Daas Torah – When Great Men are Worshiped

I want to be clear from the outset so that there is no mistake about my views. I have profound respect for Gedolim.  Who those Gedolim are may be a subject of debate among various factions within Orthodoxy. But the one thing they have in common is that their Torah knowledge is superior by far to that of the rest of us.

Not that Torah knowledge alone is enough to make one a Gadol in a leadership sense. Although they may be considered a Gadol BaTorah, they may still not be qualified to be a Gadol B’Yisroel – a rabbinic leader. There are many factors that must be met besides Torah knowledge before someone can dispense wisdom to the masses. What those factors are is beyond the scope of this post.

Daas Torah is the term used by the Charedi world to refer to the views of those leaders who qualify as Gedolim. Although the term has been subjected to lot of ridicule by some, I believe ridicule uncalled for and unfair. That term simply means ‘Wisdom of the Torah’. Orthodox Jews should acknowledge that the Torah is the word of God. Thus God’s wisdom is contained therein. The difficulty is in how to find out what that wisdom actually is. The Torah cannot possibly  deal with every single issue that ever comes up even in one generation, let alone every generation. That is why those with the most Torah knowledge are best equipped to tell us what the Torah would say about any given situation.

Even though there are people that have that kind of knowledge they do not always agree on how one should deal with a particular situation. This very important fact illustrates the difficulty of knowing exactly what the wisdom of the Torah is. An example of this in a communal sense was whether Orthodox rabbis should join a rabbinic body that includes Conservative and Reform Rabbis. Rav Aharon Kotler’s Daas Torah forbade any participation at all with heterodox rabbis for any reason. Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik’s Daas Torah permitted it if it was exclusively for the betterment of the Jewish people and theological issues were not involved.

One can debate the opinions of these great rabbis. But there should be no doubt that in both cases it was Daas Torah speaking. So that even though I  would see Rav Soloveitchik’s views more accurately reflecting the wisdom of theTorah, I still consider Rav Kotler’s views to Daas Torah as well.

That being said, what has happened to that idea has been warped beyond recognition into something that is not Daas Torah at all. Albeit still thought to be by far too many people in the Charedi world. This does not mean that there aren’t Charedim that view Daas Torah correctly. But there are far too many whose views are so warped, that it defies imagination.

Case in point. Yesterday a  Charedi friend of mine approached me after Mincha about an encounter he had with  a fellow Charedi.  He was asked if he heard what R’ Chaim Kanievsky said about Hurricane Irma being a Sakana (life threatening) . My friend responded along the lines that he couldn’t believe that anyone asked R’ Chaim a silly question like that and why anyone would make a big deal about a one word obvious answer. The fellow seem shocked at the response. How could he say something like that about a ‘psak’ from Rav Kanievsky?!  It was as though he committed blasphemy!

(Just to be clear. This is not a criticism of R’ Kanievsky. It is a criticism of both the need to ask a question the answer to which can be given by 8th grader – and the reaction of the Charedi fellow to my friend’s response.)

Unfortunately that incident didn’t surprise me. That’s because of how the Charedi world talks about their rabbinic leaders. They do so in terms that places them on pedestals so high that they become nearly god-like figures. Any reference to one of their Gedolim that can be perceived with even the slightest bit of criticism (even when there was none as was the case here) is grounds for questioning his credentials as a ‘Ben Torah’ (a term used to describe fellow Charedim).

This not Daas Torah. This is Gadol worship. It mimics the kind or awe Chasidim give to there Chasidic Rebbes.

The phenomenon of Gadol worship has many fathers. Not the least of which is how Agudah speaks about its rabbinic leadership as absolute and final authorities on every matter about which they express an opinion. While agreeing that they are human and fallible, they nevertheless treat them as though they are infallible. So that anything they say s to be treated as though God Himself has said it. Rendering their ‘disclaimer’  meaningless.This kind of thinking is carried over to their banquets where inevitable there will be at least one speaker will take this attitude to an even more exaggerated level.

But that is not the only factor.  Biographies about  about past Gedolim in the Charedi world – painting them as born holy from the womb – is practically how every biography is written. The subjects of the bios never struggle – never err even as children. They are presented as born perfect and remaining perfect throughout their lives. When Gedolim of the past are presented in such unrealistic terms – hiding any aspect of their lives that might be considered the slightest bit unflattering, it isn’t too difficult to see how anyone referred to as a Gadol in our generations are seen.

Another factor that influences how  Charedi Mechanchim speak to their students about the experiences with their own Gadol. They tend to talk in the most glowing terms describing their personal encounters in exaggerated terms. I’m not sure they even realize they are exaggerating. The fact is they don’t really know more than their own experiences tell them and  have no clue about how they cmae tobe who they are – whether they had any imperfections in their character they had to overcome.  So a young student who may have the same Rosh Yeshiva later in life will already be in a state of awe before he ever meets him, and treat him accordingly.

As the Gadol ages and his following becomes greater the stories about him spread as do the exaggerations. When you combine all of these factors, you and up with the incident my friend described to me.

This is a very unhealthy development for Orthodoxy. As I said Gedolim deserve our respect. What they do not deserve is to be worshiped as though they are gods.

There are too many people that have the kind of reaction my friend described.

I’m sure that Agudah officials will deny that they build up their Gedolim in unrealistic terms. But I have to question that when at every convention they speak about their Gedolim that way.

I’m equally sure that  Charedim will deny that  biographers exaggerate the greatness of their subjects. But when they refuse to publish any of the human struggles they had on the way to becoming a Gadol, what other conclusions can one have than to see them as beyond human and near godlike?!

And when Roshei Yeshiva ignore the kind of fawning their students have over them, that too encourages this attitude.

I would like to see the concept of Daas Torah revert to what it is supposed to be – respecting their views but not idolizing them. It would help if the exaggerations at conventions and omissions in biographies would stop. It would also help if Roshei Yeshiva would tell their students that they too had struggles. And actually point to mistakes they made.

And so too would it help if a Rebbe would stop exaggerating about his personal experiences with his own idealized Rebbe or Rosh Yeshiva and perhaps relate something human about them.

I will end with an excerpt from Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s book, The Warmth and the Light, which I referenced in a previous post on the subject:

In Parhsas Ki Sisa where we have our first instance of what happens when a great man, Moshe Rabbenu, is worshipped. That kind of worship led to the Maaseh HaEgel – the worshipping of an icon – the golden calf…


How is it possible that the people who were just so overwhelmed by the Shechina and declaring ‘Naaseh V’Nishma’ – ‘We will do (the Mitzvos) and we will listen to them’ – could sink to the moral abyss of Avodah Zara – idol worship?

Rav Ahron’s answer was discussed in that post. But I think history is repeating itself for the reasons – at least in part – I mentioned here. And could be remedied accordingly.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.