Monday, February 09, 2009

Manipulating a Gadol

One of the most aggravating things to me about the way Daas Torah is handled in the Charedi world is what I would call the infallibility factor. No matter what - Rav Elyashiv, a Gadol whose stature hearkens back to a previous generation is treated like the pope.

Rav Elyashiv certainly does not hold himself in that regard. But almost the entire rest of the Charedi world does. I’ve discussed this before.

I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I've said this many times and I do not want to be misunderstood. I agree that he is probably one of the greatest living human beings in Torah knowledge. He far surpasses most if not all of his living contemporaries in this area. I never met him but I think there is universal consensus about that.

However, he is also absolutely human and fallible. And probably because of his advanced age he is a Gadol that is unfortunately all too often manipulated by his Askanim - those who ostensibly devote their lives to serving him but really serve their own agendas.

This became evident when books by Rabbi Kamintesky and Rabbi Slifkin were famously banned by him several years ago. It was clear from Rabbi Kaminetsky that Rav Elyashiv was manipulated in his own case. Rav Elyashiv practically admitted it. And it should be clear to even the most devout Charedim that the same thing happened to Rabbi Slifkin.

One may ask, how can a man be considered by so many to be the Gadol HaDor if he is so easily manipulated? That is not a question for me. I do not see him as the Gadol HaDor precisely because of this. I’m not even sure if we have a Gadol HaDor today in the sense of a Rav Moshe.

He is nonetheless still a Gadol who apparently knows more Torah than anyone else. That seems clear. And he deserves to be treated like that, even if he has made mistakes because of being manipulated.

One may suggest that perhaps the above two events were anomalies and that no other events like this ever occurred. I wish that were the case. But in a letter published at Rabbi Slifkin’s website we see that it is not the case. I republish an abbreviated version of it here:

Dear R' Slifkin,

I had long realized that "The Gedolim" were human beings who in no way were responsible for all that was going on in their names (and worse, everything that was going on in their names simply by their not having spoken the contrary, such as when a Rav told me that R' Elyashiv must support the stoning of Jews on Rechov Bar Ilan because, after all, we see no signed letters from him opposing such stonings, and certainly, like the oracle of Delphi, he knows all) - but I finally had the opportunity to witness it for myself.

I was involved in a scary and complicated case of pidyon shvuyim that was literally a life and death situation. But of course this is pidyon shvuyim were talking about so there's a life and death danger in going through with paying the ransom as well,

I was 20 years old at the time and unwilling to take such achrayis on my own shoulders. So I attempted for some time to meet R' Elyashiv (and) finally managed to secure an appointment in his apartment. I made sure that he would have a native English speaker (there) so that nothing would be lost in translation. I was terrified of the possibility that I'd leave the meeting with the feeling that I didn't get a clear psak from on high because I might have been unclear with my Hebrew explanations in answering R' Elyashiv's questions.

In any case, this well known English-speaker translated my shailah and details to R' Elyashiv in such a clearly biased manner that there was almost no way for R' Elyashiv to answer anything but that it's ossur altz "yoiser michdai dmayhen". The fellow practically told R' Elyashiv that it was assur within the context of my shailah.

I felt like a personal burden had been lifted from me. I had received God's psak on the subject (through daas torah) and... well, God had decided! Too bad for the Jew in question, but it was pretty good for me.

Some time later I spent a few hours in a series of shiurim on the subject of pidyon shvuyim and I start to have doubts as it seems that it's possible that the psak halacha is not so clear on the matter.

I took a bus to R' Sheinberg. I joined the minyan for maariv of taanis esther and immediately upon the conclusion of kaddish yosum I approach him to ask him my shailah. He says "today was a fast day" and asks if I could wait a while. I mentioned that this a shailah of life and death and he heard my question immediately. (He) paskened that I should try to raise the funds and said, "it's a great zchus what you're doing, if I had the koiach I would help you.

I walked out elated and, strangely, similarly unburdened to how I had felt after I received my first psak from R' Elyashiv. (If I recall correctly, I was discouraged originally by friends and Rabbeim from going back to R' Elyashiv to re-ask my shailah on the grounds that it had been "asked and answered", daas torah had spoken through the magical mechanism by which it speaks and new or more detailed or clarified information was extraneous to the issue of how it functioned.)

I myself considered the possibility that I had done something wrong in going to R' Sheinberg after R' Elyashiv had already given a counter psak. How could God speak contradictorily through the single mechanism of daas torah? So I decided to call R' Sheinberg, let him know of the previous psak and have him assuage my concern by telling me the obvious (which I would first inform him), that R' Elyashiv hadn't heard all of the details that he himself had heard and hadn't had the full discussion with me as he had and that therefore I needn't be concerned, his halachic ruling was accurate.

It didn't quite work that way though. When I mentioned the R' Elyashiv chapter he reacted much as I imagine you reacted when you first heard that kol koirehs might be going up against you b'shem the gdoilim. He told me to not go by his psak but to go back to R' Elyashiv. He didn't retract his psak but seemed clearly terrified of the possibility that he had just fallen into some complicated situation where this unknown askan in modern clothes might cause it to be known that he had paskened differently on a shailah to R' Elyashiv.

I now felt the full weight of this man's life on me as it had not been lifted by either R' Elyashiv or R' Sheinberg. No one had taken this unbearable load from the tiny shoulders of an unconfident bachur.

So I found a way to get back to R' Elyashiv, and I went over our history together on the subject and what I had come across in my am haratzishe learning that might indicate the possibility of an opposite psak, and without my mentioning of R' Sheinberg's psak (as per R' Sheinberg's instructions)... R' Elyashiv told me to go ahead with it.

This was a case of clear and present hatzalos nifashos where I saw bimloi einai how gdoilim are maneuvered by the people who somehow (I'd love to know how) gain vulture-close access to them.

The moral of the story is very clear. Never take anything heard in Rav Elyashiv's name as automatically true - especailly if it is said by one of his Asaknim.