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Observations On And Beyond Rabbi Alfred Cohen's “Daat Torah”
Yitzchak Kasdan

Observations On And Beyond
Rabbi Alfred Cohen's “Daat Torah”

Yitzchak Kasdan*

Rabbi Alfred Cohen's article on “Daat Torah” (Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Spring 2003), posted with permission elsewhere on this site (, is a welcome, extensive re-examination of the subject. In at least two not inconsequential respects, Rabbi Cohen brings full circle the public discussion about this topic that -- with respect to popular Jewish, English language periodicals and books -- first began 40 years ago with the publication of an article that appeared in The Jewish Observer. At the same time, however, as comprehensive as he is, Rabbi Cohen overlooks an important, well-grounded basis for at least one element of his understanding of “Daat Torah” that only has recently been emphasized in English publications. In these regards, and as I attempt to demonstrate in greater detail below,:

(i) Rabbi Cohen provides an important gemara and Rishon source -- Bava Batra 12a as explained by the Ritva -- that has not been well publicized (and perhaps even inadvertently or otherwise been ignored) by those critical of the concept of “Daat Torah” throughout the years, but which appears was significant to the author of the seminal article on the topic that appeared in the early Jewish Observer issue, Rabbi Bernard Weinberger. Equally important, Rabbi Cohen steers the conversation back towards the original parameters of “Daat Torah” that Rabbi Weinberger attempted to set forth in his piece -- balancing, if you will, the place of “Daat Torah” in personal and/local issues versus in those with broader, national communal implications.

(ii) Yet, as wide-reaching as Rabbi Cohen's article is, Rabbi Cohen's article misses an important, well and long established foundation for “Daat Torah” that has been stressed only recently in English essays and shiurim, primarily by Rav Dovid Cohen. That is, the relationship between concepts of “Daat Torah” and malchut (kingship), which “crown” Rabbis assumed as noted in traditional and historical sources. This relationship is useful in understanding why, according to many including Rabbi (Alfred) Cohen, “Daat Torah” “must” be followed.2

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger's Jewish Observer Article

In October 1963, Rabbi Bernard Weinberger, then the Rav of Young Israel of Brooklyn, an instructor in Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Josef and member of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, published “The Role of the Gedolim” in the second ever issue of Agudath Israel of America's The Jewish Observer. Therein, Rabbis Weinberger described Daat Torah as involving

a lot more than Torah weltanschauung or a Torah saturated perspective. It assumes a special endowment or capacity to penetrate objective reality, recognize the facts as they 'really' are, and apply pertinent Halachic principles. It is a form of 'Ruach HaKodesh,' as it were, which borders if not remotely on the periphery of prophecy.

Rabbi Weinberger went on to explain that a “Godol” who possesses this “ingredient [i.e., “Daat Torah,”] that transcends scholarship alone or piety alone and that makes one a Godol,” cannot be “deliberately elevate[d];” rather, there are few Gedolim, and we all intuitively know who they are.” In that regard, as well, Rabbi Weinberger noted that “it is easy to grasp that no one can force upon another the acceptance of a 'Godol.'”

Critically, too, Rabbi Weinberger distinguished between the jurisdiction of the “local Rabbi” over community matters, and that of the “Gedolim” in national issues affecting “K'lall Yisroel.” For Rabbi Weinberger, himself (as noted above) then a pulpit Rabbi, “the role of Gedolim is not intended to replace the authority of the local Rabbi, within its proper confines.” According to Rabbi Weinberger, only “issues of Torah policy that are [of] K'lall significance will of necessity be referred to a 'Godol'” as to which, in those circumstances, the “'Gedolim' must be the final authority” and as to which the lay community worker is “confronted with demonstrating faith in 'Gedolim' and subduing his own alleged acumen in behalf of the Godol's judgement of the facts.”3 By contrast, “organization policy in kashrut standards and local synagogue policy, relationships with other similar groups are all within the purview of their [i.e., the individual person's] own rabbinic authority.” On those type of “matters that affect his synagogue and community,” “the local Rabbi is the supreme authority,” and he should not be reduced to “puppet” status, but should be called upon by the laity “to answer questions on Torah law” with the ability to refer, in turn, “complex situations” to the Gedolim, as necessary.

