Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Da'as Torah: A Different Approach

I spent Pesach in a house on whose bookshelves I spotted two volumes of the insights on the Torah of the recently deceased rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, R. Henoch Leibowitz. The books are entitled Chiddushei Ha-Lev (on Genesis and Exodus -- I don't know if more volumes have been published) and consist of edited notes from R. Leibowitz's weekly lectures on the Torah portion. Significantly, the books were never reviewed or approved by R. Leibowitz. Given the author's recent passing, I felt almost obligated to spend time with the books.

R. Leibowitz considers himself to be an intellectual descendant of R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka), the mentor of R. Leibowitz's father. There is a good deal of similarity between the two rabbis' styles. Although, as can be expected, R. Leibowitz has somewhat refined R. Finkel's approach. Generally, R. Leibowitz finds ideas in the Torah or its associated midrashim that offer insights into otherise easily overlooked or underemphasized Torah concepts, or aspects of the human personality where we can focus our efforts for self-improvement. However, he seems to have accomplished this in a more methodical way than R. Finkel, with perhaps a bit of his talmudic methodology mixed into this mussar approach. In general, I found many of the insights in these books to be thought-provoking and inspiring.

One thing I found surprising is the introduction to the first volume. Click here to read moreIn it, the editors quote R. Leibowitz as explaining why he believes people must listen to "Da'as Torah" (the opinions of the most accomplished Torah scholars). Some people suggest that it is either because 1) the Torah obligates us to, 2) the Torah giants who have Da'as Torah have a special Divine assistance to reach the truth, 3) these people are extremely wise, or 4) their views are based on pure Torah values. These are all true but only secondary reasons. The real reason we must listen to Da'as Torah is that it is derived directly from Torah sources just like halakhic rulings are derived from Torah texts. While the details of life are too complex to be listed in a code, one can deduce the guidelines from texts such as midrash and Talmud. However, cautions R. Leibowitz, these derivations are not derush -- where an author inserts his own ideas into ancient texts. Rather, the ideas must emerge from the text itself and be definitive and unquestionable (mukhach).

This last point is quite a high hurdle for Da'as Torah and raises the obvious challenge: Do R. Leibowitz's insights in the books pass that hurdle, as the introduction continues to assert? When I was going through various essays in the books, I found it hard to accept the claim that he was not, at times, inserting his own ideas into the text. (Note that this is not meant to imply that his insights are not valuable. And compare with R. Yaakov Kamenetsky's approach, which is the exact opposite of R. Leibowitz's: link.)

Let me bring two examples, one from the beginning of vol. 2 and one from the end.

The first essay in volume 2 (on Parashas Shemos, Ex. 1:6) addresses the Gemara (Sotah 11a) that states that Pharaoh had three advisors regarding the "Jewish problem": Yisro ran away and was rewarded, Iyov was silent and was punished with suffering, Bilaam advised Pharaoh to kill Jews and was killed himself. R. Leibowitz asks: Why was Iyov punished for failing to rebuke Pharaoh when Yisro did not rebuke him either? Clearly, there was no obligation to rebuke Pharaoh. If so, why was Iyov punished? R. Leibowitz answers that Yisro and Iyov might have thought that had they stayed with Pharaoh they could have influenced him positively. Yisro, however, refused to be a partner with a wicked man and was willing to give up all of his wealth and honor to avoid being connected with Pharaoh. Iyov was punished for partnering with a wicked man.

I don't see that as emerging directly from the text. If anything, I see it as emerging from mid-twentieth century rabbinic politics. It certainly isn't definitive because there are other possible resolutions of this problem (I believe R. Chaim Shmulevitz offers a different explanation in a 5733 essay in his Sichos Mussar, and I am sure there are others.)

On Parashas Terumah (Ex. 25:15), R. Leibowitz quotes the Ralbag who says that a reason that the poles (badim) may not be removed from the ark is to show the completeness of the Torah that was inside the ark. If so, says R. Leibowitz, it seems that without this command to maintain the poles on the ark the generation of the Desert might not have fully believed that the Torah is entirely complete. Because of this mitzvah, they believed fully. How can it be that they did not fully believe? It must be that they believed it but did not completely feel it in their hearts. This mitzvah reminded them about it and helped them feel it in their hearts. We see from here that there are things we can know intellectually but not feel it in our hearts. We must use visual representations to help us internalize these beliefs.

This is a wonderful thought but I find it extremely difficult to believe that it is unquestionably proven from the texts. The basic deduction that without this mitzvah the generation of the Desert would not have fully believed is, I think, questionable.

An interesting discussion is in Parashas Shemos (Ex. 2:2) about Yocheved hiding her infant son Moshe. R. Leibowitz deduces from the Ramban's comments to that verse that he believes that people must always make effort (hishtadlus), rather than sitting back and relying on God taking care of things, even if the the positive results seem highly unlikely. With this, R. Leibowitz explicitly disagrees with the view of the Chazon Ish, that one should not put in an effort if the positive results seem unlikely.

The question that rose in my mind is: Who has Da'as Torah, R. Leibowitz or the Chazon Ish? If Da'as Torah must be proven, has either truly proven their points? According to R. Leibowitz, the Chazon Ish has not. And I assume that according to the Chazon Ish, R. Leibowitz has not. From my perspective, I don't think that either has proven their points although both have made good arguments. R. Leibowitz, it seems to me, is insufficiently discussing the Ramban's complex view on this matter (which is disputed -- see R. Shlomo Wolbe's discussion in vol. 2 of Alei Shur) and making a deduction from the Ramban's comments in this verse that I just don't see in the text. On the other hand, the Chazon Ish asserts his approach without unequivocably proving it. There's nothing wrong with that but it fails R. Leibowitz's hurdle of Da'as Torah.

I hope that two things have emerged from this discussion. The first is that R. Leibowitz has a unique if debatable view on Da'as Torah. The second is that his insights on the Torah are fascinating and worthy of study and discussion.

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