"What puzzles and saddens me is that even "burn outs" from the "frum" world continue to view religiousness as black or white. The view seems to be that you're either in for a penny, in for a pound - or not, and nothing in between."I'm sure what I'm about to say is obvious, but I want to spell it out anyway: Using the term "black and white" doesn't fully express how fundamental this is. It's not just about seeing an issue in stark contrasts and not appreciating subtlety or nuance. It's about all sorts of extremes. The idea that it's All or Nothing. That there's only ONE right answer. That it's Us vs. Them. Tradition vs. Modernity. You're either with us or against us. Complexity vs. Simplicity. Religious vs. Secular.
Over the past few months, I've been noticing more and more how deeply rooted and widespread this bias is in chareidi thought and hashkafa. In fact, I think it can account for a whole host of problematic views and practices that are slowly eating away at that world.
Let's start with one of the most common and basic precepts of the chareidi world, one which I think is a product of this mistaken view: The concept of Da'as Torah. Now I know that there's various explanations of what exactly da'as torah is, and who has it, and when it applies, etc. but I think it can be summed up pretty simply: da'as torah means that what a Gadol says is right. However you want to spin it, whether it's through his encyclopedic Torah knowledge, or the fact that his very essence is saturated with Torah, or through some mystical divine assistance, or whatever it is, the idea is that whatever conclusion the gadol comes to, that determination is the right one. What he says is right. It's proper. It's the Torah view. It's truth itself! (There's various other areas of the B&W predisposition here: The fact that the Gadol is ALWAYS right. The fact that he is right about EVERY subject he speaks about. Maybe I'll focus on that later.)
And of course, the concept doesn't just apply to an individual Gadol. It also extends to the wider arena of "The Gedolim." (Actually, I think it has even more force there.) Whatever power an individual Gadol might have when presenting his opinions, when "The Gedolim" have a position on an issue, it reflects a power so great, supposedly even God Himself can't contend with it! (e.g. The Tanur Shel Achnai story.)
This is fundamental to chareidi ideology as it was taught to me. And a Torah True Jew believes these things with all his heart.
There is another principle that follows from the above. It isn't usually stated explicitly, but it is part of the general da'as torah view. The idea is that since the Gadol (or Gedolim) have hit upon THE right answer (not A right answer, but THE right answer), then anyone who has da'as torah would necessarily have to agree with them, or come to the same conclusion as they did. After all, if a group of Fields Medal recipients were given a math problem, we wouldn't accept different solutions from them all. There's only one right answer to a math problem, no matter how complex it is. Similarly, no matter how complex the issues of life, or halacha, or hashkafa are, if a Gadol figures out the right response to that challenge, and we accept that his answer is the truth (as we must), then undoubtedly, the other Gedolim must agree with him!
And here's where the system breaks down. Because there's an eensy-weensy, tiny, little, nagging problem. It isn't usually taken notice of, but sometimes, like with the recent Slifkin affair, one can't help but notice it: If what the Gedolim say is the truth, and the Gedolim are always in agreement with each other about that da'as torah inspired truth, then how could a Gadol ever disagree with another Gadol? Usually, this minor point isn't paid too much attention to because most of time, any disagreements that there are, are usually in areas of practical halacha and for some reason (I'm not sure why this is) people have accepted the fact that different rabbonim are allowed to disagree in those areas. Anyway, "Gedolim" don't generally deal with petty issues of day-to-day halacha. Their time is too valuable for that. Their opinions are reserved for more vital issues; fundamental issues. When a Gadol's opinion is presented on a matter, you can be sure it's one of momentous significance. (And if it isn't, well, the fact that the Gadol is addressing it, should make you reevaluate it's importance.)
But occasionally, we do see that Gedolim disagree on big issues! How can this be?! If a Gadol's thinking always reflects the truth, then how can there ever be any disagreement amongst the Gedolim? There aren't multiple truths! The Gedolim must agree, at the very least on the fundamental issues. This is absolutely crucial. So how is it conceivable that there are ever disputes on fundamental issues among gedolim, both between our present day gedolim and between gedolim of different generations?! HOW CAN THIS BE?!
Being faced with the paradox of two Gedolim holding opposing views is unthinkable to the da'as torah believing Jew. The very awareness of such a reality would cripple him beyond repair. Because of this incredibly dangerous threat to their belief system, the chareidi world goes to great lengths to put forward a picture of unequivocal and unanimous agreement amongst the Gedolim on all major issues. In fact, this is why they even use the term "The Gedolim". To convey the impression that it's a universal and absolute consensus.
