Friday, March 7th, 2008
The subtext of the controversy over the recent shocking remarks made by Yeshiva University rosh yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter — where he appeared to advocate shooting the Israeli Prime Minister if the government would “give up Jerusalem” — is less about the rabbi himself and more about the division within the Orthodox community over da’as Torah [literally, Torah knowledge, but meaning possessing a higher level of Divine insight].
Until recently, one of the clear lines that separated Modern Orthodoxy from those further to the religious right was that it did not subscribe to the belief in da’as Torah. That is to say Modern Orthodox Jews believed that Torah scholars should decide matters of halacha, or Jewish law, but not necessarily be sought out for their views on other aspects of life, from politics to personal choices about who to marry or what job to take, as many haredim do.
But that separation has been eroding, and there is a generational divide within Modern Orthodoxy, and more particularly within the Yeshiva University community.
As YU has trained a number of rabbis who excel in Talmudic learning, they in turn have developed strong relationships with students who often study with them for two, three or four years or more. In addition, most of these students first spent a year or two after high school learning at yeshivas in Israel, where the norm was to have a rebbe as a source of guidance and advice not only in Jewish law, but on spiritual and personal matters, especially since these students were thousands of miles from parents, family and friends.
So it is not surprising that these students seek out a rebbe with whom they can bond when they return to America, and that many of these Orthodox Jews, now in their 20s and 30s, are more inclined to consult closely with their rebbe on a wide range of issues than would their parents. A number of these young people tend to subscribe to the notion of da’as Torah, and while they do not necessarily view their rebbes as prophets, they believe these men have greater insights into the Divine because of their breath of Torah knowledge.
The parents of these young people tend to view such devotion with a mix of admiration and skepticism – proud that their offspring take Jewish practice so seriously but wary of sacrificing one’s own powers of choice and independence to another, regardless of how learned.
In the case of Rabbi Schachter, the controversy is not only over what he said – he has a history of making blunt pronouncements on Israeli policy, feminism, and the differences between Jews and non-Jews – but on his position within Orthodoxy, at the fulcrum between the modern and charedi worlds.
He is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, a highly respected Torah scholar throughout the Orthodox community and, most recently, a key decisor for the Rabbinical Council of America on conversion issues.
But despite his “modern” credentials, many believe that in temperament and outlook, he is more closely aligned to the more traditional yeshiva world.
So the argument among many in the older generation of Modern Orthodox Jews is that this man, however great his scholarship, can be judged as flawed and chastised for intemperate remarks he makes. And they would argue that the very nature of such remarks undermines the idea that the rabbi could possess da’as Torah.
The younger set, though, bristles at any criticism of a man of such sage-like stature and tends to believe that the barbs against him are politically motivated by those who want to take Rabbi Schachter down a notch.
YU’s leadership is in a difficult position because it recognizes both the level of embarrassment Rabbi Schachter can cause in the “real” world and the fact that he gives the rabbinic school much of whatever standing it has in the influential right-wing yeshiva world.
But then, that’s what YU has always been about, seeking the balance of Torah and ma’adah [secular knowledge], in the words of its motto.
Defenders of the rabbi say he should be viewed as above reproach and continue in his various roles of leadership; critics would agree that a rabbinic leader should be above reproach and say that is why Rabbi Schachter should be disciplined.