Thursday, November 06, 2008

Gedolim – Then and Now

One of the main problems afflicting Orthodox Judaism is the way in which our children have been indoctrinated to think about Gedolei Yisroel. They are taught to treat them as larger than life icons of Torah knweldege and thereby vest them with near infallibility.

This is often denied by some Charedim. But I believe it is nonetheless a widespread belief among them. And it is one of the primary reasons that the recent pronouncement about wigs by Rav Elyashiv has stirred so much controversy.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was in school we never had such issues. There were no proclamations of this type. But there were Gedolim around then. They were very high stature. I’m sure that today’s rabbinic leaders will be the first to acknowledge the superior status of that generation of Gedolim.

But despite this fact there were rarely if ever any issues that caused so much consternation among our people. I don’t recall any Psak then that resulted in the kind of controversy we are experiencing now - on an almost regular basis. It just didn’t happen – or if it did it was rare.

Today things are different. Takanos are coming at us with what seems like a great fury! Our children - many of whom are now adults - have been indoctrinated to believe that whoever our Gedolim are they are to be given defacto infallibility. To argue with them is considered tantamount to heresy. Here is a typical comment from someone with a Beis Yaakov education:

I was always taught in bais yaakov if a gadol hador says black is white and left is right, then that's that with no questions asked. To have to say i am above that and what r' elyashiv and the other gedolim in Israel say doesnt apply to me feels like total blasphemy and apikorsus.

Blasphemy and Apikorsus! The sad reality is that the attitudes instilled in our students in the last 20 or so years are radically different than the attitudes we were instilled with when I was in school back in the 60s. And just to be clear -I went to Charedi schools all the way through tenth grade and my teachers after that for the next ten years at HTC were almost all Charedi.

Yes, we all respected the Gedolim. But we were never given any message that was tantamount to their having defacto infallibility. But this is the attitude that is now prevalent and mainstream. Of course lip service is always paid to the fact that Gedolim are human and fallible. But that's all it is. Lip service! The argument is that since they know Torah better than anyone else - we have no choice but to listen to everything they say.

When I was in school, a Gadol would come up with a Psak – a Halachic ruling. We would all respect that Psak and realize that there are other Gedolim that might disagree. Each group had their own Gadol. Some groups had several. But even if they didn’t have their own Gedolim (of the stature of a Rav Moshe) the Psak was not always adhered to. If Rav Moshe Feinstein came out with a difficult Teshuva it was not considered heresy if one followed a more lenient Psak.

A famous example is that of wearing rain hats that covered the regular felt hats on Shabbos. Rav Moshe forbade them as a violation of the Melacha of Yetzia – carrying on Shabbos. Telshe permitted them. There was no Posek in Telshe that was even close to RMF in Psak. But Telshe had there own Mesorah on that issue. They wore rain hats and no one considered a Telzer to be a Mechalel Shabbos.

This is an example of a key part of the problem we have today: The concept of family Mesorah has been obliterated.

Students have been indoctrinated to believe that if a family had a Mesorah - a tradition that was counter to the Mishna Berurah - or counter to the Psak of a current Gadol - or counter to mainstream practices, their family Mesorah was probably a Taus – an error based on ignorance or that it was somehow corrupted in transmission generationally.

Thus family Mesorah - even when correct was not considered a reliable source of Halachic behavior. The only sources that were considered authoritative was the text of Halacha Seforim like the Mishna Berurah, or the latest responsa of a current Gadol who is after all - for all intents and purposes - infallible. Far more reliable – therefore - than an imperfect family Mesorah.

Thus the Gadol of today is the beneficiary of such thinking. He is considered to have far greater authority. And all kinds of arguments of the type used by the young woman above are used in defense of that position. This is why we are having the current discussions about the modern day Shaitel. Past is no longer prologue. We can’t trust the past. We can only trust the current Psak. That is far more reliable than our parents version of Halacha. Who knows how badly it was corrupted?! We can’t trust it!

And what makes matters worse is that cultural milieu is no longer a factor. It use to be but when the likies of Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky died, America no longer had Gedolim of that stature. But Israel did: Rav Shach, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Waldenberg all of blessed memory - and currently - Rav, Elyashiv, Rav Wosner, Rav Steinman, and Rav Kanievsky. All paskin based on the cultural milieu of Israel which is radically different than that of the west. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The eyes of the American Charedi world have now turned eastward. American 'Gdolim' are second tier to those mentioned above. They will be the first to say so.

But they are treated by their constituents as first tier. They will cite the Gemarah’s dictum about ‘Yiftach B’Doro K’Shmuel B’Doro’. Loose translation: You play the hand you’re dealt.

And so they are the ones with defacto infallibility. They know more than us - end of conversation. To question them is heresy. An who do they see as their leaders? The Israeli Gedolim.

Now some of this should be taken with a grain of salt. Many Charedim will privately be told by their own Rav or Rosh Yeshiva that they do not have to listen to the latest Chumra out of Israel. But the attitude of defacto infallibility prevails in the public square. Israeli Gedolim will not be contradicted publicly.

This constant barrage of Takanos are such that Ein HaTzibur Yochal Laamod Bam - the public will not withsatnd them. At some point this bubble is going to burst and Charedim will start rebelling. I hope it’s soon.