Da’as Torah III

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Before commenting, please read this excerpt carefully and keep in mind that the author is a brilliant Talmudic scholar, a successful rosh yeshiva and a profound thinker. In a short phrase, his answer is “Yes, but…”

Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here and here.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Legitimization of Modernity: Classical and Contemporary” in Leaves of Faith (Ktav: 2004), vol. 2 pp. 294-298:

[T]here are many apologists who contend that the primary issues are matters of haskafah [Jewish thought rather than practice], to which authority per se is far less relevant, and with respect to which classical sources are arguably self-sufficient. This brings us to the familiar shibboleth of da’at Torah. This concept is generally in disrepute among votaries of modern Orthodoxy, who have sought to challenge both its historical progeny and its philosophic validity. I must confess that I find myself, in principle, more favorably disposed to the idea. I readily concede that the concept, in its more overarching permutatioins, is of relatively recent vintage…

Moreover, I freely concede that one’s faith in the concept is periodically put to a severe test. As but one instance, the doyen of [then-]current rashei yeshiva, R. [Elazar Mann] Schach, proves the value of Torah as the self-sufficient repository of all knowledge by asking, rhetorically: “Whence did Hazal know that the earth was forty-two times larger than the moon, and that the sun was approximately one-hundred-and-seventy times larger than the earth (as explained in the Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 3:8), if not from the power of the Torah?”[24] In raising this question, he is wholly oblivious not only to the rudiments of astronomy but also of the fact that the selfsame Rambam explicitly states, with respect to these very issues, that they are beyond the pale of Hazal’s authority:

Do not ask of me to show that everything they have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics were imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in these fields or because they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times.[25]

To my mind, the strain is palpable.

Nevertheless, I find the alternative view, that gedolei Torah are professional experts whose authority and wisdom can ordinarily be regarded as confined to the area of their technical proficiency, simply inconceivable. Our abiding historical faith in the efficacy of Torah as a pervasive, ennobling, informing, and enriching force dictates adoption of the concept of da’at Torah in some form or measure. Still, contrary to the historical course of the idea, I find it less applicable today than heretofore. At a time when many gedolim do not spring organically from the dominant Jewish community to whose apex they rise, and instead distance themselves from it; and when the ability to understand and communicate in a shared cultural or even verbal language is, by design, limited, the capacity of even a gadol to intuit the sociohistorical dynamics of his ambient setting is almost inevitably affected. And while the quasi-mystical element of Sod Hashem Li-Yrei’av U-Veriso Le-Hodi’am [the secrets of the Lord are for His fearers, and His covenant to inform them] always remains applicable, that, too, presumably is not wholly independent of circumstances…

These considerations aside, however, even if it were wholly licit to sever all links with contemporary gedolim… such a course would be grossly mistaken… A person, and not only the ordinary layman, needs a gavra rabba [great person], to serve in part as a role-model if possible, and in part as a realization of what Whitehead called “the vision of greatness”; to lift one’s sights and aspirations — extending the bounds of what he strives to achieve, and suffusing him with appreciation and admiration for what he senses he cannot achieve; to guide, on the one hand, and inhibit, on the other. This is not a matter of popular hagiolatry or Carlylean hero-worship. It is a spiritual necessity, all the more so within our tradition, for which an adam gadol [great man] is the embodiment of the mesorah [tradition], and of Torah she-b’al-peh [the Oral Law].


[24]Rav E.M. Schach, quoted in Toda’ah 48:2 (Nissan 5752).
[25] Guide of the Perplexed, trans. S. Pines, III:14; p. 459. The question raised by the passage is self-evident; but the Rambam’s position, in any event, is clear.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

3 comments

  1. Regarding the source of the Chazal’s knowledge of astronomy, what R’ Lichtenstein is saying is not so simple. See here:

    http://vintagefrumteens.blogspot.com/2006/11/torah-science-rambam-and-rabeinu.html

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