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.