Rabbi Lamm on Da’as Torah

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

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.

About Gil Student

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


  1. Re. R. Lamm and Daas Torah:

    (1) R. Hershel Schachter quotes R. Lamm re R. Soloveitchik:

    ושמענו מהר”ר נחום לאם, שיחי’, שפעם נשאל רבנו על איזה ענין
    פוליטי, והשיב להרב השואל את דעתו בנדון. אח”כ חזר השואל ואמר – אזי
    ה”דעת תורה” של רבנו היא כך וכך, ותיכף הגיב רבנו ואמר בקפידא- לא אמרתי
    “דעת תורה”, רק אמרתי שכן דעתי נוטה, והבוחר יבחר. וכמדומה לי שהבנת
    הדברים כך היא, שהעולם רגילים להשתמש בביטוי “דעת תורה” במובן של
    הכרעה מוחלטת, שאין רשות לשומע לדון או לחלוק בדבר, וזה לא הי’ דרכו של
    רבנו, כידוע ומפורסם לכל.
    (MiPninei Rabbeinu: Kuntres Beinyanei Psak Halacha, Beit Yitchak Journal (2006) Vol 38 p. 4; see translation and link to RHS in “R. Soloveitchik on Da’as Torah II”, Hirhurim, 8/15/06)

    (2) “We don’t work on the concept of da’as Torah,” said Lamm, a noted Judaics scholar, philosopher and former pulpit rabbi. “The fact that a rosh yeshiva is for or against should be listened to, respectfully, but there is no principle of infallibility that we accept. They are serious people, and I respect them for having their opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s the board that has to take responsibility for the decision.”(“YU Pick for President Viewed as Victory For Centrist Wing”,Forward, 12/13/02).
    R. Avi Shafran discusses R. Lamm’s comment in “What Da’at Torah Really Means” in the 3/03 Jewish Week.

  2. What prior iterations of leadership (e.g. vaad arba aratzot) used an appellation of similar nature to gdolei?

  3. “cannot refuse the title placed upon them”

    Why do you assume they didn’t place it on themselves? Was the Moetzet created by grassroots laymen?

  4. I don’t understand R’ Lamm’s position. He argues against rabbinic infallibility, which isn’t what the ideologues who believe in daas Torah mean by the term. Divine assistance, perhaps. A special wisdom coming from a mind shaped by Torah, certainly. But infallibility? That’s attacking the maximalist position of the less thoughtful among the masses. Easy pickings.

    On the other hand, Rabbi Lamm does not distinguish between rabbinic authority in matters of halakhah or turning to them on questions of hashkafah, and extending that to consulting them on questions where the unknowns are the facts on the ground, not religion.

    A third ground is communal vs personal leadership. The Agudah’s rationale for being led by a Moetzes Gedolei haTorah has to do with needing a single communal-wide policy, and doesn’t speak to turn to gedolim when asking about a personal matter.

    RYBS himself, in his Agudah days, held that there was an obligation on a communal level to follow what we now call daas Torah. With no claims about it being more likely to be correct than advice from anyone else of comparable intelligence. He wrote in his hesped for R CO Grodzinsky that there is a reason why the head that bore the tzitz, and thus the sheim Hashem of religious leadership had to be the same person who wore the choshen, with the names of the shevatim, that was consulted on civil questions like whether to go to war. Even without ruach haqodesh, RYBS at the time believed that the Torah way was to unite religious and civil leadership

    Then came the Holocaust, and the difference between Agudah and Zionism on their ability to lead in times of trouble, and — as RYBS put it in Yoseif veEchav (the first of the Fir Derashes) — hashgachah “pasqened” in favor of Mizrachi.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: