Thursday, November 30, 2006

Da'as Torah IV

Menachem Kellner has an article in a new journal Covenant. The article is titled "Maimonides Agonist: Disenchantment and Reenchantment in Modern Judaism" and is an excerpt from his latest book (link).

Setting aside many minor points, a central thesis to Kellner's article is the idea that to the Kuzari Jewish law represent metaphysical realities, while to the Rambam Jewish law is a social institution. For example, according to the Kuzari, something is tamei because it is inherently impure while according to the Rambam, it is labeled as such for social, educational, moral or historical reasons but not for any inherent reason. Again, accepting this distinction for the sake of argument, let us proceed to Kellner's next step -- Da'as Torah:

The modern doctrine of da'at torah is thus clearly Halevian and not Maimonidean. For Halevi, in order properly to determine halakhah one must tap into a kind of quasi-prophecy; for Maimonides, one must learn how to handle halakhic texts and procedures properly. If halakhah creates institutional reality, then, beyond technical competence (and, one hopes, personal integrity), the charismatic or other qualities of the individual halakhist are irrelevant to questions of authority; if, on the other hand, halakhah reflects antecedent ontological reality, then the only competent halakhist is the one who can tap into that reality, a function of divine inspiration, not personal ability or institutional standing.
I think this argument is fundamentally flawed in that it underestimates the "technical competence" required to render halakhic decisions. There are varying levels of expertise and there are some who are simply among the most outstanding decisors of their generation. That is Maimonidean Da'as Torah. It is non-mystical but still gives deference to the outstanding scholars of a generation on matters that impinge on areas of halakhah. Prophecy is not required but is replaced by complete -- emphasis on "complete" -- mastery of the entire corpus of Jewish law. Yes, rendering decision on such issues requires intimate knowledge of the circumstances. But assuming adequate knowledge, Da'as Torah is still a concept that exists within the rationalist framework. The question is what to do when knowledge of the circumstances is not equally distributed.

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