Daat Torah: a new theology about Jewish law

Excerpted from “Daat Torah” by Rabbi Alfred Cohen

{Da’at Torah, literally “knowledge of the Torah”}

Da’at Torah is the Haredi belief that certain  leading rabbis must be consulted on all areas of a Jewish person’s life – not just religious areas, but for everything: personal, social, and political. They religiously believe that their leaders have an inherent da’at Torah, knowledge of the Torah, that lets them intuit God’s will in ways that go far beyond the role of what rabbis had always held.}

Daat Torah is a concept of supreme importance whose specific parameters remain elusive. Loosely explained, it refers to an ideology which teaches that the advice given by great Torah scholars must be followed by Jews committed to Torah observance, inasmuch as these opinions are imbued with Torah insights.

Although the term Daat Torah is frequently invoked to buttress a given opinion or position, it is difficult to find agreement on what is actually included in the phrase. And although quite a few articles have been written about it, both pro and con, many appear to be remarkably lacking in objectivity and lax in their approach to the truth. Often they are based on secondary source and feature inflammatory language or an unflatttering tone; they are polemics rather than scholarship, with faulty conclusions arising from failure to check into what really was said or from failure to check into what really was said or written

Leaving aside these rather flawed and argumentative writings, we must acknowledge that the topic of Daat Torah is indeed a very important one, raising a question that every Jew who is conscientious in his Torah observance needs to address: What is meant by the term “Daat Torah”? Does Judaism believe there is such a thing as Daat Torah? What does it encompass? To what extent is Daat Torah binding…?

1. Among those who have tackled the topic, see Lawrence Kaplan (“Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority”, pp. 1-60), in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, published by Jason Aronson, Inc., as part of the Orthodox Forum series which also cites numerous other sources in its footnotes;
Rabbi Berel Wein, writing in the Jewish Observer, October 1994; Rabbi Avi Shafran, writing in the Jewish Observer, Dec. 1986, p.12; Jewish Observer, December 1977; Techumin VIII and XI. 2.

As an example of the opinion that there either is no such thing now as Daat Torah which Jews committed to Torah are obliged to heed or, even if there is, that it has a very limited by the great sages of earlier generations authority, see the long essay by Lawrence Kaplan in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, cited in the previous footnote.

Kaplan argues essentially that the concept Daat Torah was invented, or at least developed, in order to create a submissive society. In support of his thesis that the Chazon Ish was one of the great exponents of “submissiveness” (p.24), Kaplan cites a letter of the Chazon Ish with what he terms a “forced interpretation” of a text in the Rashba; however, a close reading of the original makes it difficult to support Kaplan’s conclusions, for the Rashba says precisely what the Chazon Ish said he said.

It is ironic that in Kaplan’s view Daat Torah is an ideology which arose in response to the perceived negative influences of modernity– yet, when challenged to take a position on the propriety of women’s prayer groups, one of the more important “modern” questions to surface in the past few decades, Rabbi Louis Bernstein, then president of the Rabbinical Council of America and never remotely associated with the Right Wing of Orthodox Judaism, turned to a number of Roshei Yeshiva for their ruling, and not to “modern” or pulpit rabbis.

Rabbi Berel Wein wrote a negative review and commentary on Kaplan’s article, which appeared in the Jewish Observer, October 1994, pp.4-9. Although it is common practice to allow an author to respond to criticism in the same journal which finds fault with his thesis, no response by Kaplan appears in the Observer.

Those writing in favor of the authenticity of the notion Daat Torah (see, for example, the article by Shlomo Shaanan in Techumin referenced in note no. 1) also often fail the objectivity test when reporting what our sages actually said. Thus, he purports to base this concept on the Gemara itself: in Bava Bathra 116a it says that since nowadays there are no prophets, if one has a problem he should go to a wise man (chacham), i.e., a scholar well-versed in Torah wisdom.

Now, while it is true that the Gemara says this – the author has left out the rest of the sentence! It actually says “…let him go to a chacham, and he will pray [to God] for mercy for him!” The Gemara is advising people to ask the Torah scholar to pray for them, not to advise them!

This particular talmudic passage has really nothing to do with submitting to the directives of Torah scholars! Unfortunately, a similarly cavalier attitude is evident in his use of other sources, such as the Tzitz Eliezer.

Perhaps Shaanan’s weakest argument is based on a verse in the book of I Samuel (9:6), where he seeks to prove that asking advice from a chacham has its source in the Torah. When Saul, prior to being chosen as king, was searching through the countryside for his missing donkeys, his attendant advised him to seek out Samuel and ask him what to do. But he is totally misreading the verse -– they went to ask the “ro’eh”, the “seer” for his prophetic vision, not for his rabbinic input! How can one compare a prophet to a rabbi?!

It strikes me that this is indicative of one of the major problems in the Jewish community – there is precious little objective examination of principles, but rather defensive polemic to protect a particular position. The unwillingness to consider other points of view and the lack of preparedness to counter objections with facts is an unhealthy feature of our polarized Jewish society. This turns a sober, serious inquiry about the deeper requirements of Jewish hashkafa into dogmatic argumentation, which in the long run weakens, rather than strengthens, belief.


Also see Happy 100th Birthday Daas Torah!

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