but I was completely bowled over when an ex-student called the other day to ask a question. He had just returned from yeshiva and in his latest and updated phraseology, asked what my ‘Daas Torah’ (Divinely inspired opinion) was, regarding the issue of attending a pro-Israel rally during the Sefira period.

Politics aside, I assured him that I certainly did not posses Daas Torah. And added that (in my view) I doubted whether anyone in this generation has the authority to unquestionably speak for G-d, or unreservedly represent His Torah. This doesn’t mean that (outside of pure Halacha), great scholars cannot hold views or opinions, it’s just that they need to remain firmly within the confines of views, opinions, interpretations and postulations. And not become binding, de-facto, on all the community (as would be the case with a Halachic ruling).

Yet, within contemporary Judaism, many would be surprised to discover just how widespread and popular the notion of Daas Torah actually is. It is even used extensively in religious Israeli politics to sway voters one way or another, with leaders claiming to be speaking with Daas Torah.[1]
The irony is that notwithstanding Yeridot HaDorot (the gradual spiritual decline of generations since Sinai), Daas Torah is possibly more popular today than ever before.

Technically, the expression Daas Torah refers to a scholar having divine inspiration, NOT specifically in Halachic matters, but particularly in affairs of the secular world, such as medicine, science and politics[2]. And strangely enough, the less he was exposed to secular studies the more ‘expert’ he is considered to be because of his ‘piety’. Now he no longer pronounces just on matters of Halacha, which should be his speciality, but he even advises on whether people should have operations, who should stand for elections, and whether people should move from one city to another.

We are led to believe that Daas Torah has always been the pivot around which the entire Torah world turned. The popular ArtScroll series on Tehillim says: “Many times the Sages describe natural phenomena with which they could not possibly have had a personal acquaintance. The Talmud explains their amazing knowledge with the verse, ‘The secret of Hashem is for...those who fear Him (Sod Hashem Liyereiav).”[3]

Historically, however, this occurrence did not really take place ‘many times’ as claimed. This type of event is only recorded three times in the entire Talmud (and insignificantly at that). There are only three instances where detailed knowledge of the physical was acquired through supernatural means. And even on those three occasions, Daas Torah or (Sod Hashem Liyereiav[4]) is only offered as an optional explanation among other more plausible suggestions. Furthermore, no claim is ever made by the individual himself as to acquiring his uncanny physical insights by supernatural means. All other recorded insights of such a nature, in the Talmud, are made as a result of study or physical observation with no claim of hidden access to Daas Torah.[5]

Following on these three recorded cases of possible divine intervention in acquiring secular knowledge, the vague concept of Daas Torah acquired more and more density in the post-Talmudic era through medieval times.  Some say the expression was used more as a figure of speech, expressing gratitude to Hashem, rather than claiming to be privy to divine knowledge. But it seems as if the ever developing Daas Torah concept was generally understood to be real, literal, and it was gaining momentum.

This evolution reached a radical crescendo with the emergence of the kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv[6] (1841-1925) who applied the Daas Torah concept not just to the secular realm but, unprecedentedly, to Halacha as well[7]. He also included in this category every single statement by the Sages[8], and turned Daas Torah into a prerequisite and mandatory belief. This view has, to a large extent, informed the opinion and belief of many today.

However, our generation has taken it a step forward by applying Daas Torah, not just to the sages of the Talmud, and not just to Halacha, but even to some of our present personalities. And unlike issues of Halacha which were traditionally always predicated on sources and analysis, no reasoning or explanation is required when it comes to modern day Daas Torah.

In defence of modern day Daas Torah, the following extracts may be of interest:

*R. Nisson Wolpin writes, “This exceptional capacity... guides the gadol in dealing with problems that appear to be extra-halachic in nature, appearing to belong to other disciplines, such as politics, sociology, or psychology.”[9]

*In fact, ‘a rabbinic authority has greater latitude when declaring Da’as Torah than when defining a halachic opinion’[10].

*Rabbi Alfred Cohen writes: “From time to time rabbinic figures will make pronouncements about political agendas or personalities...a person who spends his nights and days immersed in Torah wisdom eventually becomes imbued with an almost intuitive grasp of what Hashem wants...Although the role of Roshei Yeshiva, possessed of great Torah scholarship and often personal charisma, may indeed be far more prominent nowadays than in the past, it is hardly indicative of a new phenomenon.”[11]

*“Haredi Judaism espouses the belief that Jews...should seek out the views of the prominent scholars of the generation...not just on matters of Jewish law or matters of ‘religion’, but in every aspect of life, from issues of health to secular politics.”[12]

These popular views, however, seem to fly in the face of many traditional sources, like the post-Talmudic Gaonim, who warned against following some of the medical advice offered in the Talmud; and those Rishonim who said that some Sages were mistaken in their understanding of the natural order.

