Da’as Torah and the Holocaust

This is a topic that comes up frequently, and when it appeared on a friend’s Facebook discussion I put these thoughts together.

(A) A big part of Judaism is learning to nullify our will to Hashem’s will. The leaders of our nation have always been the people who did this best — who learned Torah and let it guide them, rather than trying to superimpose their own values on the Torah. A person who goes to a Rav with an important matter almost always has an opinion, he (or she) is just asking for guidance from a person who has learned to do this better than he himself has.

(B) Obviously Rabbonim can err. Why obviously? Because the Torah makes it explicit. Moshe made mistakes. The Sanhedrin will make mistakes and bring a Korban for it. And we follow them anyways — for two reasons. 1) The Torah tells us to. 2) They still know better than we do. They still get it right more often than we do. The Torah still says that Israel without its Sages is like a dove without wings.

One thing that certainly cannot be done is to try to second-guess them based upon an alternate reality that never happened — e.g. saying that “the Holocaust” somehow proves Rabbonim were wrong telling people not to leave Europe.

If we look at Jewish history, it happens repeatedly: appearances are deceiving. What appears to be is not the reality — which is really about where we stand with HaShem. See Megillas Esther, for example. No one looked more wrong than Mordechai did when he refused to bow to Haman, which appeared to have caused the decree to wipe out the Jews. The reality is precisely the opposite; Mordechai’s actions saved us from that same deadly decree.

It is well-known that people who left Europe before the war had tremendous difficulty keeping their level of observance. It was only truly unique people who came over to America or Eretz Yisrael and built without compromise. We simply cannot say that had hundreds of thousands more fled Europe (making the invalid assumption that the Americans or Brits would let them in to the US or EY) and sacrificed their dedication to Hashem U’Toraso, that everything else would have stayed equal. Rommel did not invade EY because he lost one battle to the British after having won a series of others. What would have happened if, to the contrary, he had won that battle as well?

2 Replies to “Da’as Torah and the Holocaust”

  1. Very well put. Most of the criticism of daas Torah is based on the straw man that daas Torah assumes infallibility. Indeed, the criticism usually goes even further than that, essentially arguing that for daas Torah to be valid, there can be *no* negative consequences of a daas Torah decision.

    As for the specific case of the Holocaust, you are quite correct that there is no way to know how things would have developed if the gedolim had called for a mass exodus of Jews from Europe. The simple reality is that, for the overwhelming majority of European Jews, escape was never a viable option, regardless if of what anyone said. And a large public call to abandon Europe in the years before the Holocaust could well have made things even worse than they already were.

    As I once wrote in a similar discussion (http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2014/01/which-unanswered-questions-interfere.html), it is impossible to say for certain how things might have gone differently if the gedolim had called for Jews to escape Europe. However, one thing is certain, even if things would have gone better than they did in real life, there would still have been any number of bad consequences from that decision. And the critics of daas Torah of today would be pointing at those consequences as proof that daas Torah doesn’t work.

  2. I fully agree with the point both of you make that it’s impossible to say for certain whether things wouldn’t have turned out worse had gedolei Torah called for Jews to escape Europe. But it’s important to go further and affirm that whatever happened is what God wanted to happen, and that to that end He may have caused the greatest Torah minds to err.

    The most relevant source for us seems not to be Moshe and the Sanhedrin, but rather R. Yochanan ben Zakkai. In the name of Rav Yosef or Rabbi Akiva, the gemara (Gittin 56b) tells us that when he was pleading on behalf of the Jewish people R. Yochanan ben Zakkai was caused by God to err and say the wrong thing to Vespasian. This is sourced to Yeshayahu 45:25, a pasuk that should always come to mind in discussions of gedolei Torah during the Holocaust: ‏משיב חכמים אחור ודעתם יסכל‎

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