Professor Kaplan's Criticism of Rabbi Weinberger's Understanding of 'Daat Torah”

Seventeen years after the appearance of Rabbi Weinberger's article in The Jewish Observer, Professor Lawrence Kaplan of McGill University, an acknowledged and respected translator of many important writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ztl, (the “Rav”), wrote about “Rabbi Isaac Hutner's Daat Torah Perspective On the Holocaust: A Critical Analysis” in Tradition magazine published by the Rabbinical Council of America (Volume 18, No.3, Fall 1980). Subsequently, in 1992, Professor Kaplan wrote a more extensive piece entitled: “Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority” that was published by the Orthodox Forum, a project of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (“RIETS”) in “Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy” edited by Moshe Z. Sokol (Aronson Press 1992). In both of his essays, within the context of a broader attack on the notion of “Daat Torah,” Professor Kaplan specifically questioned Rabbi Weinberger's depiction of the attributes associated with that term and the traditional sources cited in its support.

In Tradition, Professor Kaplan criticized what he believed to be Rabbi Weinberger's understanding of the “quasi-divine, brooking no dissent” and “oracular nature” of “Daat Torah” which Professor Kaplan stated was “invalid' as “radically opposed to the whole process of reasoned halakhic pesak” that (in contrast to “Daat Torah”) “always leaves room for more discussion, for further analysis, and for responsible criticism . . ..” Further, Professor Kaplan described “the whole notion of Daat Torah [as] to close and suppress discussion [and thus enable] one person or group to impose, ex cathedra a personal, particular viewpoint on all persons or groups -- and no questions asked!” [All footnotes omitted.]4

In his longer 1992 essay, Professor Kaplan again cited Rabbi Weinberger's statement in The Jewish Observer about Daat Torah “bordering . . . on the periphery of prophecy,” describing Rabbi Weinberger's writing as “perhaps the clearest exposition of Daas Torah . . ..” 5 Developing the various fundamental flaws (in his mind) relating to “Daat Torah” that he first publicized in Tradition and attempting but (again from his perspective) failing to find traditional “sources” for the concept, Professor Kaplan concluded -- citing Professor Ephraim Urbach -- that “Daat Torah ideology has never been based upon authoritative halakhic sources . . ..”

Rabbi Cohen's Article

Without referencing Rabbi Weinberger, Rabbi Alfred Cohen's article, at once, though not completely, addresses Professor Kaplan's points about Rabbi Weinberger's characterization of "Daat Torah" and the ostensible lack of "authoritative halakhic sources" for it. At the same time, Rabbi Cohen's article hearkens back to, and, in many respects, echoes themes originally espoused by, Rabbi Weinberger in his 1963 essay.

One of Rabbi Cohen's primary sources for the concept of "Daat Torah" is the portion in the gemara in Bava Batra 12a and the Rishonim -- especially the Ritva6 -- explicating that "prophecy was taken away from the prophets" but not from the "chachamim" (sages). As brought down by Rabbi Cohen, the Ritva explains this to mean that Torah scholars perceive through their intellect -- "sechel"-- many things that others would not naturally comprehend. In fairness to Professor Kaplan, he was aware of the gemorah; however, he gave it only passing attention, focusing (to the extent he did at all) only upon the interpretation of the Ramban7 which, on its face, differs from that of the Ritva.8 Nonetheless, when one compares the Ritva to Rabbi Weinberger's statement about the "special endowment or capacity [of Daat Torah] to penetrate objective reality" and notes Rabbi Weinberger's employment of quotation marks around the word “prophetic” when he wrote in his article of the Godol's “'prophetic' prospective,” one readily sees that Rabbi Weinberger's words comport with the Ritva's understanding of the gemara. In context, it is clear that Rabbi Weinberger did not intend to mean, as Professor Kaplan could have been read to imply, that he (Rabbi Weinberger) understood today's Rabbis to possess truly prophetic capabilities in an almost literal sense of the word.9 In the end, as Rabbi Cohen demonstrates, the gemara in Bava Batra can be legitimately viewed as an important source for the concept of “Daat Torah”.10

Rabbi Cohen also serves Rabbi Weinberger well by stressing some similar (albeit not precisely the same) ideas originally expressed by the latter, including the importance and relevance of the pulpit Rabbi and his influential role in relation to the laity; the fact that no one can force any individual to accept one “Godol” over another; that people intuit who is considered a “Godol;” and the desirability of striving to be bound by uniform communal practice. In this manner too, Rabbi Cohen's piece is important to those who accept many of the concepts associated with “Daat Torah” though not certain views concerning its scope and as to which there may be legitimate dispute.11

The Relationship Between Daat Torah and Malchut and the Issue of Submission

One of Professor Kaplan's objections to “Daat Torah,” is what he called its allegedly “modern” origin.12 While supporting the concepts associated with the term, Rabbi Cohen nevertheless implies that he too has questions about the phrase (-- “Whether the phenomenon should be called 'Daat Torah' or not, . . ..”). To be sure, part of the resistance to “Daat Torah” stems from the implication of a phrase with limited history that there is and can only be one “Daat Torah” -- an idea that Rabbi Cohen, like Rabbi Weinberger earlier, appears to rejects. Indeed, in Rabbi Yaakov Feitman's “Daas Torah: Tapping the Source of Eternal Wisdom” (The Jewish Observer, May 1992), the author admits that the term was a “new phrase” coined as a result of the exigencies of the late 19th century. In this regard, Rabbi Cohen should have called more attention and given more space to this and the related, legitimate complaint also raised by Professor Kaplan concerning the overuse (if not misuse) of the term “Daat Torah” well beyond its apparent intent.13

At the same time, Rabbi Cohen apparently was unaware of another basis for “Daat Torah” that is important in dealing with Professor Kaplan's trenchant comment that the whole notion of “Daat Torah” is intended “to close and suppress discussion [and thus enable] one person or group to impose, ex cathedra a personal, particular viewpoint on all persons or groups - and no questions asked!” Rabbi Cohen apparently decries such use of “Daat Torah” -- lamenting as he does such things as the distortion of history, book censorship and blanket prohibitions -- and thus lending support to some of Professor Kaplan's objections. However, Rabbi Cohen misses an important feature of “Daat Torah” relating to the malchut, i.e., kingship, quality of “Daat Torah” that can lead to such results and that can be used to “explain” this side to “Daat Torah” which fosters such behavior.

In recent years, in an essay translated into English14 and in a related taped shiur available for wide distribution,15 Rav Dovid Cohen, a well-known and respected posek in Brooklyn, New York, has been a vocal proponent of the link between malchut and “Daat Torah” and the notion that the former is an antecedent foundation for the latter. According to Rav (Dovid) Cohen, based on sources dating back to the Rama Mipanu and in reliance on verses in the Torah itself, there was a fusion between the crowns of Torah and Kingship, such that our sages assumed the authority of a king, much like Moshe Rabbeinu held both Torah and royalty titles. As Rav (Dovid) Cohen writes in his translated essay:16 “[t]he Rabbinate as we know it [today] combines Torah authority with king authority.” Indeed, there are numerous sources -- old and of more recent vintage, direct and by implication -- for such an understanding of the sovereign role that Chazal undertook. For example, in Gitin 62a the gemara calls rabbanim, “melachim.” See also “Harrirai Kedem” (R. Michal Shurkin's sefer based on the Torah of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchk, the “Rav”) at page reish samach hei (265), where (as my brother pointed out to me) the Rav zt'l compares a mara d'aatra to a melech. Finally, see“Keser Torah: Based on the Words of Rav Hutner zt'l” found at (anonymous author).

Moreover, the linkage between Rabbis and royalty did not appear to be a controversial point to a reviewer in Tradition of a 1977 book by Rabbi Mendell Lewittes, "Religious Foundations of the State of Israel" (reprinted by Aronson Press in 1994). In his volume (at 87), Rabbi Lewittes bases himself upon the Ran in Drashot Haran when he states: “[I]n the absence of a kingdom, the religious authorities are able to assume the responsibilities of political leadership." Rabbi Lewittes also writes (at 56):

When the first Temple was destroyed and king and priest were banished from Israel, the prophet assumed the whole burden of leadership . . .but when, six and a half centuries later the Second Temple was destroyed and again king and prophet were banished, the chief scholar was able to assume the whole burden of leadership for a vanquished but surviving people. Thus, R. Simon could now say that in Israel 'there are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of kingship' (Avot 4:13); and another Sage could add: 'Torah is greater [in its emoluments] than the priesthood and kingship.' (Avot 6;5).

When Rabbi Lewittes' book was reviewed by R. Solomon J. Spiro in Tradition (vol. 18 no. 1, Summer 1979) Rabbi Spiro wrote: "There is little radically new, provocative or controversial in the work [!!]"

Once one likens “Daat Torah” authority to the power of the king, one can "understand" to some degree (without agreeing or disagreeing) the at times, facially inflexible, unreasoned (in contrast to “reasoned” pesak Halacha) pronouncements of some Rabbis -- they do indeed act ex cathedra and their declarations are akin to a royal decree, if you will.

