Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Leadership
Recently there was a conversation on this blog where the topic of contemporary frum leadership came up. It's a sticky issue, and we are warned by Chazal in multiple places to use extreme caution before disregarding or disobeying our leaders. In our history we've had many examples of chachomim, Tzadikim, with ruach hakodesh, and we know that Hashem guides true chachomim with Siyata Dishmaya for the sake of Klal Yisroel. We are told that the chachomim of every generation are like Moshe and Aharon in their generation; and in Parshas Shoftim we are told to listen to the chachomim even if we think they're wrong:
"According to the teaching that they teach you and the judgment that they will tell you, so shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will say to you, right or left." (Devarim 17:9-11).
Rashi comments on the words "right or left:
"Even if they say that your right is left and your left is right; how much more so if they tell you that your right is right and your left is left."
This became a rallying cry for the old Aguda in Europe with the catchphrase, "Daas Torah."
But, the question is, how do we apply that? Does that mean that we must go like sheep no matter what, even if we find some things that the rabbonim say extremely troubling? What about the times when the guidance has been poor, or our leaders were shown to have been wrong? What about when rabbonim become enablers for terrible actions (as has been pointed out so often in the blogosphere)? What about if rabbonim don't seem to understand the plight of many Jews? What about the passing campaigns that come and go with all kinds of signatures that just seem so silly and never get to the big issues, or are later exposed as based on faulty information? What about the political maneuvers and pettiness that goes on? What about when the chachomim erode their credibility and people have begun to tune them out and laugh at the latest pronouncements? Does G-d really put us all on notice that we must follow the chachomim in all cases no matter what?
Rabbi Hershel Schechter tells the story that while Herman Wouk taught in YU, he had said that his masterpiece "The Caine Mutiny" was based on that Rashi in Shoftim: That no matter what happens, we are required to respect the chain of command and follow our leadership. To which, Rav Schechter said, they had to inform him that this is not pshat in Rashi.
The simple pshat and the simple meaning of this Rashi and Chazal's warnings doesn't mean that we're required to check our brain at the door whenever rabbonim speak – because it really depends. It depends on the rov, and it depends on the situation, and it depends on the subject matter. When Rashi and Chazal tell us not to deviate from the psak, they are talking about halachic matters. If rabbonim say something in the realm of issur v'heter, if the rov says something is blood, or if something kosher, or if something is assur on Shabbos, we must be sure not to deviate from the psak. If we come to beis din with an argument and the rov rules in favor of a certain party, then that's the psak – we must not deviate. Things that fall under the expertise of the rabbonim we are, without a doubt, obligated to follow. This is the structure of Yiddishkeit, and it has always been so; so, even if I were to disagree in those cases, I remain obligated to follow the psak of the experts who tell me that I'm wrong.
And while we are taught that everything is contained in Torah, most rabbonim in our time have very limited knowledge in many fields; a rov isn't trained to be a scientist, historian, social worker, philosopher, art critic, musician, linguist, engineer, financial planner, doctor or technical expert. And while he may be a good guy, even a smart guy, his field of expertise is Shas and Poskim, and those are the areas that he carries the most weight. Should the rov also be a high level doctor, we would be likely to hold his medical opinions in high regard – but not because he's a rov or a gadol, but because he's a medical expert.
We hope that rabbonim consult with experts before they pasken about the halachic merits of a specific matter (and we assume that they do), therefore, in matters of cold halacha, we must defer to the rabbonim and gedolim inasmuch as this is clearly their territory, but when we are talking about issues that are outside their expertise, outside the psak halacha of issur v'heter, it's another story.
Of course, we must maintain respect for them, and take care not to be flippant about rabbinic proclomations, but if Rabbonim say something or act in a way that is nonsensical or if they have lost touch with the realties and the "amcha" Jew or they don't recognize or (aren't fully aware of) certain realities, if they are playing politics or covering up heinous acts, that's not the case Rashi is talking about. That's not the simple meaning of "Daas Torah." In fact, the contemporary concept of "Daas Torah" was a political slogan that the Aguda used for elections and politics in the Polish government, and its current application is no more than the misapplied concept of a Chassidic Rebbe into the common thinking for even non-chassidic Jews.
A Chossid / Rebbe relationship is another matter entirely, and that's not what we're talking about here. Chassidim follow their Rebbe no matter what and no matter when; that's Chassidus, and it is legitimate, but it's also an entirely different matter. Outside of a Chassidic Rebbe and his Chossid, there are many examples where things are far from simple, and we need a good, honest, caring confidant to speak to – and only such a person is able to help us grow and find happiness and success in those matters.
We have two obligations: Aseh lecha rav, v'kaneh lecha chaver (Make for yourself a rov, and acquire for yourself a friend). Every Jew needs a rov, he needs to recognize rabbinical authority for halachic matters, but in areas where the rov is not as up to speed, on matters where the rov may be lacking, there you need a good friend.