“Daas Torah” and the “Agentic State” – Virtue or Vice?

The Experimenter - Movie PosterMy wife and I watched another excellent film the other night entitled The Experimenter which, in a unique and almost documentary style, portrays the life and work of the well-known Social Psychologist, Dr. Stanley Milgram, whose groundbreaking work on the nature of obedience continues to be featured in psychology textbooks today. Throughout the show, the actor playing the role of Milgram speaks to the viewer in his dual role as the main character and the movie’s narrator. The content of the story focuses primarily on his various psychological experiments and their significance in understanding the nature of human behavior. Having studied in the 1950’s under Dr. Solomon Asch, who also supervised his Ph.D. at Harvard, Milgram earned his doctorate in Social Psychology in 1960 and then spent the next three years at Yale performing his famously controversial experiments related to the nature of human obedience to authority, publishing his findings in 1963. Dr. Asch was a major influence on the direction of Milgram’s work, being the famed psychologist who demonstrated the phenomenon of human social conformity with his “line experiment,” wherein a single subject was tested in a group setting to see if they would conform to the blatant error of the majority or maintain their personal resolve in the face of social opposition. Through their work, both men provided the world with startling insights into human moral resolve and how, for the majority of people, any such resolve dissolves under the slightest prompting or pressure.

Dr. Milgram was a child of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Hungary. At several points throughout the film he is questioned about the origin of his surname, to which he responds, “‘Milgram’ is Hebrew for ‘pomegranate,’ one of the seven fruits of the Bible. I’m Jewish.” As a Jew, the events of the Holocaust had a profound effect on Milgram, especially the 1961 trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi officer who had fled to Austria and then Argentina following the war. Although Eichmann had been personally responsible for the deportation of many of Germany’s Jews to death camps, during his trial he claimed that he himself could not be held liable since he was merely “following orders.” This confident shirking of responsibility by Eichmann was not unique to him, at least not in the mind of Milgram, since the Nazi extermination efforts were facilitated by many people – soldiers and civilians alike – all of whom seemed to think that through committing horrendous acts of animalistic brutality and systematic genocide they were merely “following orders.” The question for Milgram was “How?” as much as “Why?” How do relatively normal, moral human beings become the agents of such evil against their fellow creatures?

In 1974, Milgram published a book – which has now become a classic text in the field of Social Psychology – wherein he expounds his theories and conclusions based on the experiment held at Yale. Since more than a decade had passed between the initial publication of his findings and his book, there was a great deal of critical reaction to everything from his interpretations of the data to the ethics of the methods he used during the experiment. Milgram expends considerable effort in his book answering the objections of his critics and providing justifications for his approach. Drawing on the work of Asch and the outcomes of his research, he expounds on two socio-psychological theories:

  1. The “Theory of Conformism” (largely based on the findings of Asch) – That individuals who have no particular experience or competence in making decisions will, when in confronted with crisis or a moral dilemma, will simply conform to the majority consensus within a group, even when the outward action of such conformity conflicts with his own inner convictions. In essence, the majority of people will simply allow their decisions to be made by the group in which they participate.
  2. The “Agentic State Theory” – According to Milgram in the preface of his book “the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow” (Obedience to Authority, 1973, p. vii). The antithesis of the “agentic state” – viewing someone else as responsible for one’s actions – is the “autonomous state” wherein an individual views themselves as responsible for their own actions. The adoption of the “agentic state” is viewed by Milgram as being volitional. In other words, even when a person is subject to an abusive authority figure they remain ultimately responsible for any action they commit.

According to Milgram, the volitional abdication of responsibility and the abandonment of decision-making to an authority figure was responsible, in part, for the complicity of millions of people during the Holocaust in carrying out Nazi directives. These tendencies of human behavior – conformism and the agentic state – are essentially negative and viewed as detrimental aspects of human behavior, indicative of character flaws, and something to be cautioned against.

