Do chareidim use their heads?
In my 300-page book about the Slifkin affair, of which only a few pages will ever be written, I said that I would try to answer a few questions. Two that I want to tackle today are: What is the nature of da’as Torah — Torah authority? And, a related question: Who or what are the gedolim, the Torah luminaries of the generation?
When I first posed these questions, one of my correspondents hastened to point out that I am not qualified to answer them. The rejoinder, from another correspondent, was that it is perfectly possible for a woman to be a scholar.
While I appreciate this vote of support, the fact is, my first correspondent is right. I am not qualified to answer the questions I posed. I am not a scholar. Therefore, you can ignore what I say, or if you wish, you can write me angry letters, in fact I quite enjoy those. (The only thing I really hate, as a teacher, is when my students fall asleep during my lectures.)
To start with a very loose translation: da’as Torah is Torah authority or Torah opinion — teachings, attitudes and opinions on matters that are not, strictly speaking, halachic questions. Gedolim are, literally, “the greats,” the greatest Torah authorities of one’s age.
A person who is steeped in Torah learning and scholarship is assumed to have an extra dimension of wisdom and perhaps of Divine inspiration. A great Torah scholar acquires a certain feel for what the Torah would say about issues that arise in the course of time, but that are not explicitly written in the Torah. This intuition or “feel” is “da’as Torah.”
To give an example of the difference between halacha and da’as Torah: a rabbinic scholar might issue a halachic ruling on whether a particular woman should have an abortion. Da’as Torah would weigh in on the public policy question of whether Jews should be generally pro-choice or pro-life.
The distinction between halacha and da’as Torah is not always as black and white as this, but for our purposes, my rough definition of da’as Torah will serve.
Religious Jews have an obligation to follow not only the limited halachic rulings of the gedolim, but also the broader guidelines of da’as Torah. In theory, we all agree on that. That is, we all agree that a Torah weltanschauung should guide our life choices. In practice, whether we actually seek or follow rabbinical guidance depends on a host of other factors.
Now the silken threads of the cobweb multiply: Who decides which individuals count as gedolim? And what counts as da’as Torah? And does “following da’as Torah” apply only to outward conformity, or does it also demand internal intellectual assent? Is it enough to consult your own local rabbi, or do you also have to obey the pronouncements of other rabbis? In your own country? In Israel? We Jews are very good at asking questions. We are also champs at arguing among ourselves, and at leaving questions open while we yell at each other.
The immediate issue that prompts these maunderings is, of course, l’affaire Slifkin. Here we have a man in the chareidi camp, who has written a number of popular (and IMO excellent) books about the interface between science and Torah — and over here we have a group of rabbanim, some very well-known and widely respected, issuing a cherem against the entire Slifkin opus. Books that were formerly considered kosher are now found to be treif, according to da’as Torah, or so it would seem. Hold that thought, we’ll get back to it.
In a previous posting I said that some of the things R’ Slifkin wrote were indeed problematic, yet I did not consider the cherem binding, even though I generally lean toward the chareidi end of the Orthodox spectrum.
My fence-straddling position elicited criticism from two directions. Before I go further, I do want to reiterate that fence-straddling is my principled position. I am absolutely sincere in rejecting some of what Slifkin writes. I am also absolutely sincere in rejecting the accusation of heresy that has been leveled against him.
Now, the slings and arrows coming in from two directions:
From my left comes the charge that chareidim in general and I in particular are mind-numbed robots who park our brains at the door when “the gedolim” speak. My continuing respect for the gedolim is proof positive that the valet has taken the keys to my brain. Where is that valet ticket, dear, I hope it’s in your pocket because I can’t seem to find it….?
And then from my right comes the charge that I’m not really chareidi but am — oh dreaded epithet — Modern Orthodox. In this context MO means something like “functionally equivalent to Conservative, non-accepting of rabbinical authority.” Whatever MO is — let’s save that debate for another day — I am not MO. I do respect the gedolim in principle, I do accept da’as Torah in theory. The “But…….” is the subject of the rest of this essay.
