Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why Gedolim Fail

The following guest post is an excellent analysis of the state of rabbinic leadership in the Torah world. It also includes suggestions on how t0 make things better. It is a bit longer than my usual posts are but it is well worth reading. I present it here unedited in its entirety - HM

Guest Post by Rabbi Yossi Ginzberg

The failure of the Gedolim is perhaps the most frequently complained-about topic in Orthodox Jewish blogdom.

Their failure to protest issue X, behavior Y, their failure to support initiative Z. No better is when they do decide to act- The Indian hair isn’t really forbidden, the concert tickets were already sold so it’s too late, why attack that person while ignoring this worse one, why give the appearance of protecting abusers. All are ripe fodder not only for the small fearless media, but also for conversations across every community that isn’t totally black-hat territory, and even some that are.


Why do we do this to them- destroying the precious image of our leaders in our own minds and in the minds of our kids- and why do we do this to ourselves- torturing ourselves into a situation where we continue to obey those whom we have written off in our minds?

I’d venture to put forth that this is a huge issue and must be dealt with soon, because whatever the causes are, it can only get worse.

I’ll offer my analysis, and wait to see if anyone agrees.

Our history books have drawn for us a fairly clear picture of the relationships between the people and the Gedolim. There were, in every era, the occasional “big” issues, but for the most part each community had its own leader, its own accepted Halachic decisor. The term “Marah D’Asrah” meant exactly, Master of that Place. Local rabbis ruled on all the day-to-day issues, and for everyone, that was enough. On the rare “big issue” occasions, the Rabbi himself would get together with other Rabbis, to make the larger decision for the area. Examples would be the Takanos Rabbenu Gershom, the Vaad Arba Haaratzos, the convention called to discuss the issue of electricity on Shabbos, and the like.

Chassidim would of course go to their Rebbe for visits and for a bracha, but did not have phone access to call for Piskei Halacha or the like; they too relied on the local rabbinate for their daily needs.

Every town had its own Rabbi, the larger cities of course having several different Kehillos, but still, the same reality applied: With your rabbinic issues, whether Shailos or advice, one went to his own local Posek. No second opinions, no calling to the Gadol in Israel.

I have been privileged to spend a fair amount of time in the homes of various high-profile Rabbis, both pulpit rabbi’s and Roshei Yeshiva. The common denominator in both was that the phone rarely stopped ringing. Some ignored it, others had a tape giving a time when calls could be accepted, some had children answering to say call later, and so on.

Who are all these callers?

Few are congregants or talmidim.

They are Askanim who need to discuss an idea, they are tzedaka trustees needing a letter or an approval, they are a million people from anywhere in the world who have heard that Rabbi X is a Gadol, and they want to pour out their hurt, or ask for help with a shidduch, or get his approval for their project, or find out something about someone. No one writes letters anymore, and since few rabbis are reachable by email, telephones are the way to go.

Unless they visit.

Anyone who ever was a talmid or a congregant now has carte blanche to visit whenever they want, whether they actually need the time or not. If they’re VIP’s, they need to return home saying that they met with rabbi so-and-so. If they’re Askanim, they need another approval, another Haskomo, another pat on the back and acknowledgement that they are very important to Judaism. (This is not to denigrate the real- but very rare- actual crisis that actually needs a meeting.)

Since even Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva need to sometimes eat, sleep, and speak to their wives, the constant barrage of calls and visits creates a situation that rapidly becomes untenable. Given that even for them a day is 24 hours, what happens?

What happens is that they run themselves ragged, trying to satisfy all the various people that each demands a piece of him. Whether they put in extraordinary efforts to do that or not seems not to matter one whit- easier access just means that more people will try.

The fallout appears in many forms. For the reputed Gadol/ Rabbi, it will be a congregant with serious issues not being able to get through in a timely fashion to discuss or perhaps resolve them. I know of many cases of people whose Get was delayed months by inaccessible rabbis, and many others who needed advice on a shidduch or a yeshiva for a child and were on tenterhooks because it was hard to get the needed information or response.

One cannot blame the rabbi, since his obligations are in fact to the community, but his income is frequently greatly enhanced by the out-of-area askers, so when it’s an issue between being, say, with a newly-bereaved congregant and a more profitable get, too often being the closer connection loses because the rabbi too has a lot of expenses. The person who is neither a congregant nor a profit center- say, someone calling to ask about a congregant for a shidduch- too often may be left hanging on a back burner.

(A personal note: I have been on the frustrated calling side. I had a very ill baby many years ago, and a well-meaning person suggested to a distraught mother that a Bracha from the Ribnitzer Rebbe (a”h) would help. Unfortunately, he was in Miami and we weren’t. I spent many frustrated hours on the phone unsuccessfully trying to get to him, stymied by his circle of “protectors”. I cannot blame him, of course, and I’m sure he was totally unaware, but the tears of parents in pain fall to the account of whoever controlled that phone)

For a Rosh Yeshiva, priorities are different. Or at least they should be.