In Haredi-Hasidic circles, however, both conformism and being agentic are encouraged, and even praised, as traits that religious Jews are duty-bound to espouse. This ideology, known popularly as “Daas Torah,” “Kabbalas Ol,” and “Bitul Daas,” posits that a special echelon of rabbinic personalities have a unique and infallible, or nearly infallible, power of insight in all spheres, secular and religious, representing God in such a way that the general population of Jews are obligated to obey them, irrespective of inner conviction or commonsense.

These rabbinic figures – known collectively as “Gedolim” – is an amorphous group whose status is determined via a combination of “mob rule” consensus and political affiliations. The authority of the “Gedolim” is considered – by them and their followers – as being inherent and absolute, obligating everyone with whom they speak or over whom they supposedly have “jurisdiction” to very literally obey them. Usually this group consists of roshey yeshivah and Hasidic “rebbes,” but anyone with either prestigious lineage extending back to Old World Jewish leadership or who is considered prodigious in their level of knowledge can be a “gadol.”

It is demanded of adherents to have “Bitul Daas” – a very literal surrendering of the will and authority to make decisions – and to simply obey the spiritual directives of their particular “tzaddik” in both religious and secular matters. Any refusal to do so is considered an expression of rebellion and arrogance, often compared to such rebellion in the Torah as that of Qorah against Mosheh Rabbeynu (`alaw ha-shalom). This type of mass consent usually leads to an almost overwhelming sense of social conformism wherein any deviation in either dress, personal expression, or halakhic position is considered sinful or, at the very least, spiritually “dangerous.” Everything from the color of one’s shirt, the style of talliyth, the way in which the lolav is waved, and even one’s manner of Hebrew pronunciation are considered decisions that must be directly approved of by the “Gedolim.”

The historical origins of this type of thinking are rooted firmly in Hasidic movements of Europe and their unique conceptions of the nature and function of rabbinic leadership. “Daas Torah” is essentially the result of Hasidic theology infecting the European Haredi world. And although the idea certainly appears in many Hasidic works, it is never referred to specifically as “Daas Torah” until after World War II, when European Jewry myopically declared that due to the Holocaust that “Torah learning was all but destroyed” due to the severe crippling of European Jews when they were murdered by the Nazis (yimah shemam). Co-opting the term from the writings of Rav Yisra’el Salanter and the Hafess Hayyim, they began to see the authoritarianism and absolutism of the Hasidic construct as the only way forward in the struggle to rebuild and fight assimilation.

In no way do I mean to minimize the loss sustained by the Jewish people during the Holocaust, but the call for a re-invention of Judaism – in both practice and methodology – even to the point of invoking “`eth la`asoth HaShem heferu torothekha – It is a time to act for HaShem – they have nullified Your Torah” (cf. Tiliym 119:126) to justify subverting basic Torah directives in an effort to direct everyone into full-time learning while living on public charity was without justification. We have seen the clear warnings of Hazal come to pass before our eyes with regard to learning Torah without having a worldly occupation, giving formal instruction to those who are not worthy, and living on the largess of the community. HaShem yerahem. The stubborn and elitist refusal on the part of Ashkenazi Jewry to acknowledge that the Torah was still strong among the Jews of Yemen, Turkey, North Africa, North America, etc. has ultimately led to the Haredi-Hasidic world of today, a subculture and ideology almost completely divorced from the Torah except in outward modes of practice. I admit that this is a strong assessment, but the truth is apparent to all who are honest with the facts. Much of what the Haredi-Hasidic world today extols as virtuous is, according to the halakhah, actually destructive and sinful (but this topic is for another post).