But there is another factor that needs to be taken into serious consideration as well, namely, that of relatively recent religious history and politics. As a reaction to the Enlightenment movement, where individual autonomy was fast becoming sacrosanct, the Chassidic movements, in a valiant attempt at perpetuating the authority of their Rebbes, were keen to adopt the Daas Torah concept. Chassidim and their rivals, the Mitnagdim, became strange bedfellows in that they found common ground opposing the newly formed Haskalah, Zionist, Moderate Orthodox and Mizrachi organisations. They merged together forming a new movement, Agudas Yisrael. On the 19th of June 1914 Agudas Yisrael, in a signed manifesto, officially adopted two resolutions which the Chassidim insisted upon before they would agree to join the organization; 1) The decrees of the Rabbinic leadership would be issued without the need to justify or explain them, and 2) Rabbinic jurisdiction would go beyond issues of Halacha and extend to worldly matters as well[13].

If this last analysis is correct, and I believe it is, one needs to think very carefully before subjecting oneself and family to decisions based on the modern representation of Daas Torah, born, probably more out of political expediency than authenticated tradition.

Perhaps the Kotzker Rebbe was pre-emptive to this danger, when he explained the Mishna; ‘Asey Lecha Rav’ (Make for yourself a teacher) - not meaning finding someone to subjugate yourself to - but rather to ‘make yourself’ into ‘the teacher’. And to be aware of the possibility that some may have overstepped the traditional boundaries of rabbinic jurisdiction.

[1] See Kotzk Blog 42, where a letter was circulated in Bnei Brak claiming that according to Daas Torah, a certain individual should be voted in as mayor.
[2] Interestingly enough, because of the principle of ‘Lo BaShamayim Hi’ (The Torah is not in Heaven), Halacha has to be rationally and rigorously authenticated and substantiated before it becomes acceptable. Not so when it comes to Daas Torah which generally relates to worldly and non-Halachic affairs. 
[3] ArtScroll/Mesorah 1977 vol. 1 p.313
[4] According to Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudas Yisrael; “The phrase Da’at Torah may be a relatively new one...(but) Emunat Chachamim, or ‘trust in the judgement of the Torah-wise’, has been part and parcel of Jewish tradition for millennia.”
[5] For a detailed analysis of these three cases, see Sod Hashem Liyerayav by Rabbi Natan Slifkin.
[6] Not to be confused with R Shalom Eliashiv (1910-2012), whose father married R Shlomo Eliashiv’s daughter, and changed his surname from Erener to Eliashiv to enter British Palestine.
[7] This application of Daas Torah to Halacha seems to be in conflict with the “Lo Bashamayim Hi’ principal.
[8] Including matters of scientific, medical and general secular nature.
[9] The Torah Personality, p, 15.
[10] Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, Daas Torah: Tapping the Source of Eternal Wisdom. 1995.
[11] Daat Torah, Rabbi Alferd Cohen.
[12] Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, see above.
[13] See Kotzk Blog 41 for another example of a signed manifesto which also changed the historic perspective.


A recent Daas Torah ruling is compelling schools to accept children who have not been vaccinated against childhood diseases. The decree states that it is contrary to Halacha to prevent children from attending school, even if they hadn't been vaccinated. It was promulgated by leaders of Lakewood Yeshiva and distributed to boys and girls schools in that city.
It quotes Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky who forbids schools to turn away students who have not been vaccinated.

Rabbi Harry Maryles writes in Emes Ve-Emunah (Friday August 28 2015);

"More importantly, those children that are not vaccinated run the risk of exposing other children to the diseases they are now more likely to contract. To the best of my knowledge vaccination are not 100%  effective. They only improve the odds of not getting the disease. Which increases the risk for others getting it -  even if they have been vaccinated. Which increases the chances of it spreading. The best way to reduce the odds of any child contracting one of those diseases is if everyone is vaccinated. The only exception I would make is if a child is known to be allergic to the vaccine – making his risk of danger greater if he is vaccinated than if he isn’t. Otherwise all children should be vaccinated."

"For me this is a no brainer. It is plain old fashioned common sense. The overwhelming benefits of vaccinations strongly argue in favor of requiring them for a child’s entry into a classroom full of other children."

"I truly do not understand what these Roshei Yeshiva are doing, other than going against vast majority of current medical advice on this issue.

As Rabbi Eliyahu Fink put it on Rabbi Bechoffer’s Facebook page, 
Schools cannot deny enrollment to unvaccinated students.  But schools may or even MUST deny enrollment to students with Internet at home / long hair / blue shirts. So to recap, parents who risk the physical health of an entire school are cool. Parents who are merely perceived as risking spiritual wellbeing of others are not cool."