The issue of Da’as Torah perennially generates confusion. On the one hand, historians rightly point out that its extreme permutations are recent inventions. On the other, responses to the ideology are often overly dismissive, neglecting the historical fact that leading rabbis have traditionally wielded great influence. Da’as Torah seems like a tool to assert control, either by its purveyors or its antagonists. Neither approach seems authentic. Navigating this minefield faithfully is a critical but rare feat.
R. Norman Lamm, who was a frequent target of Da’as Torah, struggled with this task. On the one hand, in the following quote he takes a cheap shot at members of Agudah’s Council of Sages. His criticism of the group’s name is legitimate but beside the point. Rabbis rising to leadership positions cannot refuse the title placed upon them. On the other hand, despite his negative personal experience, which you can see emerging in his writing, he still resists the urge to deny all authority to Torah leaders.
R. Norman Lamm, Derashot LeDorot: Numbers, p. 120:
Certainly, there is a difference between authority and authoritarianism. But Korah identified one with the other and rejected both. And that rebellion against religious authority exists in each of us–even as we sought to reject parental authority when we were adolescents.
Baiting and berating gedolim is as popular in one segment of the Orthodox community as apotheosizing them is in the other. In the right wing of Orthodoxy, a new concept has taken hold which makes of religious authorities supermen and attributes to them a doctrine heretofore considered exclusively Catholic–infallibility. I have always been uncomfortable with the institution founded by Agudath Israel, the Mo’etzet Gedolei haTorah, “The Council of Giants of the Torah.” What man, with any measure of normal humility, will allow himself to be inducted in a group which announces itself as “giants” or greats?” Yet, our camp is equally guilty of such adoration and such cult of personality when we blame the gedolim for all sins, from being anti-Zionist to being unenthusiastic about emigrating from Europe to the United States of America–as if greatness in Torah automatically implies the gift of prophecy.
Unquestionably, religious authority in Judaism is not unquestionable. But it is equally true that there is authority. Emunat Hakhamim, faith in the wise, means that those individuals are authoritative. It commands us to have reverence for religious authorities even if we do not feel we can accept their opinions. It means to follow them even though we often do not agree with them. At all times it means that we must have respect, simple derekh eretz.
I grant that it is not always easy to do that. In Avot 6:5 we are told of the various ways in which Torah can be acquired–one of them is emunat hakhamim, faith in the Sages, and right next to it comes yisurim, pain. Acquiring Torah is indeed painful at times, but it is a pain which must be risked and embraced.