The distinction between the philosophy of normative Judaism and that of “Daas Torah” is elucidated in the well-known article Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority (printed in Moshe Sokol’s Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy – 1992), as well as the background behind the invention of the latter. Referring to normative Judaism as “halakhic pesak,” he makes the following assessment:

“For the difference between the [Daas Torah and halakhic pesak] is not just a matter of halakhic – and particularly haskafic! – pluralism versus halakhic – and haskafic – uniformity. The difference also touches upon profound epistemological and axiological matters. For whereas halakhic pesak allows for, indeed encourages, reasoned debate and disagreement – within, of course, the framework of the halakhic system – Daas Torah… requires the suppression of one’s own critical faculties and submission to the superior, if at times incomprehensible, wisdom of the gadol. And one must submit to the views of the gadol not simply because the halakhic system, in terms of its complex rules for resolving disputes, ascribes greater authority to his decisions. Rather, the views of the gadol are true and authentic, while my differing views are false and inauthentic. What is required of me, then, is, again, intellectual submission and faith in the gadol and his superior wisdom.

This being the case, it follows that the ideology of Daas Torah is a central, perhaps the central, element in the ethic of submission that characterizes the rejectionist approach [i.e. those who reject any form or aspect of modernity]. For at the heart of the rejectionist approach is the view that unquestioning submission to authority, the authority of the halakhah, of the gadol, of God, is the highest religious value and one that is absolutely opposed to the modern values of intellectual autonomy and self-expression.” (pp. 23-24)

As is fairly obvious, the distinction between both philosophies is at times very subtle – at least in the way each is worded. “Daas Torah” is read back into both ancient and relatively recent rabbinic sources as if it were merely the continuation of authentic Jewish thought. This, however, is not the case, as is clearly laid out by Lawrence Kaplan in the article cited above.

But who wouldn’t want to be obedient to God? To the Torah? To the halakhah? Isn’t that what Judaism is, a covenant between God and `Am Yisra’el predicated on dutiful and loyal adherence to the misswoth? The answer is “Yes.” Service of God through the Torah is the foundation basis upon which all other functions and observances of Jewish life are supposed to be based – and through which any association with the Torah as a religious document makes sense. Of course, this acceptance of the Torah is predicated on an even more basic fundament, namely that of pure monotheism (cf. Rambam, Hilkhoth Yesodhey HaTorah 1:4[6]; Hilkhoth Qiryath Shema` 1:2), something which also seems to be lacking due to the popularity of Hasidic doctrines, on the basis of which many make the cavalier statement that “everything is God” or “we are all pieces of God” – statements that, before Hasidism and World War II, would have been roundly rejected as heresy.

Opposition to “Daas Torah” is not the promotion of anarchy or rugged individualism. Anyone who believes in the truth of the Torah and verity of the halakhah as it was communicated by Hazal and their direct expositors necessarily believes in a submission to authorities. Those who adopt the position of meqoriyuth simply recognize the pre-eminent authority of Hazal in halakhic matters and reject the self-styled “heirs” to their position in the Haredi-Hasidic world. Meqoriyyim do not have a problem with authority, just a problem with corrupt and invalid authority. Inherent in the halakhah itself is the power of the courts, from a local gathering of three judges to the supreme power of the Sanhedriyn of seventy-one, to settle legal disputes, and disobedience to their directives is a transgression. So the question of distinction becomes not the question of whether there are rabbinic authorities and the duty to abide by their rulings, but rather the question of the nature, extent, and propriety of such rabbinic authorities – as well as their identity.

The philosophical components of the “Daas Torah” position that distinguishes it as a latter-day innovation are as follows. There are certainly other possible ways to frame the issues, but this is my estimation:

