Da’as Torah and Papal Infallibility

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There is a review in the new issue of First Things of a book by a Protestant scholar on papal infallibility (link – subscription required). To my surprise, mainly due to my ignorance of Catholic history, there are a number of thought-provoking similarities between papal infallibility and Da’as Torah.

There is a spectrum of views on both, ranging from denial to minimal acceptance to a maximal position. The review quotes one thinker who wrote that “Pontiffs have no infallibility in the world of facts, except only dogmatic.” The same spectrum exists around the idea of Da’as Torah — do the bearers of such wisdom have infallibility on all matters (maximalist), only on theory but not facts, only in their areas of religious expertise, or on nothing at all, and I am sure there are many views in between these.

Click here to read moreWhen did papal infallibility become a binding dogma? While it had been discussed and invoked for centuries, it became official Catholic dogma in 1870. Similarly, while ideas similar to Da’as Torah had been discussed prior, the main establishment of Da’as Torah as a binding dogma — at least in those groups that accept it — was in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

The invoking of Da’as Torah and papal infallibility at the time that modernity allowed for widespread personal autonomy seems to be more than a coincidence. Note that this does not necessarily mean that Da’as Torah is false. However, the rise of it as a repeated theme is different than its tacit acceptance.

Additionally, the spectrum of views about Da’as Torah and papal infallibility presumably represents the difficulties that modern people have with accepting such an idea. Independent thinkers in a world of freedom and autonomy will often reach conclusions different from those of their authority. Their ability to reconcile their personal conclusions with their authority’s in a variety of different situations, or their complete subjugation of their autonomy in cases of conflict, is what leads to this spectrum of views.

Prior posts on Da’as Torah: I, II, III, IV, V

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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