Sunday, May 27, 2007

Daas Torah and Secular Knowledge: Towards a Minimalistic View

FKM's post has inspired some additional thought on how daas Torah relates to other sources of knowledge. I would like to argue in favor of a more minimalistic view of daas Torah, insofar as the question of secular knowledge impacting on a daas Torah opinion or decision is concerned.

First, a practical point. I think that if one wants daas Torah to be accepted by centrists, or even by "left-wing charedim", one needs to allow for a flexible or minimalistic concept of daas Torah. While I agree with the general concept of the Torah's transcendence, as implied in "daas Torah is daas that is formed solely by Torah", I don't know if we need to de-emphasize the role that "secular" ideas may play in a daas Torah decison.

For example, in article titled "What Daat Torah Really Means", R. Avi Shafran writes that some conception of Daas Torah can indeed be accepted by all Orthodox Jews:

Whether Da'at Torah should be discounted by non-haredi Jews or not (not)... What Da'at Torah means, simply put, is that those most imbued with Torah-knowledge and who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes are thereby rendered particularly, indeed extraordinarily, qualified to offer an authentic Jewish perspective on matters of import to Jews - just as expert doctors are those most qualified (though still fallible, to be sure) to offer medical advice…The phrase "Modern Orthodox" seems to mean several very different things to different groups of Jews. But if the word "Orthodox" is to have any meaning at all, it has to reflect a basic belief in the supremacy and scope of Torah.

Upon reflection, I think that one can't have it both ways. If non-charedim are supposed to accept, to an extent, daas Torah, then one must, for example, accord RYBS and RAAK a certain daas Torah and Gadol status(even if, in the charedi view, they are "not our Gedolim").

Similarly, there are talmidie chachamim in the charedi world who are referred to as Gedolim and whose views are given daas Torah status, yet have secular knowledge. If these talmidie chachamim don't have gedolim or daas Torah status, then we shouldn't be asking them questions( I understand that the question of "who is a Gadol" was not the original subject of discussion in the above two links and quotes, and that one can respect talmidie chachamim with secular knowledge, as well as their decisions, no matter how one relates daas Torah to secular knowledge, but I bring up this point, as it is somewhat related). Eventually, if one maximizes the concept of daas Torah and Gedolim, at a certain point, one undermines the concepts. That is one reason why I question if the existence of Gedolim cards, in the long run, strengthens or weakens the concept of Gedolim, particularly beyond charedi circles.

I agree with Rabbi Adlerstein's points in "Daas Torah: The Core Values":

There is a second casualty generated by any Daas Torah discussion, besides the animosity and recriminations. Lots of people are turned off by extreme positions – either for good reason, or for lack of understanding…

A corollary of this is that all Torah giants have these gifts, whether or not they agree with each other. If you[deny] the Daas Torah of any individual who spends decades steeped in the full time pursuit of Torah learning, achieving recognized excellence therein, you undermine the entire concept. You can take issue with positions of that person for a variety of good reasons, such as following the Daas Torah of a larger group of luminaries, or following the opinions of your own rebbi and mentor, but you should not be able to deny him the gift of Daas Torah.

That’s it. I am purposefully avoiding issues such as who has more Daas Torah than whom, how to weigh the contribution of Daas Torah to a decision relative to other contributions, such as experience and specialized study, and which kinds of questions need to be brought to Torah leadership for answers. About these, reasonable people – as well as many unreasonable ones – will passionately disagree...

The question of the impact of secular knowledge on daas Torah, really relates to the question of the relation of secular knowledge to Torah. As was discussed in the comments of FKM's previous post, the interface between Torah and secular knowledge is an age-old question, as is the issue of being "influenced" by secular thought.

Furthermore, even though the kabbalistic sources quoted are part of our mesorah and I personally consider the Ramban in the preface to Bereishis to be a fundamental of Yahadus, I think it would be fair to note that the Rambam or other rationalistic rishonim or acharonim might not hold that it a required belief to express the concept of the Torah's transcendence in terms of saying that physiognomy and palmistry can (theoretically) be understood from Bereshis without other knowledge, or with the illustration of the Chazon Ish miraculously advising on surgery as a result of Torah study. Even if everyone would agree that it is indeed a required belief of Judaism(eg, based on the fact that chazal say that Torah predated the physical universe, and on how one defines maaseh bereshis and maaseh merkaveh), some might still argue that in contemporary times as well, gedolim should attain secular knowledge and integrate it with their Torah knowledge.

Although "rishonim k'malachim", and we can not compare our ability to relate/filter/synthesize secular studies with Torah to theirs, I think that it is fair to say that there was, and still is, some difference among rishonim, acharonim, and current Gedolim/talmdie chachamim, about the relationship of secular knowledge to Torah, and how "maximalist" a Daas Torah concept one should have as a result. Hopefully, these differences can be supported by cogent arguments, and in a manner of mutual respect.

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