  1. “Gedolim” viewed as a continuation of Hazal – For the vast majority of Haredi-Hasidic Jews, there is no real separation in their minds between the status and authority of Hazal and the “Gedolim.” Although Hazal are viewed as being on a “higher spiritual level” with the ability to raise the dead and perform other types of miracles at will, the rabbis of today are still viewed as being able, by virtue of their comparison to Hazal (and sometimes even Mosheh Rabbeynu, `alaw ha-shalom) to legislate their opinions to the Jewish world. In fact, this view was somewhat standard among Ashkenazi Jewry, as is evidenced by the vast body of tosafoth (“additions”) written which were intended to serve as extensions and continuations of the discussions of the Gemara itself. The position of [Old] Sefaradi Jewry (i.e. Spain, not Morocco), however, was that legislative authority had essentially ended with the close of Talmudic literature (i.e. hathimath ha-talmudh). This is evidenced by the codification that came from the Geonim (e.g. Halakhoth Gedholoth) and the Rishonim in Spain and Turkey (e.g. Hilkhoth HaRif and Mishneh Torah). This aspect of “Daas Torah” is a failure to distinguish between “lawyers” and “lawmakers” and removes virtually all boundaries to their legislative abilities since many “Gedolim” feel very much at liberty to dismiss interpretations of the Rishonim and reinterpret the Gemara (usually in the interest of either reinforcing superstitious ideas or producing excessive and baseless humroth).
  2. Rabbinic authority based on ontology and not legal appointment – Whereas the authority of Hazal rested in the facts of their legal appointment, being either on courts (e.g. the Sanhedriyn) or halakhic decisors for their local area, the “Gedolim” are viewed as being ontologically elevated above other Jews. In the Hasidic conception, the “Gedolim” (or “rebbes”) are “tzaddikim” whose very souls are composed of the spiritual stuff of the higher kabbalistic realms. In this way, “Gedolim” are popularly viewed as being “revealed” and not made, since their status was pre-ordained by the innate superiority of their “neshamos.” In other words, adherents to “Daas Torah” view their leaders as having an innate privilege to rule over other Jews. No such concept has ever been a part of Judaism or the writings of Hazal. Rather, those who were worthy – based on halakhic competency and refined personal standards of conduct – were appointed to courts and positions of authority. One of the harshest complaints found in the letters of the Rambam is in regard to the dynastic nature of leadership that developed over the yeshivoth.  He regularly complains that due to prestigious lineage possessed, many imbeciles and ignorant fools were appointed to positions of rabbinic authority. The plain halakhic [read, not absurdly mystical] definition of a “tzaddik” (ssaddiyq – צדיק) is “one whose merits are greater than his iniquities is a ssaddiyq” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:1; b.Yevamoth 49b-50a), and conversely “one whose iniquities are greater than his merits is a rasha`” (Ibid.). Ironically, by this definition many self-styled “Gedolim” and “rebbes” are actually not “tzaddikim” at all (דו”ק).
  3. Rav seen as “conduit” to God rather a bearer of wisdom – Again, in Hasidic fashion, many adherents to the “Daas Torah” ideology view their leaders as their spiritual connection to God – a conduit or pipeline of sorts – who channels blessings and spiritual energy to his followers. Such an idea does exist outside of Hasidic writings and latter-day Haredi texts. Although there is a concept of connection to Torah Scholars (talmidhey hakhamiym), it is in order to gain wisdom and instruction from their learning, as well as gain a good example from their deeds (cf. Rambam, MT Hilkhoth De`oth 6:3[2]). In other words, the true concept of “connection” with a rabbinic leader is not abstract or spiritual, but actual and practical – in the same way that a student of science gains knowledge through listening to the words of his professors and gains experience through conducting research in the field under their direction. The alternative, that the souls of all involved become linked in a chain to God, as it were, is at the most idolatry (`avodhah zarah) and at the very least stupidity (shetuyoth), having no basis in authentic Jewish sources. Again, viewing the Torah scholar as a respectable “lawyer” in a position to help you be “righteous” in the eyes of the law leads to the most healthy conceptions of and respect for rabbinic authority.
