Thursday, August 17, 2006

da'as Torah and false dichotomies

My co-blogger Bari sets up the following hypothetical in the comment field of a previous post:
"But, if the average MO person, or any frum person, were told by a doctor not to go through a certain medical procedure, and, say, the Chazon Ish caught wind of that and called him on your cell and told him not to heed the doctor and go ahead with the procedure - would he: a) Unhesitatingly follow the doctor b) Grapple with it c) Unhesitatingly follow the CI?"
Other commentators have stolen some of my thunder - apologies for any repetition. To my mind this hypothetical is unreasonable because it sets up a false dichotomy. Despite my respect for the Chazon Ish, I would unhesitatingly hang up the phone because that is what the halacha itself demands that I do! To wit, in hilchos Yom Kippur matters of issur v’heter like eating on Yom Kippur are decided based on the expertise of the medical doctor consulted, even (according to some poskim) if that doctor is not even Jewish. If a doctor tells me to eat on Yom Kippur otherwise my life would be endangered, any advice of a posek to the contrary based on their intuition carries no halachic weight. The function of halacha is to apply G-d’s law to the facts at hand, but the determination of the facts at hand is the province of experts in individual fields. Anyone who has opened a gemara is familiar with its format of case law: given case X, the halacha is Y. In this equation, the medical expert or other technical expert's role is clarifying X; the posek's role given X is clarifying Y. If I present a piece of neveilah to the Chazon Ish and he mistakingly paskens the meat is kosher, does that make it so? Do I say "tzadik gozeir v'Hashem mekayeim" and assume the property of the meat magically changes? Absolutely not! The metziyus dictates the halacha, and if a mistake is made in determining the former, the latter will unquestionably be wrong.
It seems to me that a fundemental error is made in extending the principle of da'as Torah (and I hate that term) and assigning expertise to poskim in areas outside halacha and hashkafa. The The gemara in Shabbos (85a) asks: how did the Chachamim know the shiur yenika of plants? Answers the gemara: they consulted the experts, the Chivim and Emorim, who knew farming. The Rambam bases Kiddush haChodesh on astronomy learned from the non-jewish world (Kiddush haChodesh 17:24). The gemara (Pesachim 94b) even writes that the non-Jewish experts opinion proven more correct than that of the Chachamim in a matter of astronomy (and R’ Akiva Eiger’s comment there is irrelevant, v’ain kan mekomo). These are but a few examples. You should no more ask a posek for medical advise than you should ask your doctor to help resolve an issue of ethics. And a posek who would attempt to rule on a question that demands medical or technical knowledge without consultation with the experts in the field will inevitably err. I simply do not understand how one can ask a posek to rule on a metziyus.
This misapplication of the concept of da’as Torah leads to a phenomenon that struck me when I recently saw a book of questions asked to an adam gadol. Does a gadol really need to be asked whether one must help one’s wife to take out the garbage? Or whether a child should be allowed play time after school? What are the halachic issues of consequence here? This is not “da’as Torah”, but simply an excuse to avoid thinking, what Rav Kook calls the substitution of “yiras hamachshava” for “yiras Shamayim”. It seems that the concept of “da’as Torah” has become a catch all, whereby gedolim are assigned the role of guru to deal with all of life’s problems, from the most complex to the most mundane – they are experts on everything and must be consulted on everything. A local Rav told me he was called by newlyweds for advise on how their new can opener works. This is nothing less than a trivialization of the halachic system, a waste of time for all involved.
The role of da'as Torah should be limited to (a) expert determination and clarification of the technicalities of halacha, and (b) expert clarification of the spirit of the law, which halacha itself mandates considering (see Ramban on v'asita hayashar v'hatov). Technical advice, professional advice, practical questions, and issues that your mother and a little common sense should enable you to solve should not be laid at the feet of the giants of Torah.

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