Herewith a tiny sampling of my mail:
From the left:
“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry”–quoting Richard Dawkins.
From the right:
“The question of what is heresy is a halachic question that I believe should be left to g’dolei yisroel.” “Most of the gedolim have signed the letter. To argue the merits of it has a whiff of questioning gedolim and that is where charedism and modern orthodoxy differ.”
One correspondent took me to task for one particular sentence of mine (and I thank him for bringing it to my attention): “I understand the reasoning behind the ban, and even agree to some extent with that reasoning.” I cannot simultaneously reject the ban and also agree with its reasoning, he wrote. I confess that I did not express myself very clearly here, so let me clarify this. I do not consider the ban to be justified. I do agree with some of the specific criticisms leveled against the books.
R’ Haym Soloveitchik, in a famous essay,
wrote that there are two methods of Torah-transmission, “text” and “mimetics.”
In his words,
A way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school.
For example, how much matza must one eat at the seder? A mimetics matza-eater would eyeball the matza and eat as much as his father used to eat. A text matza-eater would consult a book and then measure the matza.
Within the chareidi camp itself, there are varying ways of understanding da’as Torah and our obligations thereto. I’ve already admitted that I am not a scholar. My understanding of da’as Torah is mimetic, not text-based. I can’t cite chapter and verse. But nevertheless I feel fairly confident that I can navigate the waters here by instinct and experience.
There are those who will argue that “bitul da’as” — the actual negation of one’s own mentation — is in fact a desideratum. “The negation of mentation,” hm, sounds like a poem. Anyway, it intrigues me that some people who are highly intelligent and articulate will argue intelligently and articulately in favor of not using their own brains at all. Here’s a quote, heard from one such person, “My beliefs do not allow me to express my opinions.”
Despite my flippant tone, there is something actually honorable and even holy about such a position. It bespeaks integrity. As a rule, a person who constantly defers to Rabbinical authority will in fact live a good Torah life and will seldom go wrong, halachically or ethically.
Other chareidim will counter that in deciding which gedolim to follow and how far to follow them, one should apply one’s own judgment, to a greater or lesser degree. I stress that the debate here is an intra-chareidi debate. We take it as a given that Torah scholars deserve respect and deference; the debate has to do with the details. I am not now addressing the opinion of those who are outside the Torah camp or on its fringes, and who on principle will never defer to rabbis, period.
One question I have not addressed yet is, what makes a godol? Who decides who is a godol?
This is a classically mimetic issue. There is no book that sets forth the procedure by which a candidate becomes a certified godol.
Usually what happens is that someone develops a reputation as a scholar and a tzaddik, and he gradually becomes better and better known throughout the Orthodox world. He may be a rosh yeshiva, he may be the author of books or he may be a private individual, studying Torah in a corner somewhere. Bit by bit word gets out. Usually, a person does not acquire a reputation as “one of the gedolim” until he is about 70 years old, by which time he may in fact be past his prime, with his greatest work behind him.
Cross-Currents does not have an official party line, but it does represent a generally right-wing position within the Orthodox spectrum. No one has told me to say or not to say anything in particular, so I stress that I speak for myself alone, and that not all the contributors to C-C agree with what I am about to say. Which is: I don’t consider the ban that was issued against R’ Slifkin to be a product of genuine da’as Torah.
First of all, he sought and received haskamos, letters of approbation, from a number of prominent rabbanim before he published his books. And they were published by Targum/Feldheim, a frummy press that doesn’t publish anything without consulting rabbinical authorities first. Ergo, he is not operating outside of, but within, the chareidi system. His books are written with the purpose of inspiring and enhancing faith in Torah.
Second of all, the argument that some have adduced against him — that for the sake of kiruv, of outreach, he falsified the Torah — is untenable. He has Torah sources for every one of the controversial positions now cited against him. The idea that six days of Creation may be six eras rather than literal 24-hour days. The idea that Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) may be fallible in their understanding of nature. The idea that science can be taken seriously and need not simply be dismissed, when its findings seem to contradict a literal reading of the Torah. Slifkin has sources for every one of these ideas.
