Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Criticizing Gedolim

A comment was made in an earlier post that is very significant and should not remain buried in a lengthy comments section. It needs to be put at the head of the table. It was made by an apparently knowledgeable poster about how Charedi Gedolim are viewed by the Charedi world itself. Here is the pertinent segment of that comment:

I have lived in both Charedey and MO strongholds. I have heard more criticism of Gedolim in the Lakewood coffee room and shteiblach than on any other place. A lot of the criticism has to be taken in context; without a broad understanding of the Gadol you will misconstrue the true meaning of the statements …What I will say, is that the vast majority of Lakewood does not consider the Moetzes to be binding. I will leave it at that.

This is not as surprising to me as one might think. Most of my good friends are Charedi and they have pretty much the same sentiment - much like Centrists do. The difference is that that they say so only privately like those in the Lakewood coffee room. Obviously no one there wants to be caught saying that a Gadol stating his ‘Daas Torah’ is wrong. But that is in fact what many of them do say privately.

How can this be? The thrust of the Charedi argument has always been that Daas Torah cannot be wrong… that even though Gedolim are fallible human beings – their Daas must be followed just like the Daas Torah of the past. Yiftach B’Doro K’Shmuel B’Doro. How many times have I heard that?! If a Gadol says left is right and right is left we must still listen to them! How many times have I heard that too?!

But the truth is that most of the Charedim I know are realists who do not walk around with their eyes glazed over. They can see when a Gadol’s comments are at times off base. They in fact do realize, what I have been saying as far back as I can remember, that the Gedolim are human and can be wrong. That in fact right IS right - and not left! The Agudah Moetzes is therefore not necessarily the final word on any subject.

The question then becomes, when do we listen and when do we not listen? The answer is pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. One must respect them - but one should always take what the Agunah Moetzes says with a grain of salt – the same way the Charedim in the Lakewood coffee room do.

Does the Moetzes posses wisdom? Most certainly they do. But are they always right? No.

The majority of those most people call Gedolim truly do sacrifice themselves on a daily basis for the sake of Klal Yisroel. But sacrifice does not equal wisdom. That comes largely from knowledge and experience. It comes from consulting with experts on any topic about which a Gadol issues a statement.

Wisdom must include the recognition that mistakes are made and admitting them publicly when they realize it. And it must include the willingness to re-evaluate a position and change it - if it is shown to be counter-productive. For example, in the current economic crisis - true greatness would be shown when Charedi leaders place a greater value of making a living than they do now – even though it is harder to get jobs now. And even though it will lessen their ranks.

What wisdom is not - is the unwillingness to modify a position based on new information. It is not about always reacting to every crises with a ban. It is not about protecting the system at the expense of the individual. And it is certainly not about perpetuating the current educational system denigrating Parnassa in comparison to learning Torah.

Many of those we call Gedolim do in fact posses the kind of wisdom I outlined here. But some do not. I’m glad to see that there are many Charedim that agree.