Most often all that's necessary for them to keep people from realizing that there are a variety of legitimate views on an issue is by using their patented two-pronged approach: First, they persistently claim that what "The Gedolim say" or what "Da'as Torah says...", is the only valid approach. At the same time they will be equally insistent that anyone who holds anything other than that view has got to be either (1) a major apikorus (2) goes to YU (3) is a scientist (4) doesn't even wear a black hat (5) is Modern Orthodox (6) Is a Zionist or (7) is a ba'al taiva. But occasionally that just isn't enough to sustain the deception. Like when certain things get published, and they are faced with the irrefutable evidence that in fact the Gedolim DID NOT SAY what they are telling everyone they supposedly did. In those cases, they have to resort to other tactics. They start banning books. Forbidding people to find out about the differing views. They rewrite history. They force people to retract their views. They ruin the reputation of the writers, thereby undermining the credibility of the accounts. Previously admired and respected figures are deemed unacceptable. And other such delightful activities demonstrating their devotion to Torah ideals.
All of this is a direct result of the absolutist, black and white worldview that they persist in maintaining. They will do whatever it takes to keep people from realizing the truth. After all, if people were to know that the Gedolim don't all agree on fundamental issues, they'd have to admit that there isn't ONE right answer, which means that there isn't only ONE right way to do things, which in all likelihood would then cause them to blow a fuse and break down into a fit of uncontrollable and incoherent apikorsus. (Don't laugh, this happened to me once).
On occasion, one might encounter some people who will admit that there is at times disagreement among the Gedolim, yet still somehow insist that it's imperative to stick with the da'as torah approach. They'll usually explain it with some idea that everyone has to go by their particular rabbi's da'as torah, and that sometimes there can be different da'as torah's, etc. But it undeniably weakens the strength of the da'as torah position, and therefore they try to blow past the issue and ignore that it exists.
With all the recent hubbub of the Slifkin issue catching the public's eye, this topic has gotten many people's attention lately. Without getting into the Science vs. Torah issue, one simple question that has bothered many people about the debacle is: How come everyone is making such a big deal about these issues now, if we've had varied opinions on the subject for hundreds of years already? Similarly, why is everyone condemning R' Slifkin if he had support for his views from many contemporary rabbonim? Why can't these individuals be allowed to believe what they do without being written out of the fold? Isn't there an acceptable range of opinions?
The answer is very simple: In the not-too-distant past, religious society was able to countenance a multiplicity of views on many subjects (definitely complex ones like this topic). There was no concept of "the Da'as Torah view on the issue". Rabbi X had his opinion, and Gadol Y had his view, and School Z taught this view and no one really felt that each one had a monopoly on the truth. They were doing the best they could to figure out the answers, and they sometimes came to different conclusions. So what!?
But nowadays, there can only be one right answer on these issues. And that right answer has clearly been determined by, guess who? Yes, that's right..."The Gedolim".
"But wait," an innocent person inquires, "Haven't many gedolim over the ages subscribed to many of these same views? The Rambam? The Ba'alei Tosfos? The Tiferes Yisrael? R' Hirsch? R' Dessler? R' Kaplan?"
"NO! Absolutely not! No such thing!" the protector of truth proclaims. "All the Gedolim agree that this is the proper approach! Any sources indicating otherwise are either misunderstood, not authentic, or mistaken."
"But what about the current Rabbis - some even considered Gedolim - who have subscribed to the other view? What about the Rabbis who supported R' Slifkin?"
"Sadly, they were mistaken. They didn't understand the issue properly. In fact, they admit this and have since retracted their views. Everyone now agrees that the Gedolim are right on this issue."
This is how the chareidi world is. There can be only one right way. No room for a range of acceptable opinions. No possibility that different great Rabbis might come to different conclusions. It's all black and white. All Gedolim endorse our way. No Gedolim agree with the other views. Our way, in it's entirety, is the only right way. Anything but total and unyielding allegiance to our view of Judaism is absolutely unacceptable.
Fortunately (for Jewish society, although not for poor Rabbi Slifkin, who has my deepest sympathies), the Slifkin affair has exposed the utter absurdity of this stance. It's drawn attention to the inconsistent and illogical approach that these people insist must be followed. It's revealed the desperate and deceitful tactics that proponents of that ideology must resort to in order to maintain their façade. It's finally revealed the utter foolishness of subscribing to the absolutist concept of da'as torah. Unfortunately, as a result of it all, many people are feeling confused, angry, and betrayed. They're wondering just how solid those seemingly unassailable underpinnings of their beliefs really are. Many are bravely taking a closer look. Many who are doing so are shocked by what they're finding. But as difficult as that may be, it's a good thing. Because now they can finally rid themselves of those illusory support structures that they previously relied on, and work to attain genuinely truthful and consistent convictions.