What Da’at Torah Really Means

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There’s been considerable buzz of late about what has come to be called “Da’at Torah,” the concept of trusting in the judgment of great Torah scholars regarding not only issues of Jewish religious law, or halacha, but issues of a sociological or even political nature no less.

In December, as Yeshiva University sought a new president, its long-time president Rabbi Norman Lamm explained why the opinion of leading talmudic scholars at the seminary was not afforded great weight.  “We don’t work on the concept of da’as Torah,” he said. “[T]here is no principle of infallibility that we accept.”

At a recent conference, the “Modern Orthodox” group Edah’s director, Rabbi Saul Berman, recounted how encounters with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik had left him with the impression that the elder rabbi made a distinction between religious matters, where “his authority on Halacha was binding,” and political or social matters, where they were not.  The implicit message, The New York Jewish Week’s Debra Nussbaum-Cohen wrote, was that “Modern Orthodox Jews are not bound by Da’at Torah,” a belief “prevalent in the haredi world.”

A week later, Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt pointed to a public apology that was offered by a respected rabbi for a misjudgment as proof that Da’at Torah is an inherently indefensible belief.

Whether Da’at Torah should be discounted by non-haredi Jews or not (not), and whether a rabbi’s admission of having made a mistake undermines the principle (it doesn’t), one thing that certainly does not help the cause of objective consideration of the idea is its misrepresentation.

Da’at Torah is not some Jewish equivalent to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.  Not only can rabbis make mistakes of judgment, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Horiut, predicated on the assumption that they can, that even the Sanhedrin is capable of erring, even in halachic matters.

What Da’at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews – just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice.

Jewish tradition refers to Torah leaders as the “eyes of the community.”  That is because they see things more clearly than the rest of us.  Not necessarily perfectly.  And there are times when G-d purposefully hides things from even His most accomplished disciples.  But more clearly all the same.

What compels the concept of Da’at Torah is nothing less than belief in the transcendence of Torah.

In Jewish theology, Torah encompasses every corner of life.  It is not limited to matters of Jewish law and practice.  It extends to how one is to view happenings and face challenges, in one’s community, in one’s country, on one’s planet.

The phrase Da’at Torah may be a relatively new one, but the insinuation that the concept it reflects is some sort of modern invention by “unmodern” Jews is absurd.  “Emunat chachamim,” or “trust in the judgment of the Torah-wise,” has been part and parcel of Jewish tradition for millennia.  The Talmud and Jewish history are replete with examples of how the Jewish community looked to their religious leaders for guidance about social, political and personal decisions – decisions that, as believing Jews, they understood must be based on authentic Torah values.

The phrase “Modern Orthodox” seems to mean several very different things to different groups of Jews.  But if the word “Orthodox” is to have any meaning at all, it has to reflect a basic belief in the supremacy and scope of Torah.  And an appreciation of the concept of Da’at Torah – understood correctly – directly follows.

In the words of a great leader of Jews: “The very same priest whose mind was suffused with the holiness of the Torah of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, of Abaye and Rava, of the Rambam and Ravad, of the Beit Yosef and the Rama, could also discern with the holy spirit the solution to all current political questions, to all worldly matters, to all ongoing current demands.”

Those words were written in 1940, as part of a eulogy for a great Lithuanian Torah-scholar and leader, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski.   Their author was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

                                                    (c) 2003 Am Echad Resources

                          [This article originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.]

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