Papal Infallibility And Its Parallels In Orthodox Judaism

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

There is a review in the new issue of First Things of a book by a Protestant scholar on papal infallibility (link – subscription required). To my surprise, mainly due to my ignorance of Catholic history, there are a number of thought-provoking similarities between papal infallibility and Da’as Torah.

There is a spectrum of views on both, ranging from denial to minimal acceptance to a maximal position. The review quotes one thinker who wrote that "Pontiffs have no infallibility in the world of facts, except only dogmatic." The same spectrum exists around the idea of Da’as Torah — do the bearers of such wisdom have infallibility on all matters (maximalist), only on theory but not facts, only in their areas of religious expertise, or on nothing at all, and I am sure there are many views in between these.

When did papal infallibility become a binding dogma? While it had been discussed and invoked for centuries, it became official Catholic dogma in 1870. Similarly, while ideas similar to Da’as Torah had been discussed prior, the main establishment of Da’as Torah as a binding dogma — at least in those groups that accept it — was in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

MIKE POSTS: One serious distinction is that the Roman catholic Church is a hierarchy with a clearly defined Pope. Even among those who accept a more or less stringent notion of daas torah can argue about whose to follow.

JLAN POSTS: You do get various points where a major rabbi will make an off the cuff or informal remark, at which point lots of people run to eat strawberries or throw out something, and then that rabbi makes a clarifying remark saying that they weren’t making psak there. Which seems to imply that even for those who hold da’as torah strongly, there is a line between psak and comments (but that psak has a much broader definition than it does in the rest of the observant world.

Professor Marc Shapiro, "The Uses of Tradition" (Book review), Tradition 28:2, Winter 1994:

"Katz also ilustrates the nineteenth century creation of what he terms ex cathedra rulings. That is, the halakhist, acting through his charismatic personality, issues rulings on a wide range of communal issues basing himself primarily on biblical passages and religious feelings rather than halakhic sources. If a certain decision is perceived by the halakhist as necesssary to maintain the Torah community, he will reach it. The halakhist places these new rulings at the very center of the religion, and one who violates them is no longer to be regarded as a faithful Jew.

"It seems clear that the method of decision-making Katz is describing is fundamentally not really different than the contemporary notion of Daat Torah. I thus do not accept the popular view that Daat Torah is a twentieth century concept. Even in pre-modern times one can point to rabbis deciding communal matters based on non-halakhic points. What this means is that the halakhist was intuitively convinced that his community needed to adopt a certain approach and, lacking the precise halakhic sources, supported his position by citing Bible, Midrash etc.[19] By making a case without traditional halakhic sources it is impossible for an opponent to marshal contrary halakhic arguments. A ruling could be opposed, but not refuted. The only real difference between the modern exponents of Daat Torah and the earlier authorities seems to be that the earlier authorities felt the need to expound upon their opinions with numerous Scriptural and Aggadic proofs. The modern exponents of Daat Torah often feel no need to offer any justification of their views and it is here where one finds their originality."

[19] "See e. g. the interesting comments of Menahem Elon, "Darkhei ha-Yetzírah ha-Hilkhatit be-Pitronan shel Ba’ayot Hevrah u-Mishpat ba-Kehilah," Zion 44 (1979), pp. 259ff."


Professor Mark Steiner, “The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy: Another View” (Tradition 31:2, 1997:

"The head of a famous haredi girls’ seminary in Bnei Brak writes explicitly in a book on hashkafa for the girls that although in the past, one could rely on the traditions of one’s kehila and rabbis, today, after Hitler, one can rely only on the (uncorrupted) "gedolei Torah." The much touted concept of Da’as Torah also stems from this idea: no text can be interpreted by one not immersed in the spirit of that text. In the language of philosophy, every "knowing that" presupposes "knowing how." Only the uncorrupted gedolim, not rabbis, and certainly not one’s own parents, can be trusted to interpret Judaism consistently with the spirit of Torah-according to this world view. … Let me summarize my own description of how Orthodox Jewish practice has changed recently. There has been a change: a change in the locus of authority. The traditional kehila was no more, its potential leaders perceived as having sold out to the New World or to Zionism. What was left, a tradition without any religious legitimizing authority, was fragile and inherently unstable, susceptible to massive defections to the left and to the right. Most, of course, left the fold. Those truly interested in fulfilling God’s Will had no choice but to turn to what they considered to be the uncorrupted saving remnant, those talmidei hakhamim they began to call "gedolim.""


Much of what Steiner says there would be paralled in Professor Haym Soloveitchik’s "Rupture and Reconstruction", and also in the many works of Professor Menachem Friedman. But let us focus on one matter: the above quotation of Steiner’s evinces practices decidedly reminiscent of cults. Cf. Friedman, in "Haredim Confront the Modern City" (, who quotes from an Agudat Yisrael journal:

"The young man of faith seeks completeness … ; he finds it within the walls of the (holy) yeshivas. … In his parents’ home, as against this, he very often comes up against contradictions … and the entertainment of views that are tainted with apostacy and atheism. … The young man with faith today is entirely free of the spell of the false solutions that previously held him in thrall."

About Luke Ford

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