Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sit Down, Shut Up and Don't Question

An editorial appeared today on concerning whether or not it is acceptable to publicly question "da'as torah" or the words of the gedolim. The editorial, written by Shmuel Miskin, is in response to an post that appeared on The Lakewood Scoop.

Beth Medrash Govoha (the big yeshiva in Lakewood) has a policy that prohibits its students from going to Blue Claws games (the Lakewood Blue Claws are Class-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies). An anonymous author (M.E.) wrote to the Lakewood Scoop wondering if BMG might consider loosening the ban on Blue Claws games in light of the fact that people today need a "kosher" outlet -- more so than the past.

To be fair, I know next to nothing about the Blue Claws, BMG or the restriction -- but then again, that's not really the point here. M.E. may have a point that the restriction should be lifted or he may be utterly and completely wrong. It's all beside the point for the purpose of this discussion.

Shmuel Miskin, in his editorial, takes offense that someone has dared to even ask a question publicly about the ban. M.E., in his post, was not critical or disrespectful of the yeshiva administration. He wasn't even saying that the yeshiva should rescind the ban -- he merely brought up the question. But apparently, even that's unacceptable for Shmuel Miskin -- his view (unless I read the editorial wrong) is that even asking a question in public about policy change is wrong, disrespectful and "nothing less than a Chillul HaShem." Our lot is simply to accept the rules and shut up.*

But what if the rules are wrong? Yes, I know that some people may not be able to accept the fact that gedolim can possibly make an error -- but I'm not addressing people who believe in the Jewish version of papal infallibility. We have, unfortunately, seen time and again that there can be instances when gedolim base their decisions on incorrect information, are harried and/or manipulated into making decisions without properly reviewing all the facts. Sometimes, they can make the right decision and, due to the laws of unintended consequences, still have it turn into a disaster. And sometimes, a gadol may just may be plain wrong. So, if you believe that a decision is wrong for any one of the above reasons (or perhaps for another reason altogether) -- and it's a public policy decision that affects many people -- then why shouldn't it be subject to public debate? If something affects me, should I not have a right to speak my voice on the matter -- even if in the end I am overruled? Or am I a sheep whose job is to simply follow the shepherd without so much as a bleat of independent thought?

I am a firm believer in civil debate. I believe that if you're going to debate someone on an issue, s/he deserves to be addressed civilly and with respect** -- and that certainly goes all the more so for the gedolim. It's unfortunate that some may abuse the idea of respectful debate and start calling the gedolim names and otherwise denigrating them; but I don't believe that because some abuse a system that all have to suffer. If you follow that path, then no one should be allowed to own a knife or a car. But there should be no reason at all to disallow respectful questioning on public policy in public.

In some respects, it may be sad that the world of passive acceptance of the words of the gedolim without question has passed us by -- but it is a product of a bygone world. Sadly, since the gedolim have shown that they can err (and do so very publicly), there has to be a mechanism in place to allow for the respectful questioning (and yes, in public) of those public policy decisions that affect us.

The Wolf

* Yes, he does allow for private questioning, but I think that, at least with some gedolim, my chance of getting an audience is close to nil.

* *Of course, there are those that hold that the very act of disagreeing is disrespectful; but I obviously don't hold of that position.


G*3 said...

This is speculation, but it could be that even those who don’t fully accept the existence of a mystical daas torah (though most people in the Lakewood yeshivish mold do) do accept the often-repeated idea that “we don’t come up to the toenails of the gedolim of past generations” – and that the average person doesn’t come up to the toenails of the current gedolim. So yes, perhaps the gedolim can be mistaken, but, the thinking goes, who do you think you are that you can suggest the gedolim change their policy? If the policy is wrong, the gedolim, in their great wisdom, will change it. But for the average person to think he can even begin to understand the cheshbonos that go into the gedolim’s decisions is the height of arrogance and profoundly disrespectful.

Of course, our opinion of the gedolim’s wisdom is somewhat less reverential than that of the average yeshiva guy.

Larry Lennhoff said...

As I said in a comment on your other post earlier today, the practice for making gezerot as described in the Talmud included the possibility that the public rejected the gezairah, which then did not take affect. The classic examples are shemen akum (gentile's oil) and Ezra's takanah regarding men's immersion. Are today's gedolim so much greater than chazal and the neviim?

I tackle another example of this sort of thinking in response to a post by Rav Meyer Twerski

Garnel Ironheart said...

In answer to one of your questions:

Yes, in the eyes of these "Gedolim" and their supporters, you are a sheep with no right to an opinion or to ask questions.


E-Man said...

Wolf- I agree with you 100%. However, if ME chooses the BMG as his version of Judaism and wants to follow those Rebbeim, then he must follow them. If they say it is assur to question their authority then it is assur to question their authority. There is no way around it. If he would like to find another Rav because he thinks this version of Judaism is ridiculous, like you and I, then he would not even have to ask for a lift of the ban.

