Thursday, September 15, 2016

Guest Post: Daas Torah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and the King of Togo

This week, there was a brouhaha over the news that Rav Chaim Kanievsky told a kallah to break her engagement upon discovering that the chosson owns a non-kosher smartphone. For the record, this is a ruling to which I am personally sympathetic, even though I am not entirely supportive of such a drastic step. Still, I thought it would be relevant to publish the following guest post on the topic of Daas Torah in general and Rav Chaim Kanievsky in particular. The author of this post does not want to reveal his name. He learned in charedi yeshivos and kollelim for fifteen years.

The academic study of the doctrine of Da'at Torah begun with an article published in the journal Tradition in 1980 by Lawrence Kaplan, and expanded twelve years later into an extensive study on the subject. Since then more works have been written, and an English bibliography can be found here. In 2005, Benjamin Brown wrote a long article in Hebrew where he traced three stages in the development of the doctrine:

1. The ability of Torah scholars to draw advice and guidance from the Torah which was perceived as worth heeding, but not necessarily authoritative or obligatory.

2. From the beginning of the twentieth century with the establishment of Agudat Yisrael until the end of the Holocaust Da'at Torah became institutionalized and only certain religious leaders who made up the Moetzet Gedolei ha-Torah of the political Agudat Yisrael party could issue obligatory non-halakhic rulings.

3. After the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel the obligation to obey Da'at Torah was considered not to be predicated on the assumption of a positive outcome, nor its soundness to be judged by its results. Second, the quasi-mystical element of the doctrine was bolstered by claims that the decisions of the sages are inspired by “the holy spirit,” or a “Divine inspiration.”

In a subsequent Hebrew booklet published in 2011, and summarized in an English article, two more stages were added: a fourth stage - the monopolization of Da'at Torah associated with the leadership of Rav Shach; and a fifth stage - the post-ideological or technocratic phase of Da'at Torah, in which its direction is not only determined by the gedolim, but is also influenced in significant part by a group of aides and gabbaim that surrounds them. (He also discusses a sixth phase which is beginning of a democratization of Da'at Torah, which is just beginning, where one's authority is chosen based on one's one views.)

I would like to discuss further the fifth stage. Over the past decades, as gedolim have been besieged by the public, a group of family members, gabboim and askanim have formed around them as gatekeepers to protect them. Thus their source of information is restricted and filtered, and not only have some people (including Rabbis) have been denied access to them and not allowed to properly present their case (phone calls with two Rabbis in regard to Rav Shach and Rav Eliyashiv has confirmed this), but it has become much easier to manipulate them.

In 2010 I wrote Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita a letter asking if he really signed on a letter supporting an indicted child abuser. He replied that he signs on whatever his own Rabbis sign on. His handwritten response can be seen on this blog here. I subsequently sent Rav Chaim a letter respectfully challenging his reliance on his Rav and his issuing decisions based on incomplete knowledge of the situation. I quoted Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky as saying: "דעת תורה אהין דעת תורה אהער דער פאקטס מוז מין העב'ן", and the following from Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the Seredei Aish, who wrote:

יודעים אנו על פי הניסיון כי מסביב לכיסאו של אדם גדול שורצים ורבים בריות שפלות, מין רמשים קטנים, אשר קטנותן תהיה להן למבטח כי לא תֵראנה ולא תִמצאנה, ועל כן יכולות הן, בהאפילן על עצמן בטליתו של ה"גדול", לעשות כמעשה הרמש, ולרדוף אחרי כל אדם ישר באין כל סכנה לנפשן. ויש לפעמים אשר אנשים ישרים נפגעים על ידי גאון מפורסם מבלי הבין את חטאתם ופשעם, כסבורים הם שזאת היא "עקיצת עקרב" ומתמרמרים על הגאון, בעוד שבעיקר הדבר אין זאת אלא "נשיכה של שועל" היוצא מבית קודשי הקודשים של גאון, או לחישת נחש המתחמם בחיקו..." (מתוך ספר לפרקים)

Rav Chaim did in fact read my letter and replied, inviting me to talk to him when I would be in Bnei Brak. Unlike the letter which was a private correspondence between us, I have learned from experience that a face to face meeting is nothing like that. Aside from a long wait, there are gabbaim urging you to hurry and a bunch of people surrounding Rav Chaim listening in, so I did not take him up on his offer.

Now, just how easy it is to fool Rav Chaim came to light last week. According to a news article (at this link) in January of this year Rabbi Daniel Asur brought King Francois Ayi, a king in Togo in Africa to Rav Chaim. Ayi claimed to rule over millions of people descended from the ten tribes whom he wants to bring closer to Judaism, and when Rav Chaim asked if he can impose capital punishment on them, he replied that he has that power and showed him a picture of himself with a crown on. Rav Chaim then stood up and made a brochah with shem u'malkhus. The scene can actually be viewed in its entirety here. Of course the idea of an African king sounded like a fairy tale to many of the public, and a quick Internet search brought many to doubt Ayi's claims. Last week Rabbi Asur publicly revealed he was duped and that Ayi is actually a Christian missionary.

