Sunday, August 13, 2006

Daas Torah

The internet blogosphere constantly plays on the ambivalence Orthodox Jews have towards their rabbinical leadership. I want to say something in defense of the rabbinical leadership that is being attacked. Part of the confusion is a result of hagiography that is used to depict the lives of famous rabbinical figures. If you grow up thinking every leader is absolutely perfect, the temptation to find flaws as you grow older is very strong. It’s not very different from teenagers who suddenly realize their parents are human, and have their share of flaws. Some kids go ballistic. Ditto for some bloggers.

As in the case of parenting, the relevant question is never did the parents ever make a mistake? To be human is to make mistakes. The relevant question is always ‘Were they good enough?’ or ‘Did they really screw things up”. The standard must always be whether the leadership was above average, (i.e. good), and not was the leadership perfect. The alternative to total idealization is not depreciation. The alternative should be an empathic understanding of the leadership, their strengths and weaknesses.

The core and most important question concerning this rabbinical leadership are: “Has the collective rabbinical leadership done a good job in steering the growth and development of Ultra Orthodox Jewry in the postwar period?” My answer is unquestionably “Yes”. The proof is in the pudding. Orthodox Jewry has gone from almost nothing in the years following the Holocaust to an aggressive quickly growing church- militant. It ain’t over until it’s over, but if I had to handicap the race I would project the Ultra Orthodox the winner against all comers, and certainly the winner in competition with the Conservatives. (More on this another time).

The internet keeps on focusing on the many mistakes the rabbis have made. I want to mention 3 decisions that I happen to find distasteful, but were strokes of genius for the growth of UO. The first is the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Conservative and Reform Rabbis. This decision was very bad for the Jewish people as a whole. It was great for the growth of Ultra Orthodoxy. It is much like a third world country that imposes high tariffs initially to protect its domestic industries. Free trade isn’t always the best policy for weak economies. The second was their decision that UO boys and girls are forbidden to serve in the Israeli Army. The decision had no basis in equity and fairness. Why should only the secular risk their lives? It was, however a brilliant move in its time, enabling the yeshiva population to grow exponentially. The decision was instrumental in creating a broadly based charedi culture.

The third was the endless self promotion of the rabbinical leadership. In particular the theological doctrine of the Agudah,(the Ultra Orthodox political party) called Daas Torah ; the view that UO Jews ought to obey the rabbinical leadership because either they know best or they have the sovereign authority to decide or whatever. I myself don’t believe Daas Torah entails rabbinical infallibility. Even if it does, and even if they made their share of mistakes, the promulgation of this doctrine had extraordinary positive consequences. In one stroke it took hold of the leadership and put it in the hands of a small unified elite. It demoted the wealthy lay leadership and the pulpit rabbis to a supporting role. It enabled Orthodoxy to act with one voice. Money for a change ran after the rabbis rather than the other way around. It worked. (For a view that is diametrically opposite to the one expressed here see the lucid and interesting blog by Rabbi Shael Siegel(8/27). The current discussion was initiated by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan in a path breaking essay in a Jack Wertheimer anthology whose name escapes me)

Look at Ultra Orthodoxy as a corporation. The rabbis are the CEO AND COO. Like any CEO the primary responsibility is to the shareholders, who in this instance are the individual Ultra Orthodox Jews. These rabbis are not working on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole. Plain and simple, it is not their job. If a decision of theirs causes some reform rabbi some discomfort it ain’t their problem. When looked at in this way the question comes down to this: If you are a member of the Board of Directors would you fire the rabbis? I wouldn’t.

Many of the examples that are being given to refute the doctrine of Daas Torah are relevant only on certain formulations of this ideology. If one is going to be fair there is no choice but to acknowledge that the doctrine is a 20th century invention that was created by a political party, the Agudah, for the purpose of unifying Orthodox Jews. It is therefore irrelevant to bring up examples from pre- 20th century Jewish intellectual life where the initial opinions of the rabbis turned out wrong. And in any case intellectual disagreements are a special case. Some rabbis didn’t approve of Maimonides, some didn’t approve of kabala, and some didn’t approve of Chasidim.... These opinions over time ended up as minority positions. The Orthodox world today is a big tent place with more than enough room for philosophical dogmas, kabala and chasidus. All of this has little to do with the political doctrine of Daas Torah.

There is one criticism of the Daas Torah ideology that is right on and draws blood. It is true the rabbis as a group were totally wrong about Hitler. They told everyone who would listen not to come to America, when if they were half as intelligent as they made themselves out to be they should have been saying the opposite. Emes is emes . There is no honest way to spin this. In terms of my earlier analogy, if I were on the Board of directors when they met in 1945 I would fire every last one of them. And in 1945 the Jewish people as a whole were pretty much done with the whole shebang, the rabbis, the shtetl and the fanaticism .The Ultra Orthodox at that time were less than 2% of the Jewish people. Had that happened, had the Jewish people chucked the rabbinical leadership, I believe the Jewish people today would be well on the way toward extinction. The same group that was obscurantists and clueless prior to the war became brilliant tacticians and strategists after the war. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Think about it.


At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Rabbi Shael Siegel said...

Yes, yes I see your point but in the long run I don't believe their stiffling approach is healthy. Torah U'madah is no longer valued resulting in a new genre of Judaism that, frankly, anachronistic. It doesn't do justice to Jewish intellectual growth and development and really contributes little to the challenges of the Haredi living in the 21st century. What weighty contributions have they made to the serious Jewish scholarship? While regurgitating Chazal is ok, I don't see any challenging and refreshing chidushim emanating from that quarter.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I agree with much that you say, although I would put it differently. I agree that there are no, as you call it, "refreshing" chidushim that are coming from the charedi world. I think it's because their methodology is faulty, and that's because they haven't seriously looked at the underpinings of Brisker lomdus. I will blog on this. It is also true they are making no contributions to scholarship. My question is are they reading any scholarly material, and I think the answer is not very much. As for Torah U'madah, that's a Y.U. slogan which is not the only way to incorporate secularism into a Jewish life. I also don't have any taste for the German Hirsch version. I just don't know if it's right to call chaerdim an anachronism. They seem much too vital.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There is one criticism of the Daas Torah ideology that is right on and draws blood.It is true the rabbis as a group were totally wrong about Hitler. They told everyone who would listen not to come to America,"

It's not right on, it's a conflation of advice from different periods and of failure to anticipate hitler with advice not to flee hitler. There were few rabbis who said not to leave when hitler came to power (that was the belzer and RAKotler was convinced there would be no war, and not too many other examples). There were many who said not to go to the US *in the period before hitler* like the CC and didn't anticipate his rise to power. This was not brilliantly prescient, but not too many others anticipated his rise either.

OTOH, what they failed at was realizing that Soviet Russia would stamp out yiddishkeit more than America ever would.

It's strange that people complain about their failure to anticipate Hitler and talk about isolated figures who advised not to flee hitler once he came to power when that was far from the norm, but miss that the advice in russia and lithuania not to go to america allowed the Soviets to succeed in destroying jewish life in russia while it flourished in America. Again, I am not clear one can blame them for failing to anticipate how things would turn out, but I do get the feeling that they didn't fully understand the benefits of freedom in America and only knew that people had stopped keeping shabbat here


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