Is it presumptuous for a regular frum Jew to disagree (not face to face, obviously) with a great rabbi on a particular matter in Jewish thought or public policy?
Hashem gave us the Torah on Har Sinai to be a guidebook for life, for all of life – in the work place, at home, in social situations, etc. It’s supposed to be a guidebook for all activities that a human being is involved in.
The Shulchan Aruch actually contains relatively few halachos. The reason it omits so many items, explain the commentaries, is because many issues are dependent on the person, the place, the situation, and the context. For that reason, one of the most essential parts of being a frum Jew is having a mesorah and a rebbe that you’re able to ask daas Torah questions from.
Daas Torah means the Torah’s approach. I remember my rebbe, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, the rosh yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, discussing politics in shiur because there’s a Torah approach to politics. There’s a Torah approach to all aspects of life.
Now, there may be great variances and disagreements between rabbis, and you’re absolutely fine with sticking to your mesorah, your rebbe, and your approach. But for a person who is unqualified to argue with a great rabbi in terms of what the Torah outlook is would be foolhardy. It would be akin an uneducated person arguing with his doctor or lawyer.
We go to professionals because they know their business. The Torah is the business of life and we were given a mesorah and rebbeim to teach us the Torah’s approach to life – to all of life.
— Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier, founder of The Shmuz
* * * * *
This treads on very sensitive territory and the critical element is the precise area of disagreement. Certainly on halachic matters, the opinions of a “regular frum Jew” carry little weight. Psak, like any specialty, requires extensive training and preparation and encompasses far more than knowledge of books or texts.
I can read an X-ray and ascertain obvious fractures; undoubtedly, though, I will miss 95-98 percent of what there is to see in an X-ray. Great rabbis are radiologists, while the average person is not.
Matters of Jewish thought also require expertise in a given area. We may be living in the “era of feelings,” but not every feeling translates into a cogent and legitimate expression of Jewish thought. Not everything that a Jew says (or thinks) becomes, by definition, a valid part of Torah. Without a background in Jewish thought, it would be presumptuous to disagree with a rav who possesses such a background.
Public policy matters are somewhat different because determining the proper approach requires more than just knowledge of Torah. It requires a worldly understanding of life, politics, societal trends, culture, and current events. Not every rabbi – even great ones – is necessarily conversant with all these issues.
Two final points:
1) The “regular frum Jew” might have a sensible approach to public policy but it might not be informed by the Torah. If so, this lay approach is less compelling and should be treated accordingly.
2) Unless we maintain that rabbis have daas Torah that affords them unerring insight into public policy, rabbis have no special proficiency in these areas. Those who believe in daas Torah must explain why rabbis often disagree on matters of public policy, something that undercuts the idea that there is only one daas Torah.
Respectful dialogue between rabbis and laymen on policy issues is the ideal.
— Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Israel regional vice president
for the Coalition for Jewish Values
* * * * *
A person needs to consider a few issues when he finds himself disagreeing with a great or prominent rabbi. First, he must assume that the rabbi gave serious thought to the issue at hand and had good reasons for coming to the conclusion he arrived at.
Every person is b’chezkas kashrus. How much more so a respected Torah authority. As such, we generally defer to, and abide by, the opinion or a ruling of a Torah expert just as we defer to the opinion of a medical expert.
If, for whatever reason, we have an issue with the rabbi’s position, it behooves us to first research the reasoning of the rabbi. We even have the right to ask a rabbi or beis din, “Meheichan dantuni – How did you arrive at this decision?”
We also need to bear in mind that daas balei batim heipach daas Torah – the perspective of laypeople is contrary to the perspective of Torah. Even if one’s intentions are good, every one of us is subjective and great care needs to be taken before disagreeing with a Torah authority.
If, after all the above, a person still disagrees, the recourse the Torah provides (to avoid anarchy and defiance of Torah authorities) is to either respectfully appeal the rabbi’s position (by asking him to further review and clarify his viewpoint) or to ask the opinion of another equally competent rabbinic authority. If they disagree, one follows the rabbi of one’s community or consults a third rabbi and follows the majority opinion.
At the end of the day, the Torah – called Toras Emes – has built-in mechanisms to protect it from being abused or manipulated by both laypeople and rabbis, whether out of self-interest or other biases.
— Rabbi Simon Jacobson,
renowned Lubavitch author and lecturer
* * * * *
The answer to this question really depends on the circumstances.
I was educated to believe that true wisdom in a difficult matter is best achieved with consultation between halachic authorities and experts in the field in question.
A rav who wants to competently tackle issues in the medical field, for example, must acquire knowledge that can only be gained through conference with medical experts. Decisions concerning military matters necessitates conference with authorities in the field of security and defense.
Given this approach, when dealing with statements of public policy (as opposed to direct piskei halacha), I believe it is possible to respectfully question a particular rabbinic declaration. Valid differences of opinion concerning the facts can arise, which doesn’t amount to a challenge of the specific rav’s halachic expertise.
To go one step further: In almost any controversial public matter, a wide array of rabbinic opinions often emerges. It is certainly appropriate to agree with one rav’s approach as opposed to another’s.
— Rabbi Goldin, author of “Unlocking the
Torah Text” series and past president of the RCA