American Orthodoxy's Twilight of Authority

When the established rabbis go silent, others, including civic-minded philanthropists and charismatic outsiders with inflammatory social-media presences, fill the void.

November 20, 2020 | Shlomo Zuckier
About the author: Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier is a Research Fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion. A founder of The Lehrhaus, he recently completed a PhD in Judaic studies at Yale University.

Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn on April 29, 2020. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

The events this autumn in Brooklyn’s ḥaredi (Orthodox) communities have been quite extraordinary, even revelatory. Contrary to popular hope, herd immunity to the coronavirus has not been achieved; the city government’s response to the new second wave has been heavy-handed and possibly discriminatory; and in turn its legitimate attempts to enforce closures, social distancing, and mask wearing have been spurned rather than obeyed, thanks in part to the emergence of the since-arrested agitator Heshy Tischler as an outspoken voice for what he hopes constitutes the silent majority of the ḥaredi world. That this convict-turned-politician-turned-radio-host-turned-riot-inciter has found significant—though by no means total or even majority—support for his combative message reflects important and overlooked changes in the ḥaredi community in recent years, most notably the appearance of a serious crisis of authority in its ranks. This is most revelatory of all. As America at large is dealing with the hollowing out of institutions and the rise of politicians with inflammatory social-media presence, the ḥaredi world is too, even if the institutions are rabbinic and the social-media platform is more likely to be WhatsApp than Twitter.


Ḥaredi attitudes toward leadership have long differed from those of their surrounding communities, Jewish or gentile. Much of the community subscribes to a theology of Daas Torah (“knowledge of Torah”), whereby leading rabbis—those with the greatest degree of Torah knowledge and therefore the greatest degree of insight into the divine mind—are empowered to make all major communal decisions. We see this approach very much in effect today in Israel, where the two senior rabbinic authorities—Rabbi Gershon Edelstein and Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky—are engaged in political negotiations through the ḥaredi parties, in determining when to reopen yeshivas, and simultaneously in messaging to their communities on how to proceed. The two rabbis having often been at odds with each other in recent months notwithstanding, the fact remains that the prevailing ideology of Daas Torah dictates that these rabbis (and their courts and handlers) make policy on nearly every issue for their ḥaredi followers. In America, a similar rabbinic seat of authority rests with the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the council of great rabbinic sages, which is affiliated with the Agudath Israel of America. (The organization lost its leader, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, “the Novominsker rebbe,” to COVID-19 in April, added several members in September, in a move towards relative youth, and lost Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, one of its elder statesmen, just two weeks ago.)

For as long as there have been rabbis, those possessing expertise in Torah knowledge have been consulted on issues large and small in their areas of training—Talmud and halakhah (Jewish law). Daas Torah goes well beyond that, into a presumption that their training in Torah qualifies leading rabbis as experts to be consulted on all worldly issues. There is some controversy as to when exactly the approach took hold. Lawrence Kaplan and Jacob Katz, two historians of Jewish law, have argued that this is an innovation of the modern period, possibly stemming from the 18th-century revolution of Ḥasidism. Others, like the rabbi Alfred Cohen, have argued for roots in the pre-modern period.

Whatever the source, Daas Torah theology claims that being suffused with Torah knowledge affords leading rabbis special insight into the world, and maybe divine inspiration as well, such that there is a direct correlation between Torah expertise and qualification to weigh in on worldly issues.

That is how Daas Torah works in theory, and often in practice; in many ḥaredi communities, the prospect of a leading rabbi being called upon to decide issues of marital, medical, or political nature is de rigueur; his central voice in communal public policy is taken for granted. Given the urgency of the pandemic, one might think it works doubly nowadays. Yet despite their putative position as leaders of (non-ḥasidic) ḥaredi American Judaism, it is difficult to say that the rabbis—the g’dolim, as those of the greatest stature are called—have offered much direct leadership lately. To say this is not necessarily to criticize their decisions; it is to describe them. Agudath Israel’s statement published October 16, days after Tischler led a series of protests culminating in a widely covered anti-mask riot in the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park, appears intent on not directly referencing those high-profile events. “The forced closure of our shuls and schools is undeniably a source of tremendous anguish for our community,” the statement says, “Further, Agudath Israel of America regards some of the rhetoric that has accompanied such closures as dangerous, with potential to foment those already too eager to hate us, chas v’sholom [God forbid].”

The rabbis only got around to the issue at hand nearly a week later, after more protests and public melodrama, when they asserted, in a statement also calling for prayer and spiritual resilience, that “Certainly we may not provoke through protests and unruliness against the government, something which has already caused an appalling desecration of Hashem’s Name, Rachmana litzlan [God help us].” It seems, therefore, that the coordinated Moetzes-Agudath Israel strategy was basically to hope to ignore the headline-grabbing Tischler protests, until doing so became too difficult and they finally called out “some of the rhetoric” as “dangerous.”