The gedolim who consider Slifkin’s positions to be gravely mistaken could have and should have, IMO, written letters and articles criticizing his books. However, since Slifkin did find Torah sources to support what he said, his views cannot be dismissed as heretical.
Those gedolim who signed the letter against him evidently disagree not only with him, but with the authorities he relied on. In some cases, it is clear that some of the signatories did not read his books — which were written in English and have not been translated into Hebrew — but relied on summaries that did not accurately represent the thrust and real message of his books. Some of the gedolim evidently concluded that Slifkin was slipping straight, unadulterated evolutionism, with its implicit atheism, into the yeshiva world, via books that looked kosher but were really treif.
Many of the great Torah sages of our day did not sign the letter against Slifkin’s books. In private conversations, some of them have stated that they agree with the critique against his approach, but don’t think a cherem was justified. Others see nothing wrong with his approach at all. At least one of those who signed said later that he had signed what he thought was a private letter TO SLIFKIN, and never intended to sign a public letter.
Some of the people behind the ban were activists and busybodies, second-tier gedolim or not even gedolim or rabbanim at all, who set out to stir up trouble. By now it is very well-known throughout the Orthodox world that various factions in this whole story had various agendas; this is hardly breaking news.
Finding out that gedolim disagree among themselves, or that they are influenced by what other people tell them, or that they are human, comes as a big shock to some people. But to most chareidim, this is all old hat. It does not lessen my respect for Torah or for Torah sages to say that I follow some gedolim and not others, that I apply my own judgment and my own Torah knowledge — however limited it is — in deciding which gedolim I will follow.
We do not have a concept akin to papal infallibility. We don’t assume that gedolim can never err — especially on an issue where they disagree among themselves. Pace some of the anti-chareidi critics out there, most chareidim do not blindly follow “the gedolim.” They tend to allow themselves a margin of intellectual independence. Of course they do: chareidim are Jews, after all!
I will give a small example of this. I am very close to someone in Jerusalem who is himself a talmid chacham and a chareidi of impeccable credentials. A few years ago, “the gedolim” (some of them, anyway) came out with an edict prohibiting radios. Considering some of the filth you hear on the radio these days, it was an understandable edict.
Nevertheless, almost no one in Jerusalem actually got rid of their radios. When I asked this particular person why he still had a radio in his house, he shrugged and smiled sheepishly.
This same individual does not have secular newspapers in his house — which he would consider to be contrary to da’as Torah. Obviously, chareidim know when to take da’as Torah literally and when to take it with a grain of salt. In the case of the radio edict, it’s my guess that chareidim are now more careful about what they listen to and what they allow their children to hear. But most of them still have radios. They follow da’as Torah — according to their understanding of its requirements.
One final point. In non-chareidi circles there have been loud demands for the gedolim who disagree with the cherem to issue public statements and press releases. This is probably the hardest thing to explain about da’as Torah, but I will take a stab at it: rabbanim who disagree with other rabbanim in the chareidi world do not issue public statements and press releases.
Disagreements between gedolim are not handled like political campaigns, with rival parties issuing rival slogans. It just doesn’t work that way. That kind of public squabbling is unseemly — and therefore exceedingly rare.
When gedolim disagree, they tend nevertheless to accord each other respect, in private and certainly in public. Behind the scenes, a certain amount of writing and talking and negotiating may be going on. A later statement may be issued softening the earlier one, or a compromise may be reached whereby Slifkin withdraws or makes changes in some of his books. I am not privy to these backstage discussions, but I know they go on.
Because many of the gedolim who did not sign the cherem nevertheless do have some reservations about the tone or content of some of Slifkin’s writing, there is no black-and-white, support-him or condemn-him position here. There is a spectrum of opinion. Those who look for a public repudiation of the cherem, signed by gedolim of equal weight and number to those who signed the cherem, will wait in vain.