R. Hershel Schachter, Gedolim, Rachel Morpurgo, and More

Marc B. Shapiro, history professor, writes:

1. In listening to a recent shiur[1] on Daas Torah by R. Hershel Schachter, I found a number of noteworthy comments. In this shiur, which has been heard thousands of times, R. Schachter states, “If you have an outlook, if you have what I would consider a crooked, a krum outlook on Yom ha-Atzmaut, then your outlook on eruvin is also crooked. I can’t rely on anything that you say.” I find this difficult to accept, since can’t someone be regarded as a great posek, one that can be relied on, even if one disagrees with important ideological positions he holds? In Eastern Europe, the people all relied on their local rav to decide halakhic questions for them. It didn’t matter to them whether the rav supported Agudah or Mizrachi. He was the halakhic authority of the town.

I agree, however, that there are limits. What sense does it make to rely on a Satmar posek for a ruling if one wouldn’t accept anything he said in non-halakhic matters? (It is known that when men want a ruling that they don’t have to give their wives a get, they go to a posek in Monsey whom they wouldn’t ask any other questions of.) I think it is important for R. Schachter to explain what his definition of a “crooked” outlook on Yom ha-Atzmaut is? Does he mean someone who says tahanun on that day, or only someone who thinks it is a day akin to avodah zarah?[2]
Among other interesting comments in R. Schachter’s shiur is that he states that a posek can give you a binding pesak concerning whom you must marry.[3] This too I find difficult, since where does a posek get the authority to tell someone whom he must marry? An individual can certainly consult with a posek for his advice in this matter, but since this consultation is done voluntarily by the potential groom, how do we go from there to a situation of pesak which binds the person asking the question?
[Subsequent to writing these words I saw R. Schachter and asked him about this matter. He reaffirmed his position, stating that whom one marries is a halakhic matter and therefore a posek can indeed tell you whom you must marry. He added that this is almost always theoretical since in order to make such a ruling the posek would need to know both the bride and groom for many years so as to be sure that what he is saying is correct. But he also insisted that if the posek does have the requisite knowledge he can indeed give a binding pesak about whom one must marry.]
In discussing the matter of Israel giving back land for peace, as far as I understand (and this is also the understanding of everyone I have seen who has written on the topic), R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik held that this is not a halakhic matter and therefore there is no place for rabbinic involvement. The political and military leaders should make a decision based on their knowledge of what is in the best interest of the country. However, R. Schachter has a different perspective. He states that according to R. Soloveitchik, first the politicians and military leaders should be consulted, and following this the rabbis need to make a halakhic judgment about what is permissible.[4] Yet the following are R. Soloveitchik’s words from 1967, as transcribed by Arnold Lustiger here:
I give praise and thanks to the RBSO for liberating the Kotel Hamaarovi and for liberating and for removing all Eretz Yisrael from the Arabs, so that it now belongs to us. But I don’t need to rule whether we should give the West Bank back to the Arabs or not to give the West Bank to the Arabs: we rabbis should not be involved in decisions regarding the safety and security of the population. . . . We have to negotiate with common sense as the security of the yishuv requires. What specifically these security requirements are, I don’€t know, I don’t understand these things. These decisions require a military perspective which one must research assiduously. The borders that must be established should be based upon which will provide more security. It is not a topic appropriate for which rabbis should release statements or for rabbinical conferences.
Also of interest in this shiur is that R. Schachter rejects the legitimacy of Daas Torah proclamations by roshei yeshiva who do not deal with practical halakhic questions.[5] In his halakhic-centric approach, there is no room for such proclamations by figures who are talmudically learned but are not poskim. This means that R. Aharon Leib Steinman, for instance, who is not a posek, is not to be regarded as one who transmits Daas Torah. As R. Schachter says, one who does not decide practical halakhic questions dealing with Shabbat, kashrut, and taharat ha-mishpahah is not able to rule on matters that are not explicit in earlier texts, and are often categorized as being in the realm of Daas Torah. He specifically states that the Steipler and R. Shakh, who were not known as poskim, were not the ones people should have been turning to for Daas Torah.[6]
It is hard to imagine a stronger repudiation of the haredi notion of Daas Torah, for while R. Elyashiv was of course a great posek, there has never been an expectation among haredim that the transmitters of Daas Torah must be involved in pesak. Daas Torah depends on the Torah scholar being immersed in Torah and righteousness, but this does not mean that he has to be involved with halakhah le-ma’aseh questions. R. Schachter’s point is obviously in contradiction to the hasidic approach in which the rebbe is the leader, and the job qualifications of a rebbe have nothing to do with deciding halakhic questions.[7]
It is true, however, that R. Schachter’s description of who should be the religious leaders of the Torah community is what historically was the case before the rise of hasidut in the 18th century, the creation of the great yeshivot in the 19th century, and the rise of haredism in the 20th century. But even in previous centuries matters were not absolute. For example, what about R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto? He was not a posek, yet would anyone today deny that he could speak with Torah authority on matters that fall into the category of Daas Torah? What about R. Nosson Zvi Finkel and many of the other mussar greats, or R. Zvi Yehudah Kook? Using R. Schachter’s halakhic-centric yardstick, they too would have to be excluded from what is today referred to as Daas Torah.
All this of course relates to the subject of gedolim, a topic that has recently seen a lot of discussion at the new website Lehrhaus. Professor Chaim Saiman’s essay, “The Market for Gedolim: A Tale of Supply and Demand,” was followed up by a number of insightful responses from people who represent the Centrist and Liberal Orthodox community, and by Rabbi Ethan Tucker who can be termed a leader of the halakhically committed egalitarian community.[8]
I have made the point a number of times that the twentieth century saw the creation of a new model in the haredi world. It is not just gedolim who are important, but the gadol ha-dor (technically: gedol ha-dor), that is, the gadol who stands above other gedolim. Although you had such figures in earlier times, such as the Hatam Sofer and R. Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor, in the twentieth century the notion of “the gadol ha-dor” has become institutionalized and is a basic feature of haredi society. Gedolim are not enough, but there also needs to be a supreme gadol. Thus, on the passing of the gadol ha-dor, the new gadol ha-dor emerges, (or he can actually be proclaimed, such as what happened when, after R. Elyashiv’s passing, R. Chaim Kanievsky declared that R. Steinman was the new leader). This is now an expectation of laypeople in the haredi world,[9] and obviously satisfies a psychological need, so inexorably one gadol ha-dor will be followed by another.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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