I. The Middle Path
The issue of “Da’as Torah,” the guidance of Torah scholars on a wide variety of religio-political issues, is one of the key boundaries in Orthodox Jewish segmentations. Charedim take it as a broad and fundamental concept, right wing Modern Orthodox accept it as a general rule of thumb and left wing Modern Orthodox reject it entirely. R. Aharon Lichtenstein has voiced his view many times in the past and it falls into what was just described as right wing Modern Orthodox. He recently expanded his treatment in a way that is both compelling and troubling.
According to R. Lichtenstein, Torah giants have unique wisdom and, while certainly fallible, should be taken very seriously. He has written (link):
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].
In a talk over this past Chanukah, subsequently written by a disciple and disseminated by R. Lichtenstein’s yeshiva, the great scholar expanded on his views in a strong, perhaps incendiary, way (link – PDF).
II. Common Sense
R. Lichtenstein describes a private conversation he had with his early mentor, R. Yitzchak Hutner. In disparaging an unnamed Torah scholar, R. Hutner quoted the midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:15) that a Torah scholar without “da’as” is worse than an impure animal’s carcass. Someone extremely learned in Talmud and codes can still be ignorant if he lacks “da’as,” if he is incapable of properly understanding and interacting with other people. [See also R. Avraham Grodzinski, Toras Avraham, p. 367ff.]
R. Lichtenstein proceeds to define this “da’as” as common sense with a deep understanding of the situation. A Torah scholar must attempt to understand a person, his place and his standing. “Da’as” requires psychological sensitivity and insight into the questioner and knowledge of the reality as it pertains to the question and questioner. It also demands an introspective knowledge of personal limitations.
In the past, R. Lichtenstein laments, we had Torah giants with great sensitivity such as R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky. They understood people and their culture. In contrast, today the Torah giants are intentionally, as a matter of policy, distant from the public. They erect barriers to keep out the goings-on of general society. And they institute self-destructive policies.
III. Two Failures
R. Lichtenstein addresses two specific policies that he finds indicative of poor leadership:
- Planned Poverty – With no education or job training, and a requirement to have a large family, the Charedi leadership has set people up for disaster. Where is the wisdom and foresight? Where is the profound sensitivity to the personal anguish these policies cause?
- Separatism – A component of the mitzvah to love God is to cause others to love Him. Charedi leaders promote their own communities and in the process alienate, and often harshly insult, outsiders. This, in turn, distances many people from traditional Judaism.
R. Lichtenstein’s strong words are, in my opinion, correct but only the beginning. My views on this subject correspond to his. However, surprisingly missing in this talk is R. Lichtenstein’s characteristic nuance. In past essays, R. Lichtenstein examines the views of those with whom he disagrees in a generous spirit, attempting to understand their rationales and responses. He then evaluates their complete views and explains why he disagrees.
I see none of that here. Why do these Charedi leaders advocate self-imposed poverty? What compels their separatist strategy? Is it really a lack of common sense, or maybe an alternate evaluation of the results or different set of priorities? Presumably, due to the nature of the delivery (a talk and not an essay) or as a rhetorical strategy to express the highly charged atmosphere of the moment, R. Lichtenstein omitted that piece of the analysis. Lacking that, he will only convince those who are already on his side (as I am).
R. Lichtenstein raises important ideological points that are worthy of consideration and, in my opinion, acceptance. I hope that future versions of the discussion, perhaps when the latest furor dies down, add his characteristic nuance so our viewpoint is recorded for posterity in its most compelling form.