One would think that a Rosh Yeshiva’s primary allegiance, time wise, would be first to his current talmidim and after that to the supporters of the yeshiva since, after all, someone must pay the bills.

Yet, it’s apparently too often not that way. Aside from the obvious aberrations, where Roshei Yeshiva are dragged into local political battles or domestic disputes, somehow the idea has evolved that if one ever learnt in any yeshiva, that Rosh Yeshiva owes him- forever- an audience at will.

More, Roshei Yeshiva have been conflated with poskim, not to imply that they aren’t capable. Still, it adds an unnecessary burden.

Worst of all is the daily invasion by Askanim. These range from real communal activists to do-gooders, and from politically motivated to profiteers. Each feels that his is absolutely the most important meeting on the Rosh yeshiva’s agenda for the day, and has no compunction about making his feelings known.

Another coping mechanism for some rabbonim is appointing a gatekeeper. Whether he is called a Gabbai, a secretary, a Shammos, or a spouse, the effect is the same, allowing him to control access. While this may be necessary for all the reasons described above, this position invites abuse. Some of these have been exemplary anyway, some have not. When too often they are not, their buttons may be extortionate fees (or “tips” or “Pidyon”), prestige, or other things, but in any case they are in a position to abuse power by deciding who to admit and what positions get presented.

In the same way that early thinkers mocked the Christian clergy for having celibates living on the public dole counsel people with families, Gedolim too often now have to decide what is acceptable when they are far removed from the day-to-day hustle & bustle. Since many Halacha issues revolve around the facts on the ground (think Tznius standards or business practices that govern Piskei Din), a person who doesn’t actually walk on the streets or ride public transit may not be qualified to rule unless he gets expert advice. Once the person giving that advice appears tainted by opinions of his own, the entire Halachic ruling becomes questionable.

Another important fiber in this web of time-wasting for the Rabbis is that borders have disappeared, thanks to air travel.

Every day, one hears of people flying to or from Israel for a Haskama on something or other. If not a sefer, it’s for a new Tzedaka idea. If not that, it’s so he can have a photo in the Orthodox paper, showing how important he is, that Rabbi XXX is taking time off to meet with the famous Klal Askan Reb YYY.

We’re no longer constrained by the old boundaries of travel. And the result is that well-known gedolim have not only their talmidim, former talmidim, and supporters to deal with, they have to meet every self-appointed Askan in the world. Every visiting Rabbi, every wanna-be rabbi, and every person who, thanks to easy access, just wants a Bracha.

One last causative factor: One of the coping mechanisms used by long-term yeshiva students is having inflated self-esteem. Where and when this started I have no idea, but it is in fact necessary, so as not to be jealous of classmates who went on to become doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. While this does very much aid long-term Torah study, it has negative side effects.

This was been remarked upon extensively years ago in the book “The World of the Yeshiva”, and is the dissatisfaction created when, after years of intensive study, students cannot find the prestigious positions they feel entitled to. Add to that their continued study in the Daf Yomi programs, and the result is that in too many religious communities, the Rabbi is looked upon by much of the congregation as a colleague rather than as an authority. As one wag put it, “What frum guy today hasn’t slept through Shas at least twice?”

So, what’s to be done?

First, let’s stop treating the Gedolim as if they didn’t need to sleep. There’s no benefit to Klal Israel in parading them around like traveling exhibits.

Then, let’s stop the pressure on them to endorse every tzedaka project. If someone comes asking for Tzedaka for orphans, it really makes no difference at all if the father was a first-tier Talmid Chachom or not- They’re just hungry kids, and you should give what you can irrelevant of the signatures on the letter. It doesn’t take the Gadol Hador to testify that the story is true. The same applies for Mosdos and other projects- anyone with enough money to donate can tell if it’s a worthwhile project easily.

Second, let’s get the Askanim away from them. At least 90% of those meetings can be skipped without any difference to anyone. The same for Haskomos- get one good letter from wherever for your sefer, there’s no reason for 20.

Third, let’s not treat them like some kind of magic amulets. Should you happen to see one in the street or at an event, fine, but don’t make a whole social call to ask for a bracha. It’s not that I don’t respect their powers, it’s that I respect their need for time more.

Fourth, realize that 99% of your questions and needs can be met by your local Rav. It is of course not as prestigious to say, “I showed my esrog to Rabbi Plony” as it is to say, “The Chazon Ish liked my esrog”, but that could be your donation to the future accomplishments of whatever Gadol you restrained yourself from seeing. Local rabbis are usually quite competent, and most yeshivas are full of qualified candidates praying for positions, if you need more rabbis in your area.

The results will be excellent for all sides. You kids will be more inclined towards Torah, because the Gedolim will properly deal will real issues, because they have less time-wasting calls and visits, and you won’t be frantically searching for Brachos for your kids at risk.

Win-win, it’s called.

What will the Gedolim do with all this new-found time? Let’s hope they’ll finally deal with the problems we all talk too much about.