  4. Attribution of infallibility and prophetic ability to “gadolim” – Related to the previous point, “Gedolim” – being viewed as being directly connected to God – are viewed as possessing prophetic abilities (ruah ha-qodhesh) and thereby are considered necessarily infallible. Beside the fact that Hazal clearly taught that prophecy has ceased (cf. t.Sotah 13:4; b.Bava Bathra 14b), infallibility has not ever been granted to any court, prophet, or rabbinic authority in Judaism. Even the Sanhedriyn is not to be obeyed in certain rare circumstances, since it is considered possible for them to err in a matter of halakhah and become liable to bring a qorban (cf. Wayiqera 4:13; Masekheth Horayoth; Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Shogheghoth). Although we do have a misswah of “lo thasur – לא תסור” (cf. Devariym 17:11), i.e. that it is forbidden to deviate from the instructions of the Sanhedriyn, it DOES NOT apply to singular rabbis, especially not those today who do not have authentic semikhah! This pasuq and the halakhoth built upon it are in sole regard to the rulings of the Sanhedriyn alone (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Mameriym 2:1). Although there are those who will attribute expansion of the concept of “lo thasur – לא תסור” to the Sefer HaHinukh (Spain, ca. 13th Century), it is actually the 19th Century Polish-Ukranian rabbi Yosef Babad who does so in his commentary on the Sefer HaHinukh, known as Minhath Hinukh (cf. Misswah 496), long after the spread of the Hasidic movement into those areas.
  5. Expansion of rabbinic authority into secular matters disconnected with halakhah – In former times, Torah scholars were consulted to resolve matters of halakhic difficulty or to clarify legal points, the “Gedolim” have conflated all areas of life and have brought them under their [supposed] authority. Never were midrashic disputes settled in the courts, as this was not a practical matter, but a matter of open – yet educated – discussion meant to stay in the beyth midrash. In the Haredi-Hasidic world, however, it is not uncommon to hear that this or that “gadol” has “poskened” that a particular peshat in Rashi is correct or that a certain “tzaddik” has “ruled” about the correct age of the earth. Such arrogance has never been seen among the Jewish people since ancient times – it is patently ridiculous for anyone to attempt to make these things halakhic issues when they are not. People ask rabbis who have never held a day job or paid their own bills to help them make important business decisions which have nothing to do with the halakhoth of business ethics. This has caused many who adhere to “Daas Torah” to suffer great losses financially. And what else should we expect? Going to yeshivah does not qualify one, for instance, to give sound marketing advice or tax consultation.
  6. Redefinition of miynuth (heresy) and apiyqorsuth (Epicureanism) – One of the bully tactics most-commonly used by the Haredi-Hasidic world in service of “Daas Torah” is the attribution of heresy to any detractors. Those who refuse – for any reason – to submit and/or obey the “Gedolim” are referred to as “heretics” and “kofrim” as if their refusal constitutes a rejection of Judaism, fundamental tenets of Jewish faith, and even God Himself. Heresy (miynuth) and Epicureanism (apiyqorsuth) have well-defined halakhic parameters and neither category includes disobedience to an amorphous group of “Gedolim” (cf. Rambam, MT, Hilkhoth Teshuvah 3:14-16[6-8]). Such a person is often said to lack “emunas hachamim” (“confidence in [Torah] scholars”), a halakhic concept which, like “lo thasur – לא תסור,” is co-opted by the Haredi-Hasidic world since it too only refers to confidence in the general competence in the rulings of the Sanhedriyn, and even then it doesn’t mean robotic obedience in every case, as has already been explained. (An excellent exposition of emunath hakhamiym from the sources can be found an article by Rav Nachum Rabinovitch.)

