The concept of “daas Torah” is one that has very much taken root in our collective communities. It is also an ideal that is often ridiculed or at least misunderstood by many beyond the confines of the chareidi community. Indeed, even in our own community, there are misconceptions about it.
I have heard some say that daas Torah is something only possessed by one or two gedolei hador. I have heard others say that every person who has learned some Torah is also daas Torah. Thus, a mesivta rebbi, a pulpit rabbi and a kollel yungerman also possesses daas Torah.
So, what is daas Torah?
Although I certainly cannot claim to be an expert in this area, let us at least review some basic ideas. Firstly, let us say what we are not discussing. We are not discussing daas Torah in the Chassidic world, i.e., the relationship between a chossid and his rebbe. According to Chassidic hashkafah, that relationship works differently than the common understanding of daas Torah. It works with bittul. The concept of the “tsaddik” in Chassidic thought is too complex to be discussed in this article. Rather, we are talking today about someone who needs advice and thus seeks daas Torah.
I often hear people say, “I asked daas Torah,” and what they had done was speak to a Yid who was a moderate talmid chochom. Is that daas Torah? Are there levels of daas Torah?
What is Daas Torah?
The truth is that I myself am not sure, but I think that there are a number of things that we can all agree on. To begin with, the more Torah a person learns, the more he purifies his seichel and the more his seichel becomes attuned to what Hashem wants. Why? Because Hashem expresses His ratzon in the Torah, and the more Torah one learns, the better chance he has of his seichel being in sync with the seichel of Hashem Yisborach, as it were.
That, however, is not daas Torah. According to Rav Elchonon Wasserman, daas Torah is reserved for a very small group of exalted individuals who are so permeated with Torah knowledge that their thought processes become saturated with Torah and they are endowed with a special degree of Divine assistance. Therefore, they are most qualified to give advice and set policy even on matters not directly related to Torah. The Torah has answers to everything (see Kovetz Maamarim, vol. 1, page 227).
Most of the time, when people consult with what they call daas Torah, they mean that they are consulting a rabbinic figure who has more Torah knowledge than they have, with the understanding that he is more likely to have seichel hayoshor and a legitimate approach based in Torah knowledge than they have. I don’t think it means that every rebbi with whom one consults has reached the level of his intellect being akin to the Torah’s intellect. That, indeed, is an exalted level reserved for the yechidei segulah of each generation (ibid.).
What Does the Gadol Know About the Mundane?
I have always wondered: Why is it this way? How can you consult a gadol who is cloistered away in his room or bais medrash for nearly every waking hour, with minimal knowledge of what is going on in the street, and ask him a question that requires knowledge of the street? How can he tell you which house to buy, which shidduch to look into, or which investment to make if he knows nothing about them?
Interestingly, the reason we value our gedolim and gaonim is because they have almost no connection to olam hazeh. Now we are going to ask them about areas of olam hazeh that are seemingly so out of their range of knowledge?
Recently, I saw Rav Shmuel Pollack address this issue in his kuntres, Az Nidberu.
In one word, I think the answer to describe why we seek daas Torah is negius, or, better put, lack of negius.
Let me give two examples. First, politics. How can we ask a gadol who knows kol haTorah kulah about politics? Did he ever read Politico? Does he know what Fox News is? Does he get the New York Times or Haaretz? How in the world is he going to know what is right or wrong? I think that davka because he never read any of these publications and he is not “into politics,” we so direly need to seek his opinion.
The Counterintuitive Nature of Daas Torah
When you are part of something, you are, by nature, influenced by its norms. If I follow Donald Trump and every aspect of the media’s obsession with him, I become influenced by the conversation and there is no way I can claim to not have negius. The very fact that I am exposed to all the punditry surrounding the president means that my purity of thought regarding these matters has been adversely affected. Similarly, if I follow the Israeli media about the pros and cons of Binyomin Netanyahu, I have already become nogeia b’dovor, because that conversation will color my knowledge. Only someone who is truly unplugged from the entire conversation can objectively view it through the lens of Torah.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but being connected to politics and really understanding the ins and outs precludes me from being able to see things clearly. To see things clearly, without any negius, would require that I unplug myself. Being plugged in makes things worse, not better.
The Advantage of Being the Only One Not to Understand Yiddish
Rabbi Pollack related a story that drives the point home in an amazing way.
Imagine that a person is invited to a massive gala, an upscale dinner on behalf of a major mosad. It is an exclusive event for people of considerable means, with the objective of raising millions of dollars. The mosad has hired a whole staff of speakers and entertainers for the event. There are badchanim to make the participants cry and badchanim to make them laugh. There are inspirational speakers and video presentations. No effort is spared to make sure to both entertain and open the pockets of the participants. The only problem? All of the speeches are in Yiddish, but this invitee doesn’t speak a word of Yiddish. He spends the night feeling like a golem. While everyone else is crying and laughing depending on who the speaker is, he sits there, not understanding a word.
Now, let us think for a second. The entire purpose of the evening was to soften the hearts of the donors and get them to transfer as much money as possible from their bank accounts to the mosad’s. For that reason, they hired the most talented people to influence them. Did the fact that they understand Yiddish make them more vulnerable or less vulnerable to be influenced by the negius of the mosad? Of course, it made them more vulnerable. Yiddish in this case was their ticket to being influenced and convinced by the PR of the mosad.
The only person in the whole room who didn’t have negius was the one person who, nebach, didn’t understand a word of Yiddish. He could make an impartial decision on whether the mosad is really one worth supporting. He was in no way influenced by the most talented, persuasive people whose entire objective that night was to influence the donors.
Knowledge Creates Negius
The point here is this: The fact that a person understands “the world,” politics, public relations, technology, etc. doesn’t make them less vulnerable to make mistakes but more vulnerable, because they have negius. They are plugged in. To make a truly rational, impartial decision, you must be unplugged.
The less a person is involved in all the excesses of olam hazeh, the more he understands about Olam Haba, because he hasn’t been tainted.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why we seek daas Torah from those yechidei segulah, usually gaonim and tzaddikim of considerably advanced age who “don’t know what is going on” in the world the way we do. They only have the Torah’s seichel enabling them to make the decision and nothing else.
I remember a friend telling me that he doesn’t understand how such and such a gadol can be so against certain areas of technology that have already become increasingly accepted in many parts of the chareidi world.
The answer is because he doesn’t use them and benefit from them. He has not been influenced by their negative aspects and he can see far clearer than you and me the magnitude of the horrific churban on the neshamah that they cause.
That is why we seek daas Torah from the few great gedolei Yisroel whom Hashem plants in every generation. By virtue of the fact that they “don’t get it,” they are the ones who really do get it.
Think about it.