Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Daas Baalei Batim

Rav Hershel Schachter humorously writes:

In fact, in Lithuanian yeshivas there was such an exaggerated disdain for baalei batim, the “story” went around about two elderly gentlemen – baalei batim of course – who were both hard of hearing and made up to learn gemorrah together. One was using a gemorrah Eruvin while the other was using an Erchin. The chavrusa went very well, until they reached the forty-third daf, when one was already making a siyum on the smaller volume (Erchin), and the other still had another seventy blat to go!

This exaggerated attitude is the basis of the very fundamental philosophical question that bothered many of the Lithuanian yeshiva bochurim: why did the Borei Olam create baalei batim at all? We know that he didn’t create anything that has no purpose!?

Needless to say, all of these exaggerations are ridiculous. The Sema never meant to say that the sechel of baalei batim is always the opposite from sechel haTorah. A layman who is not familiar with the intricacies of physics or biology will often be mistaken if he will apply common sense to those disciplines; and the same is true of the self-contained discipline of Torah. But very often we will use common sense in establishing halacha! The Talmud tells us that by way of sevorah we can establish a din de’oaraisa!

I found R. Schachter's approach very satisfying. Our chachamim say, who is wise, he who learns from every person... If one says that there is wisdom amongst the nations, believe him. The Rambam says, accept the truth from whomever states it. There are other statements as well, showing that our sages appreciated all knowledge.

How, then, are we to understand the statement that daas bale batim is antithetical to daas Torah ? I belive that stories along this line must be taken with a grain of salt. It is true that a rosh yeshiva may eschew a superficial, "balebatish" explanation, which on the surface answers a question neatly, but comes without the proper, deeper thought-process that a lamdan must develop, the latter requiring perseverance and mental energy. So some balabtishe type of thinking may be the opposite of daas torah. But certainly not all. Also, historically, the connotation of a "baal habaas" may have connoted someone who was anti-Torah(perhaps like the term "am haaretz" in times of chazal), as opposed to just meaning a "layperson".

I recall reading an obituary in the Jewish Observer about Rabbi Moshe Sherer, where a Rosh Yeshiva praised his ideas, even if they were not followed in the end as a matter of public policy. I would therefore advise taking these stories with a grain of salt(like any other strange story), and understand them to mean , that by examining the thought process of Bale Batim, one can, at times discern a superficial approach to gemera learning or to Torah thought, and use that to contrast such an approach with a deeper, analytical one.

I believe that these stories, if told simplistically without trying to understand them or the greatness of their subject's , do harm to the concept of daas Torah and k'vod chachamim. In general, if I hear a strange story about a gadol, I try to understand it in context of other facets of a gadol's personality and of Torah. I quoted in Stories with Educational Lessons, how Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach did not accept a simplistic, strange sounding story he had heard regarding Rav Akivah Eiger.

Indeed, respect for Torah wisdom is enhanced by emphasizing that the wisdom which exists in all mankind can enhance our understanding of Torah, and that our chachamim were open to learning from all people.

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