In this regard, see also “Emes l'Yaacov,” the writings of Rav Yaacov Kaminetzky zt'l, wherein he cites the Ibn Ezra on the pasuk in Shoftim (Deut. 17, 9) "U'vata" as the source for the prohibition of being "mored b'malchut" (rebelling against a king) because the "shofet" in the second verse there is the "melech."17 By his comment, the Ibn Ezra appears to indicate that the principle of "lo tasur"18 -- not deviating from the pronouncements of the “shofet” -- which appears only a few verses later, applies to royal pronouncements which must be obeyed regardless of their unreasonableness (and even, according to the Ran in Drashot HaRan, drasha 11, with some limitations, if they are inconsistent with the laws of the Torah itself). If this thesis is correct, then Rabbis today might still be able rely on "lo tasur," from the malchut crown that they assumed (apart from, or regardless of, any application of that principle from the aspect of their judicial powers that may still apply to them as the inheritors of the authority of the Sanhedrin which is the classic application of “lo tasur”) as a “justification” for their sometimes authoritarian decision-making approach.

One additional "source" for such a link between kinglike powers and Rabbis might also be found in lectures of Rav Soloveitchik including the drasha found in Rabbi Besdin's "Reflections of the Rav" (Vol. I) entitled "Who Is Fit To Lead The Jewish People?" at 133-37, which Hebrew version is found in "Haadam V'Olamo" ("Hamalchut b'Yisrael"). In that presentation, the Rav compared the quintessential Rebbe-teacher to a king.19 However, in the last paragraph in Rabbi Besdin's version -- which interestingly, but for reasons unknown to this writer, is not found in the Hebrew version -- the Rav distinguishes between a king and a Rebbe: "Kingship [because of its potentially autocratic nature] is, . . . sharply circumscribed. This does not prevail in the teacher-disciple relationship, where the exercise of authority is encouraged and submission to teachers is extolled." As the Rav explained (as found in both the English and Hebrew versions) "Why is this authority of man [i.e., the Rebbe] over his fellow man [the student] sanctioned? . . . [T]he authority of a teacher is not imposed; no coercion or political instrument is employed. A Torah teacher is freely accepted and joyfully embraced . . .."20

The Rav, of course, did not use the term “Daat Torah.” Yet, he seems to be describing one of its characteristics when discussing the submission of students to Rabbinic teachers. In this sense, the Rav's description of the Rebbe-Talmid relationship yields the conclusion, as Rabbi (Alfred) Cohen writes, “that the advice given by Torah great scholars must be followed by Jews committed to Torah observance.”

Nevertheless, as the Rav himself was cognizant, the best “advice” is one that is “freely and joyfully embraced, “ not one that is imposed by fiat. It is not surprising, therefore, that when I went to the Rav as a student at Yeshiva University seeking his advice whether in my capacity as Editor-in-Chief of the RIETS publication “Hamevaser” to publish a potentially controversial article, the Rav told me: “I am not telling you what to do. However, if I were you I would not . . ..”

Needless to say, I heeded my Rebbe's advice.

posted to 11-21-03


* Yitzchak Kasdan is an attorney and the Founder and Publisher of the “Jewish Law” website,
  1. Rabbi Cohen begins his article with the recognition that “Daat Torah is a concept of supreme importance whose specific parameters remain elusive.” He then describes it “loosely” as “an ideology which teaches that the advice given by great Torah scholars must be followed by Jews committed to Torah observance inasmuch as these opinions are imbued with Torah insights.” Herein, I attempt to lend support or otherwise “explain” the basis for the element within this definition that such opinions “must” be followed.

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  3. See the preceding note.

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  5. Some examples of issues of “K'lall significance” enumerated by Rabbi Weinberger at the time were: “[S]uch issues as the position of the Torah community towards Federal Aid to Education, Prayer in the Public Schools, relationship and affiliation of Rabbis with reform and conservative ministers, combating anti-schechita legislation, negotiating with the Russians for the alleviation of the plight of Jews behind the Iron Curtain . . ..”

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  7. In the Tradition article, Professor Kaplan additionally criticized the "too casual use" of the phrase and the fact that the term was of "modern" origin dating back only to the "latter part of the nineteenth and . . . the first part of the twentieth century among heads of Eastern European yeshivot who were associated with Agudat Israel . . . as a response to the challenges to and breakdown of traditional rabbinic authority."

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  9. After quoting (with minor differences) from Rabbi Weinberger's article regarding Daat Torah as bordering on prophecy, Professor Kaplan went on to say, still citing to Rabbi Weinberger's Jewish Observer article: From this premise Rabbi Weinberger draws the following conclusion: Gedolei Yisroel inherently ought to be the final and sole arbiters of all aspects of Jewish communal policy and questions of haskafah . . . even knowledgeable rabbis who may differ with the gedolim on a particular issue must submit to the superior wisdom of the gedolim and demonstrate Emunat Hakhamim.

