Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When Loyalty Trumps Wisdom Leadership Fails

Rabbi Natan Slifkin has written a post that reflects an unfortunate reality in the world of Charedi rabbinic leadership. I'm not sure it applies to all Charedi rabbinic leaders, but it certainly applies to some. And it has clearly contributed to some of the most grievous situations in the Torah world today. Examples abound.

The issue I am talking about here is signing on to the words of others by mere dint of who they are rather than what they said. The most recent example of this is apparently with no less a rabbinic personality than Rav Chaim Kanievsky.

I do not know him personally and have only spoken to him once. My impression of him is that he is a man of deep piety and complete dedication to the welfare of Klal Yisroel. And though I have not learned his Seforim, I have been been assured of his great brilliance in Torah which he demonstrated at a very early age in the Seforim he published. He also has some very impressive Yichus. His father was the Steipler Gaon. His father in law is Rav Elyashiv. Many consider R’ Chaim to be one of the great Gedolei HaDor.

And yet what he apparently did recently seems to counter the very idea of Gadlus as I understand it - at least as far as leadership is concerened. He signed onto a letter simply because others he respected signed onto it. In question was a letter that had been released asking the religious community to support Elior Chen (pictured). This fellow is a Charedi cult leader and described in a Ynet headline:

Elior Chen indicted for abuse -'Abusive rabbi' charged with ongoing abuse of eight children. Chen accused of beating children with hammer, burning organs with lighter, leaving one child in vegetative state.

I would not think there is any sane person who would defend this fellow. But… there are people who do. The claim was supposedly made in a letter signed by Charedi rabbinic leaders that Rabbi Chen was a Marbitz Torah and a Tzadik. He must therefore be considered innocent. The letter was an appeal for financial support.

The letter's authenticity and its signatures was later disputed and called a fraud. Was that the case? I’m not so sure. From his blog, Rationalist Judaism, here are Rabbi Slifkin’s words:

But then a neighbor of mine wrote to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, asking him why he signed it. He received the following reply (translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Slifkin):

"On a letter that my rabbis are signed on to, I also sign."

It was apparently written in his own handwriting and is reproduced on Rabbi Slifkin’s blog. If this is true and not a fraud itself, it is mind boggling. And it is a revelation. If someone of Rav Kanievsky’s stature can sign a document proclaiming the innocence of this monster - only because his rabbis signed on, what does that say about him?

On the positive side one can simply say that the profound respect he has for his rabbis led him to completely trust their judgment - no matter what. It might seem admirable to some to have so much respect for one’s mentors that he will automatically sign on to anything they say. Indeed honoring one’s rabbis is quite an admirable thing to do and the extent to which one goes can increase the admiration. In a vacuum perhaps that is true.

But in this case I would have to strongly disagree. How can anyone simply sign onto the words of others without knowing or at least checking the facts in a situation like this? It appears that the evidence of Chen’s guilt is so massive that conviction of these horrible crimes is virtually guaranteed.

He amply demonstrated his own guilt by fleeing to Brazil to avoid prosecution. He was later captured and extradited to Israel. Is it admirable to blindly go along with his ‘rabbis’ in this case without doing some investigating on your own - simply because they are his rabbis?

This is of course not the first time something like this has happened in our day. Rabbi Slifkin’s own experience can testify to that. When his books were banned as heresy many rabbis who never read a word of them signed onto the ban simply because of the stature of Rav Elyashiv -who had issued the ban.

They used a similar logic. If the man they considered to be the Gadol HaDor signed on - that was enough for them. I don’t blame Rabbi Slifkin for being sensitive to this since he was the victim of it. One might assume personal bias. But he happens to be right.

I should quickly add that Rav Chaim Kanievsky remains a Gadol in Torah and his stature has not been diminished in my eyes on that level. He may well be very wise man to ask for advice on various issues. But he cannot be considered a leader if this story is true. It is one thing to know Torah. It is an entirely different thing to be a Torah leader. No matter how great one’s knowledge of Torah is or even how dedicated to Klal Yisroel he is.