That’s just the most high-profile instance of rabbinic hesitation. More broadly, the Moetzes and the Agudah were both late and relatively muted in their response to the second wave of COVID hitting ḥaredi communities in the New York area. Their message before Rosh Hashanah barely mentioned social distancing or mask wearing, and spent more time insisting that there be no changes to the customary holiday prayers, as Centrist Orthodox rabbis had permitted. Only in a statement issued on October 8th, when community spread within ḥaredi communities in Brooklyn, Lakewood, NJ, and Monsey, NY was well underway, did they encourage their followers to pursue “good health practices, testing in high infection areas, and, of course, tefillah [prayer].”

In sum, the rabbis’ near-total theoretical authority has in this situation run up against a distinct lack of desire to exercise that authority—leaving a major void in leadership at a crucial time. Inevitably, others have rushed to fill it. Tischler, a charismatic ex-convict who had little public platform before the last few months but is now a media sensation, is one. Against him and his instincts are others. Like him, these new leaders have little formal authority, outside of a couple of ḥaredi politicians who have made pro-forma statements opposing Tischler (which is a bit ironic given that they were among those who fueled his rise by jointly breaking the city’s padlocks to Brooklyn playgrounds this summer). Instead, the primary ḥaredi voices to step up to the plate in recent weeks have been gvirim, as major philanthropists of the community are known.

Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, a businessman active in the fields of nursing home care and equipment, and a significant donor to multiple major yeshivot, penned a scathing article calling out Tischler as a “B’heymah sh’eynenu t’horah” (an impure animal) and a “rodef,” someone who actively endangers the lives of fellow Jews by participating in reckless activities liable to stoke anti-Semitism. In that article, Rechnitz presents and reaffirms the traditional ḥaredi ideology that “WE ARE IN GOLUS” (emphasis in the original)—that Jews are visitors in American exile who should follow the law peacefully, with a submissive orientation, and not do anything to call undue attention to the community.

Dovid Lichtenstein, a real estate magnate, donor to many ḥaredi causes, and host of the popular Headlines podcast, has weighed in along similar lines. Invoking the same theology of exile, he has criticized the Tischler protests, and invited guests to the podcast to make similar points. Somewhat more liberal than Rechnitz, he has also pushed for his ḥaredi confreres to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing, even bringing in the Centrist Orthodox rabbi Herschel Schachter to criticize ḥaredi anti-science bias.


It is therefore worth looking at why, in a community that embraces Daas Torah and privileges spiritual activities such as Torah study over material pursuits like business, so many such voices now seem to be louder and more far-reaching than those of the rabbinic leadership. Why, in other words, have the g’dolim largely ceded the space of public leadership to the gvirim?

For one thing, the ḥaredi community is more decentralized than other Jewish communities; it incorporates ḥasidic, “Litvish” (i.e. non-ḥasidic), and even some Sephardi members, each with their own wide variety of attitudes and involvements toward the wider world, and each with multiple competing publications and media outlets. It is therefore hard for any local rabbi to have broad reach; and the Moetzes, which is run by octogenarians who lead other institutions and are not usually technologically savvy, is not an institution designed for quick responses to live issues.

On top of that, despite the authority given to them under Daas Torah, leading rabbis might not want to get into the fray of political matters in a manner that could compromise the communal respect for their standing as representatives of Torah. The gvirim, on the other hand, answer to no one, holding power by way of the purse rather than through any formal institution; Tischler, meanwhile, might lack deep pockets, but he does have a knack for social media.

A third possibility, more controversial, might draw upon past critiques of the Daas Torah mentality. The idea that those who know most about Torah, even if they lack much or any secular education and worldly experience, are automatically qualified to weigh in intelligently on day-to-day challenges has been much criticized over the years. My own teacher Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz”l, defended the alternative view that one should follow experts in the relevant field rather than untrained rabbis, noting almost a decade ago that many rabbinic decision-makers today lack the basic fundamentals of worldly knowledge in order to be able to safely make decisions in this area. If this critique applies in general, where day-to-day life is relatively stable, it is all the more pertinent when it comes to such a high-stakes issue as COVID-19, where hundreds of Orthodox Jews in New York alone died in the first wave this spring. In such a context, worldly businessmen may have better capacity for evaluating these complex situations and swiftly presenting their perspective to the broader community than a rabbinic body.

If that’s true, perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise. The outsourcing of the ḥaredi public voice from g’ dolim to gvirim has actually been happening slowly for some time now. On issues from the Orthodox world’s shiddukh (matchmaking) crisis to the lack of adequate schooling in Lakewood, gvirim, including Lichtenstein and Rechnitz (neither of whom live in Lakewood), have weighed in, and often been successful in getting things done in the face of rabbinic inertness. With the urgency of the pandemic accelerating this trend and bringing it into full view, is it therefore fair to say that, at least on the American scene, Daas Torah today exists in name only?