    Unfortunately and inexplicably, this latter quote simply does not appear in Rabbi Weinberger's article. Indeed, it is questionable whether Rabbi Weinberger would agree with this “conclusion” given the clear delineation he makes between the jurisdiction of the local Rabbi as the “supreme authority” over local issues on the one hand, and that of the “Godol” in national issues or “complex” matters on the other. [In a telephone conversation with the author in November 2003, Rabbi Weinberger confirmed that Dr. Kaplan's depiction of his (Rabbi Weinberger's) position above is not correct, terming it an “exaggeration.” On the other hand, while disagreeing with Dr. Kaplan on a number of points, Rabbi Weinberger agreed that Dr. Kaplan “has a point” in that the concept of Daat Torah “can be misused.”]

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  11. The Ritva is quoted by the “HaKotev” in the Ein Yaacov on Bava Batra 12a.

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  13. See footnote 84 in Professor Kaplan's 1992 essay.

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  15. For a detailed discussion of Bava Batra 12a and the various views of the Rishonim explaining it, see Rabbi Aaron Cohen's “The Parameters of Rabbinic Authority: A Study of Three Sources” in Tradition, Volume 27, No. 4 (Summer 1993) at 109-112 and especially note 48.

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  17. In a telephone conversation with the author, see note 5, Rabbi Weinberger confirmed that he did not intend his words to mean that Rabbis today have truly prophetic capabilities as the n'veiim of old.

    Moreover, as Rabbi Aharon Feldman explained in a letter to the Editor to Tradition (Spring 1994, at 97) which appears to track the import of the Ritva, decisions by Rabbanim are based on their intellectual, human capacity -- notwithstanding the "presence" of the shechina. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff in his book quotes the Rav (“The Rav” vol. 2 at 189 re: "The Divine Presence") speaking of how he felt the shechina standing behind him at times when he was engaged in learning at night. I do not think that people would accuse the Rav of claiming nevuah for himself -- and I don't think that Rabbi Weinberger really meant any different in his original article with respect to Gedolim.

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  19. I.e., that a Sage's advice is “imbued with Torah insights” as Rabbi Cohen writes. See note 2, above.

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  21. For example, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman recently wrote in the Jewish Observer (June 2002 at 22-23), without qualification, that “gedolai olam [world renowned Torah giants] . . . must be listened to regardless of where they live.” Yet, Rav Dovid Cohen writes in his book (cited in the text below) (at 33) in accordance with the Rema (Yoreh Deah 245:22), that “any rabbi who was accepted as a rabbi in his city cannot be supplanted, even by a greater scholar. And while in the district of another, no visiting luminary has the right to assume the mantle of leadership in any way (see Maharik, Maharad, Rivash, ibid.).” Rabbi Cohen emphatically (as indicated by the underscoring of the following quote in his article) sides with the latter approach: “[A]ny Jewish ruler or leader, or even posek, posses only limited authority, confined to the area over which he presides, whether it be his students, or a congregation, a town, or even a state. No sweeping pronouncements by one individual can obligate all Jews to follow.” [Citing Responsa Maharik, No. 161].

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  23. See note 4, above.

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  25. To see how use of the term is overdone one may visit which reports, with respect to computer/video games: “Even the idea of making a Torah-shooting game in the first place was not taken for granted. Daas Torah (Rabbi Scheinberg of Torah Ohr, Jerusalem gave his haskama) was approached and the games developers were told it was permissible to make such a game only as long as the targets were not living things. Hence, asteroids.”

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  27. See “Maaseh Avos, Siman Labanim" chelek aleph by Rav Dovid Cohen (English translation published by Artscroll in "Templates for Ages" at page 33: "The Crown of Torah and the Crown of Kingship; the Hasmoneans and the Concept of Daas Torah").

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  29. “Pathways of the Prophets” tape series by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Tape # 137 (Siyyum on Shmuel I), distributed by Agudath Israel of Madison (Brooklyn, New York).

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  31. See note 1.

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  33. The Ibn Ezra's explanation is found in verse 9 on the words “v'el hashofet.”

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  35. See Deut. 17, 11.

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  37. See also the Rav's hesped for the Talner Rebbe (e.g., in “Shiurai Harav; A Conspectus of the public lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik”, originally published by Hamevaser, more recently reprinted by the K'tav publishing house) where he speaks of the "King-Teacher."

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  39. Another foundation for “Daat Torah” as explained by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rav's son-in-law and one of the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, in a lecture entitled “Daas Torah - Religious Imperative or Good Advice?” delivered in the early 1990's, is the verse in Deut.32:8, “Sh'al avicha v'yagedcha, z'keinecha v'yomru lach” (“Ask your father and he will relate it to you, and your elders and they will tell you”). A summary of Rav Lichtenstein's lecture may be found in the “Special Topics” section of “Mail-Jewish” on the web. See

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