The way in which “Daas Torah” conceives of rabbinic authority is nothing like that which historical Judaism has countenanced or that which has been communicated to us by Hazal, rather it bears an unseemly resemblance to Christian doctrines of “papal infallibility” and “vicarious Christi” wherein the bishops – including the pope – are viewed as “ruling in the place of God” (cf. Letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesians – II, 6:1). Like many of the spiritual and messianic ideas of Hasidism, “Daas Torah” appears to be an adoption of Christian doctrines, not an authentic Jewish teaching. In fact, it appears that many of the core elements of the current “Daas Torah” ideology would have been objectionable even to some leaders of the early Hasidic movement. Shneur Zalman of Liady, author of the central Lubavitcher text known as the Tanya, bemoans the attribution of prophetic abilities to him and other rabbinic leaders and says that the way in which people treat him as a “rebbe” is unfounded in Jewish precedent. The following is taken from Iggerot HaKodesh #22:


אהוביי אחיי ורעיי מאהבה מסותרת תוכחת מגולה לכו נא ונוכחה זכרו ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור ההיתה כזאת מימות עולם ואיה איפוא מצאתם מנהג זה באחד מכל ספרי חכמי ישראל הראשונים והאחרונים להיות מנהג ותיקון לשאול בעצה גשמיות כדת מה לעשות בעניני העולם הגשמי אף לגדולי חכמי ישראל הראשונים כתנאים ואמוראים אשר כל רז לא אנס להו ונהירין להון שבילין דרקיע כ”א לנביאים ממש אשר היו לפנים בישראל כשמואל הרואה אשר הלך אליו שאול לדרוש ה’ על דבר האתונות שנאבדו לאביו כי באמת כל עניני אדם לבד מדברי תורה וי”ש אינם מושגים רק בנבואה ולא לחכמים לחם כמארז”ל הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים


“My beloved brothers and friends,

From my hidden love for you comes an open rebuke. “Come now and let us reason together” (Yesha`yahu 1:18). “Remember ancient days, consider the years of every generation” (Devariym 32:7). Was there anything like this from ancient days? Where therefore have you found this custom in any of the books of the earlier or the later Sages of Israel that it should be the the established custom to ask advice about mundane things, about what should be done in matters related to the physical world? Even to the early Great Sages of Israel [such questions were not asked], such as the Tanna’iym and the Amora’iym, to whom no secret was withheld and to whom the paths of the heavens were illuminated, but only to actual prophets (le-nevi’iym mamash) who lived in Israel, such as Shmu’el the Seer to whom Sha’ul went to inquire of HaShem concerning the donkeys that his father had lost. For truly all human affairs, with the exception of halakhic judgments and that which is related to the fear of Heaven, are not apprehended except through prophecy, [as it says] “there is no bread for the sages” (Qoheleth 9:11), and as Hazal said, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven” (b.Berakhoth 33b).

What are we to conclude? Is “Daas Torah” a virtue or is it a vice? Should we have an attitude of “live and let live” and “to each his own” regarding those who promote it? To Dr. Stanley Milgram, the “agentic state” (a psychological term roughly equivalent to “Bitul Daas” in my opinion) was not virtuous, but was disastrous, and the mechanism that made the Nazi machine possible, as well as the horrors perpetrated by them. When normal and basically decent people decide to negate personal responsibility and give over their will to another, human suffering is inevitably the result. What other use is there to demand such compliance? What purpose can it possibly serve other than the personal interests of those in such autocratic positions of authority?

If we are honest, “Daas Torah” and its “Gedolim” have been responsible for countless cases of corruption, abuse, and even the shielding of molesters. They are largely racist and bigoted, having intensely elitist attitudes toward other segments of religiously “orthodox” Jewry. The institutional poverty that now has become a full-fledged theological position is vigorously defended by them, allowing hundreds of thousands of their followers to believe that they are above the dignity of working for a living and that their learning Torah requires that others support them and thereby halakhically misappropriate millions of dollars in charity funds. This is not to say that there are not human problems among other Jews in communities outside of the “Daas Torah” spectrum, however the reality is that there is a marked concentration and higher incidence of such abuses, made possible by masses of followers entering into the “agentic state” and “merely following orders,” among Haredim in particular.

All things considered, “Daas Torah” seems to be a vice and not a virtue…and certainly not meqori.

For further reading:

Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Dr. Stanley Milgram (1974)

Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority by Lawrence Kaplan (1992)

What is “Emunat Hakhamim”? by Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch (2007)

Perhaps more later.



2 thoughts on ““Daas Torah” and the “Agentic State” – Virtue or Vice?

  1. Very impressive article using the movie as a springboard to examine both blind or well considered obedience to a sociopolitical or religious imperative.

    Very insightful. Thanks!

    Michael Katzoff, MD (414) 350-6808 mnka@aol.com


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