Thursday, December 31, 2009

When Dementia and Greatness Collide

99 year old Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is a certifiable Gadol and – obviously – a Zaken. He belongs to the old school of Gedolim. He is from the generation of Rav Moshe Feinstein and R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. His contemporaries were people like Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Shach.

That I have in the past disagreed with some of the pronouncements made in his name - even if he did make them which is questionable - does not detract one iota from his stature.

In light of the controversy about Daas Torah – how it is defined, who represents it, or whether it even exists today, it is important to point out that there is definitely the concept of a Gadol – even when he makes controversial statements.

There are many ways to determine who is a Gadol. Rav Elyashiv certainly qualifies for one. But how did he get there? Who chose him?

I think it might be helpful to look at some of the ways a person can achieve that status. For puposes of this essay, I will leave out Chasidic Rebbes. Their rise to Gadlus is mostly a function of Yichus. Most often - though not always - children of Rebbes inherit their father’s mantle.

The Hebrew word Gadol simply means big. In our context it is applied to ‘big’ or great people. People who have made great contributions to the Torah world. There are basically two requirements for Gadlus or greatness. - 1) Knowledge of Torah and 2) Yiras Shamayim – awe and reverence for God. Those two features are immutable requirements.

Torah knowledge can take two forms. Learning Torah and Paskening Halacha. One can be very learned in Gemarah, write voluminous literature on various tractates and still not be a Posek - like R’Chaim Soloveichik. On the other hand one can be a tremendous Posek writing voluminous literature on Halacha – like Rav Moshe Feinstein. Both individuals have to be knowledgeable in both areas. But their greatness usually lies in one area or another. Another very important requirement is a highly developed sense of ethics. But that in truth is a function of Yiras Shamayim and Halacha.

There are other factors, that are not necessarily required for greatness, but they are often part of the persona of a Gadol anyway. Leadership ability usually goes along with greatness. So does a highly defined character. They are often Baalei Chesed and have Kavod HaBriyos relating in the most positive manner to non Jews – including their clergy as Rav Yaakov Kamintesky did. The concepts of Chilul HaShem and Kiddush HaShem are never far from their consciousness.

A necessary component for greatness includes at least a working knowledge of Mada. I believe that both R’ Moshe Feinstein and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach had that. Certainly Rav Ahron Soloveichik did. But no Gadol had that more than Rav Ahron’s illustrious brother, the Rav.

There is no prototype personality. Some are very open to the public – like R’ Shlomo Zalman and others are very closed off to people – liked the Brisker Rav. Some have tremendous patience. Some don’t have any. Some are slow to anger and some have quick tempers. Some always smile. Some always frown. Contrary to popular belief - they are very much human.

How does one come to be recognized as a Gadol? Well there is certainy no election booth. We don’t vote them in. That said it is – or used to be – a democratic process. Great people ‘produce’. That tends to get recognition from the public. And the more one produces the more recognition one gets. It is also helpful if other Gedolim recognize them.

Rav Ahron Kolter’s great acheivement was transplanting the European model of Yeshivos on American soil. Already a renown Rosh HaYeshiva in Kletsk, his actions in the United States catapulted him to the status of Gadol HaDor in the view of the Yeshivish wolrd.

What is the function of a Gadol? It is to guide the Jewish people via the light of Torah. It is to teach them Halacha and to advise them in matters of private and public welfare. Some people call this Daas Torah. I don’t like that term. It makes their views sound infallible. But the fact is that they are trying to express the wisdom of the Torah on all aspects of Jewish life.

But becoming a Gadol does not mean that one retains his abilities forever. Sometimes they lose them. And they don’t even realize it. This happens when they reach an age where dementia becomes a real concern. Elderly people, no matter how brilliant or how great often do suffer from various version of this disease - Altzheimers being the most famous. It is an insidious disease that sneaks up on people without them even realizing it. As it progresses one is usually not even aware that he suffers from it. It does however become increasingly apparent to the people around them.

Some of the greatest minds in Jewish history have suffered from the disease late in their lives – if they lived long enough. The Rav comes to mind. He suffered from both Parkinson’s’ disease and later Alzheimer’s. By the time he fell victim to it, he was no longer active and was taken care of by his family. His place in history was already assured by them.

This brings me to the latest controversy surrounding Rav Elyashiv. According to reports in the Hebrew language website Chadrei Charedim, Rav Elayishiv has forbidden entry into the Israeli Knesset. He calls it a house of Heresy. He has even forbidden is own religious Knesset members from entering the building -saying that they should conduct business from their homes!

I find this impossible to believe. He is the religious head of a political party that has elected members in the Knesset. Religious Knesset members have in fact been serving there for decades uninterrupted almost from the very beginnings of the State. I think we would have heard about this serious Issur by now. Either it is a lie, taken out of context, he was misunderstood, or he is beginning to suffer from dementia.

If it is the latter, then it must be made known. His Psak can no longer be trusted. And it casts questions upon some of his more recent Psak. If he has dementia we have no way of knowing when its onset was - or how it affected his Psak. But since those who surround him will out of Kavod, very likely hide that fact we may never know the truth. At least not until it becomes very obvious.

That is unacceptable. A Gadol who is losing his mind still requires our respect but can no longer be relied upon for anything. I only hope that if this is indeed the case with Rav Elyashiv, that his loved ones make it known. If they don’t - who know what kind of nonsense will come out of those quarters in his name.