YEMENITE JEWS study Torah in Sana’a, 1926..
(photo credit: FROM BOOK ‘AUS DEM JEMEN’ VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
This week’s Torah portion, Shelah, discusses a case where the Jewish nation’s highest court, the Sanhedrin, made a mistaken halachic judgment, and the nation then obeyed this mistaken directive. In such a case, the entire nation brings a sacrifice to the Temple to atone for the sin.
Today, we use the terms “High Court” or “Sanhedrin,” but the Torah refers to them as: “If, because of the eyes of the congregation, it was committed inadvertently...” (Numbers 15:24).
The high court is referred to here as “the eyes of the congregation.” The significance of this reference is the parallel made between the role of the Jewish legislature in relation to the entire nation, according to the Torah, and the role of the eyes in relation to the entire human body.
There is a story in the Talmud about Herod, the Roman-sponsored king in the first century, who was angry at the Jewish sages who said that he was not worthy to serve as king. He proceeded to kill all the sages who lived within the area under his control, with the exception of one – Bava ben Buta, who was known for his incredible wisdom. Herod spared his life so he could consult with him on matters of the monarchy.
At a certain point, Herod wished to atone for the murders he committed and so he asked that elder wise man what he should do. The sage answered, “He who blinded the ‘eye of the world’... should go and occupy himself with the eye of the world [the Temple]” (Bava Batra 3-4).
Torah sages are the “eyes of the congregation” and the “eyes of the world.” A person’s eyes do not choose where to go, but they provide information on impassable routes. Eyes do not have perspectives, values or positions on issues, but they allow us to read and view content through which we can adopt positions and values.
This is the basis for the concept of “da’at Torah”; the opinions of Torah sages serve the entire nation and the individual person in the nation as “eyes.” But let’s clarify this. There is a prevalent claim that a person who studies and teaches Torah automatically acquires understanding, the ability to advise, and the ability to deal with all facets of life. This claim is untrue. The Torah teaches man values and beliefs, commandments and good characteristics, but it does not make a person a doctor, or a psychologist, or most certainly – a politician.
So, what is “da’at Torah”? In every complicated situation, in every dilemma we face as people and as Jews, there are different sides and a variety of standpoints. A dilemma can entail many different considerations: financial, social, familial, security and more. Often, among the various aspects of the issue, there are also spiritual considerations that affect it.
A realistic and mature adult knows that there is no shame in consulting experts. If we are facing a financial dilemma, we turn to the best economist, describe the various considerations and get his opinion. Whether or not we listen to his opinion is our choice. But the professional information is important so that we can make an educated decision. This is true also when we face a family dilemma – consulting with a couples or family therapist is a wise step. The choice of how to act is always ours, but a professional opinion is invaluable.
This is also true when we face a dilemma regarding values or spirituality. A believing Jew knows that the source that inspires our values is the Torah. If we are not sure what to do when facing a spiritual dilemma, we should consult an expert, a person who has studied Torah for many years and has acquired the ability to learn and draw conclusions in situations that are not explicitly written in the Torah. Only after we get the information, can we make a decision and choose the path that best suits our beliefs.
This is “da’at Torah.” When we grasp the value of consulting with Torah sages regarding ideological and spiritual dilemmas, we are implementing the definitions of “eyes of the congregation” and “eye of the world.”The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.
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