Rav Chaim is well-known for generously spending hours each week writing thousands of laconic answers to halakhic questions in response to mailed questions, and which are printed at the beginning or end of many seforim. A quick perusal of some of them clearly shows that he never advocates making any brakhah unless he is absolutely convinced of its necessity, yet here he relied on a dubious claim to himself make what was clearly at best a brakhah le'vatalah.

The moral of the story is that even if one accepts the doctrine of Da'at Torah in any of its permutations, there should be great concern that the information on which it is based should be accurate and unbiased, and often that is unfortunately not the case.

27 comments:

  1. Dear R Natan, In your quote from R Y Kamenetsky, I think it is supposed to be מיר or maybe מען. M Harris

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  2. Of course, none of this matters unless one is inclined to give some kind of creedence to some formulation of das toireh in the first place. I think most people who are prepared to study this thing as a social-historical phenomenon, as the author clearly is, are not about to entertain magical claims of superior judgment.

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  3. The moral of the story is that even if one accepts the doctrine of Da'at Torah in any of its permutations, there should be great concern that the information on which it is based should be accurate and unbiased, and often that is unfortunately not the case.

    With due respect to Rav Kanievsky who knows far more Torah than I ever will, isn't the moral of the story not trust Rav Kanievsky's rulings? Or at least not trust them any more?

    A posek is always faced with questions about the veracity of the facts before them. If he is (or is no longer) able to assess the veracity of basic facts about the world, then perhaps others can take up the mantle of P'sak. Maybe the change that needs to be made is that it is not disrespectful to move on to other, perhaps younger, figures when a great figure has reached point where he has lost touch with how the world works today.

    I'd also point out that while Da'at Torah is a fairly nonsensical doctrine it's own, the poster's version of it is even more ridiculous, although perhaps aligned with how it is used in practices. How does it make sense to say that certain people have special insight into the world, but then say that only applies when they are not grossly mistaken about how the world works. What happened to the special insight? If it works at all, it should work to prevent gross error.

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    1. If one must have cadre of elite scholars that are considered the authoritative leaders of the generation, then the least we can do is demand that they they meet the qualification of a member of Sanhedrin. If there was such a bar for being regarded as a "Gadol Hador" then we would all be better off.

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  4. Perhaps if Rav Kanievsky hadn't come out so strongly against smart phones, then one of his Shamashim could have found this 20 year old article: Credentials of Togo 'king' questioned.

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  5. More worrying is that Togo is a republic. Everyone knows a Republic does not have a king, and certainly no figure who can administer capital punishment, and people rely on him about questions regarding sick children and how to operate?!

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    1. Don't let the propaganda fool you. After the previous president died, his son was suspiciously quickly president. First it was by fiat, and when people objected to that, he mysteriously won an election. When people objected again, they disappeared. It has a king one can make the blessing over; it's just not Ayi.

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    2. One of the criteria for the bracha is "reigning justly."

      Also, this raises the murky question of what is a monarch. Is Assad? Is Kim? Is Castro's brother? They all basically inherited the leadership of "republics." On the other hand, about half the world's "monarchs" have no real power.

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    3. After the Oslo Accords were signed, all sorts of dignitaries from different countries started to visit Israel. I vividly remember the King of Spain (a ceremonial king) walking through the Cardo in Jerusalem's Old City. The rabbis said then that it was okay to make the berachah w/o שם ומלכות (which essentially isn't a berachah anyway).

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  6. "This week, there was a brouhaha over the news that Rav Chaim Kanievsky told a kallah to break her engagement upon discovering that the chosson owns a non-kosher smartphone. For the record, this is a ruling to which I am personally sympathetic, even though I am not entirely supportive of such a drastic step."

    Would like to hear more about your views here vis a vis smartphones.

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    1. Are you going to honestly say that smartphones and unfiltered internet is only problematic because of erroneous assumptions?

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  7. Rav Kanievsky has never used a smartphone or the Internet in his life. His only source of knowledge about them comes from his gabboim who feed him whatever information they want. For him to pasken on any issues relating to a smartphone is ridiculous and dangerous.

    Besides for that anyone who has read any of Reb Chaim's works and Teshuvos will realise he is living in fairy tale land. He has no idea how the world, or people work. As a result, he may be a great talmid chochom but should not be gone to for any pesokim at all. Your local rabbi would be more useful.

