Daas Torah, Authority and Passion in Israel

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Last week two conferences were held on the same night, one on Jewish History at Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the other on Halacha and the Disengagement at Bar Ilan University. I listened to the TAU lectures on history, or rather historiography, where the audience of several dozen mostly non-observant attendees listened politely to lectures on the writing of Jewish history; on whether Jewish history should be taught as separate from, or part of, general history; on gender & Jewish historiography. I mention the dispassionate session at TAU as a contrast to a passionate Bar Ilan conference, held simultaneously, where I managed to arrive in time to hear the critical discussions on Halakha and the Disengagement. At the latter the audience of hundreds, a majority national religious from their accoutrements, were actively engaged in the drama that was unfolding. The speakers and the audience didn’t just contemplate Jewish history, they were Jewish history in the making. Three speakers treated the issue of Daas Torah [lit. “Torah knowledge,” this refers to knowledge and guidance from Torah scholars] and authority. They all wore knitted kippot, but reflected radically different views and some of the vibrancy and urgency of these issues today.

Prof. Yedidya Stern, of BIU law school, tried to make a case for there not being a continuum of halakhic precedents upon which a Jewish State could base decisions such as the upcoming one of disengagement. The lacunae were too immense because since the destruction of the Second Commonwealth there has not been continuity on issues involving a sovereign Jewish State. Additionally, he cast doubt on the concept of “Daas Torah,” whereby the premier halakhic authorities, be they national religious or yeshiva world rabbis, take a stance on pressing issues of the day. (His views echoed some of the negative views of scholars such as Lawrence Kaplan who have written about Daas Torah).

R. Daniel Shiloh, Rav of the settlement Kedumim, completely disagreed. He showed there were halakhic precedents that could be and are used for geopolitical decisions today (just as there are precedents for issues in modern medicine & technology). He illustrated the halahkic attitude toward the land of Israel by describing a situation where a Jew has a fleeting opportunity on Shabbat to redeem a plot in the land of Israel. Even though it is Shabbat, earlier poskim ruled that Jews may (must?) execute the purchase through a non-Jew, whereas they could not violate Shabbat similarly if they have a fleeting opportunity to purchase, say, an etrog. He claimed precedents do exist, and implied support for the institution of Daas Torah by national religious rabbinical leaders in the current controversies.

R. Yuval Cherlow, maverick Hesder Rosh Yeshiva, said he could hardly sit through (his friend) R. Shiloh’s talk because he felt that R. Shiloh lacked appreciation for the complexity of the issues. The example R. Shiloh cited is uni-dimensional, claimed R. Cherlow, and doesn’t apply to today’s situation that is embedded in religious & geo-political factors not amenable to such simplistic reduction. To describe the government taking measures that technically were democratic but might nevertheless be problematic, he coined the phrase “naval b’rshut haDemocratia” [debased within the parameters of democracy], based on the well-known concept of “naval b’rshut haTorah” in Ramban’s commentary on the “You shall be holy.” A young student asked whether those in the national religious sector are not bound to comply with the decisions/interpretations of the top rabbinical authorities of that sector. R. Cherlow then exploded in anger at her, asking rhetorically, “And is my Rosh Yeshiva, who thinks differently, an ‘am haaretz’? Does he also not have authority?” Later, R. Cherlow apologized profusely, explaining what he meant to say was that as a young rabbi who is not “high” in the hierarchy of authority, he is nevertheless required to “call ‘em as he sees ‘em” and to express his views. He must not simply “fall in line” with what the senior rabbinical authorities say (This is modeled on the way the junior rabbis in the Sanhedrin expressed their opinions before the senior authorities did so). The predominantly national religious audience knew that in the background hovered the various pronouncements of rabbinic figures on the disengagement.

Across the street in Bene Brak, ironically, the issue of Daas Torah was being expressed in a very different realm. Large pashkavelli have been posted on public bulletin boards with the words “Daas Torah” in otiyot kiddush levana (huge letters) stating in different ways that cell phones should be eschewed by serious yeshiva students. The yeshiva-world rabbis have been observing the deleterious effects of this technology on the fabric of the scholars’ circles and on the religious (and secular) world in general and are courageously taking unpopular steps to create an atmosphere where people will be embarrassed to be chatting away in public. On another plane, haredi rabbinical opinions on the issues that were discussed at Bar Ilan can be inferred from the green light received by United Torah Judaism Knesset members to join the government, and thereby increase the chances that the disengagement will take place.

These different sectors (academic, modern Orthodox, national religious, haredi) reflect a plurality of attitudes towards issues of authority and “Daas Torah” – and I find it exciting to be engaged at a time when so many Jews are disengaged from the urgent issues that affect the future of the Jewish people.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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1 Response

  1. Menachem Kovacs says:

    The imperative of the retention of the Jewish communities
    in Gaza is based on the convergence of Halachic, historical and security factors. (Please see my article on Arutz 7 and katif.net) Since the politicians in power in Israel and most other countries have been unresponsive or rather very negative to our various expressions of protest, it is as clear as Megilas Esther that even tho we may continue to protest to flesh and blood politicians, our minds & hearts must be focused first and foremost on having Hashem Himself cancel the decree. This means still doing everything al pi teva with education, lobbying, fundraising, etc. but much more is needed in Tefila, davka in Shmone Esray, with Tehillim, with kavana in our limud leTorah that it should serve as a zechus to save Jewish Aza (and indeed Yesha and Eretz Yisrael which are also on the line here).