The problem i see here is that ME wants it both ways. He wants the Rabbis who forbid the baseball game to be his rabbis, but he also wants them to rescind their decision.

The idea here is that this man or woman is unsure of his/her beliefs. They want to follow daas torah, but they also want to question it. However, you can;t have it both ways.

For instance, I can go to meisharim and demand that they accept me even though I have internet in my house and my wife wears skirts to her knees and not her ankles. However, that is a ridiculous demand. I can not force my ideals on others.

The problem that I see with this general attitude is that they try to force their ideals on others. This is especially disturbing since they have the mentality of "Only my Rebbe is right!"

Ahavah Gayle said...

IMHO Those most worried about how much "respect" they get tend to be those least deserving of respect. Apply this to the editorial question as you wish.

mlevin said...

E-man - it's more complicated than what you described, even if ME doesn't want to follow the specific ban and rabbis he still lives in certain community where his every move is analyzed by neighbors under the microscope, and he can't just move away and do what he wants because the rest of his family is still here and will be severely punished by yeshiva rejections and shiduchim.

Anonymous said...

The funniest part about all the comments, even the letter, as that no one noticed that "ME," the original letter writer, is a woman who wonders why her husband can't take their son to watch a baseball game.

"However, as a parent originally from out of town and as a mother of a teenage son who cannot sit months at a shot in his Yeshivah without a break, what would be so wrong for my husband to enjoy a night out with him?"

ksil lo yavin said...

E-man, you are way off base. Wolf is simply saying that it is quite a sad state for a community to not allow someone to respectfully ask a question such as this. ME is not trying to "force her ideals on others". why cant she "question their authority" why is that "assur"?!?!?

You say, "They want to follow daas torah, but they also want to question it" - why cant you question these people? you ever read a gemorah? thats all it is!! back and forth, question after question, proof after proof. God gave us brains, he gave us talents, to NOT use them?!?!

sad state indeed...

E-Man said...


In her community questioning daas torah is assur. Therefore, she has to choose, be part of this community and follow the parameters they set out, no matter how ridiculous, or find a community that fits her ideals. That is what I am saying. In no way do I think it is assur to question rabbis decisions. However, her community does. I think it is foolish and would never want to be part of that type of community where people with questions are shunned, it seems absurd.

ksil lo yavin said...

E-man, "In her community questioning daas torah is assur."

Thats what wolf is critisizing!

Chaim B. said...

>>>But there should be no reason at all to disallow respectful questioning on public policy in public.

It's not public policy, it's yeshiva policy, made by the administration of BMG for its talmidim.

>>>If something affects me, should I not have a right to speak my voice on the matter

Non sequitor. How does the policy of BMG regarding attendance at a baseball game affect you or anyone else outside BMG? And how does voicing your concern a public forum (as opposed to simply speaking to the Roshei Yeshiva of BMG, who probably are accessible to their talmidim, the one's affected by the policy) accomplish anything?

BrooklynWolf said...


It wasn't me (or anyone outside the yeshiva) asking about the policy - it was the parent of a student at BMG.

I wasn't voicing my concern about the policy. I stated in my post that I had no idea if the policy was right or wrong and that the answer to that question was really irrelevant to the point I really wished to bring up -- the right of people who *are* affected by the policy to publicly (and respectfully) question said policy.

The Wolf

Recreational Musings said...

I agree with your post, but then again I would also never place myself in a community where everyone followed the word of the gedolim instead of making their own choices on matters such as this.

However, you say "I don't believe that because some abuse a system that all have to suffer."

I believe this statement can be related to many bans in Judaism that are accepted today. For example, an Orthodox Jew is not permitted to trust a non-Sabbath observing, strict-kosher-eating Jew or non-Jew on whether something is Kosher. It is not up to the individual for whether or not the person can be trusted, but the rabbi's make a blanket statement that you can trust no one since not everyone is trustworthy. This is obviously a much-older ban, but its nature is similar. Although I do realize that Kosher is halachah, wheresas the baseball in your post has absolutely no Torah origins, the similarity lies in the fact of everyone being affected because of some that abuse the system (or lie, in this case).

megapixel said...

In response to those commenters who say things like

"In her community questioning daas torah is assur. Therefore, she has to choose, be part of this community and follow the parameters they set out, no matter how ridiculous, or find a community that fits her ideals"

I would say the opposite is true. In other communities, lay people know they are not an expert in halacha and such, so they follow what their rabbi says in acknowledgement of the fact that the Rabbi is the expert in this matter.
However the average person in Lakewood, having been in kollel for many years or being currently in kollel, is very learned, they tend to "hold of themselves" and would be more likely to question what the leaders say. I would venture to say that a- Lakewood is a difficult town in which to be a Rav/Rabbinical leader. b- this might be a contributing factor in the large numbers of "teens at risk" here.
(I am not saying that all people in Lakewood question "authority" but many do-- proof being the fact that Christie won the Lakewood vote even though the Yeshiva endorsed Corzine)