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    1. Thats an extreme statement "Any of his works and Teshuvos". How much of Rav Chaim's work have you learned and found skeptical? I'd be surprised if you could come up with five instances (from his seforim that you actually learned).
      Its very easy to jump on the bandwagon, but please don't make stuff up.
      Does that qualify as slander/defamation? At least your lashon hora won't hurt his finances because he doesn't take any money for the hours a day he spends responding to letters and visitors.

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    2. Just one example, he believes that wearing a watch is a problem of beged isha see http://jewishworker.blogspot.co.il/2013/06/r-chaim-kanievsky-men-are-not-allowed.html

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  8. I must admit my vast ignorance on this matter. Am I allowed to ask for examples of his ignorance, or is that lashon hara?

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    1. I guess the proper term would be חסרון ידיעה (there is a distinction made in halachah between ספק, where no one can verify the details, and חסרון ידיעה, like not knowing how much milk fell into a pot of chicken. We don't say that it's a safek derabbanan and allow the chicken/milk mixture.).

      I'm not exactly sure what people are expecting: a Rabbi can't employ Ruach haKodesh to rule in a matter of halachah. He only can rule according to the facts presented to him. The fault lies with the askanim that presented Rav Chaim Kanievsky with faulty information. They're certain the guy's a king, and they presented him to Rav Chaim as such.

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    2. I think that is fine, but then it is reasonable not to put a lot of faith in Rav Kanievsky's P'sak since he is dependent on unreliable people around him.

      Also, I think that this example is a bit worse. He saw that they didn't know and asked him and relied on his answer.

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  9. "Rav Chaim did in fact read my letter and replied, inviting me to talk to him when I would be in Bnei Brak."

    That isn't unusual. It isn't reserved only for politically incorrect questions.

    "Unlike the letter which was a private correspondence between us..."

    Who told you there are no gaboim assisting him with reading and writing letters?

    "so I did not take him up on his offer."

    What if you wrote him why you didn't take him up on his offer?

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  10. Just want to point out that the source you quote speak of a non kosher phone. Not a smartphone. For ask you know he may have just not disabled sms texting

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  11. That video of Rav Chaim and the missionary is unbelievably sad. Such manipulation. You can just see how out of touch he is with reality. Nicely written post. A lovely example of pained disappointment in a revered principle that straight thinking showed to be untenable.

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  12. ראו מאמרו של שמחה פרידמן, "אמונת חכמים במישור החברתי ובבעיות ציבור – אתגר רעיוני או הנחיה אופרטיבית?" בתוך כנס לביא תשל"ה, הוצאת הקיבוץ הדתי
    http://toravoda.org.il/%D7%94%D7%97%D7%95%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%AA-%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%AA-%D7%97%D7%9B%D7%9E%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%A9%D7%9E%D7%97%D7%94-%D7%A4%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%93%D7%9E%D7%9F/.

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  13. I'm sorry Reb Natan, but to anyone who has had experience trying to get into the household name Gedolim will know, this is old news.

    I know of a Chutz La'aretez Talmid Chochom who wrote a Teshuva on a certain subject. Word got out that R Elyashiv had argued with it and paskened the opposite. The author of the Teshuva happened to be in Israel and tried to get in to R Elyashiv to discuss it with him. (At first he couldn't even get in because the Gabboim refused him entry; eventually after some proteksia he finally spoke to him.) R Elyashiv told him it was the first he had ever heard of the subject! He had never issued any Pesak because he had never heard the Shaalah.

    My point being that before accepting any "pesak" from R ELyashiv it's quite important to verify he actually said it.

    [On second thoughts, you're actually going a step further, and saying that even when we can verify that they said it, it's sometimes based on erroneous information....]

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  14. Publishing Hebrew and Yiddish quotes as part of an English language post without translating them is really rather annoying.

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  15. There's a famous picture of the minchas eluzur (munkatcher rov) saying the bracha blessing in front of the king of romania (and his horse). The king was a vassal of the austrian empire; if he had power to have someone killed, it was in the name of austria hungary, not as romanian.

    2. One of the gospels says the sanhedrin high rabbinical court didn't have the power of death penalty without the permission of the roman procurator governor.

    Point is, don't have to be a full fledged king. (Does a queen count?)

    Does a US state governor who can grant pardons, responsible for details of executions, including date, etc., count?

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  16. I think it is inappropriate for you to post a 'guest view' and then say the person does not want to be named. Anonymous postings should not be used, just as anonymous replies are not allowed.

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    1. I don't require people to post their names, I just require people to be identifiable!

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  17. Thank you for this excellent and important post. When I personally saw the news article about the rabbi and the "king" in בקהילה magazine in the stands at our neighborhood supermarket, I was curious and bought the magazine (something I never do) to research it further. It took me no more than a 3 minute Internet search to get the facts on Togo's government and missionary work of Ayi. While I shouldn't have been shocked by now by such an embarrassment to Torah, I was.

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