Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Kindred Spirit, Rav Nosson Kamenetsky

There is an interview with Rav Nosson Kamenetsky (pictured) that is available on Rationalist Judaism about - among other things - the bannig of his book, Making of a Gadol. I did not see any startling new information there, but it did once again re-emphasize the lack of any real rabbinic leadership today - and how close his views are to my own.

Rav Kamenetsky is not just anyone. He is one of the founders of Yeshivas Itri in Israel. He is the son of one of the true Gedolei HaDor of the last generation, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. His brother, Rav Shmuel is the founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of the very Charedi Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and is a member of the Agudah Moetzes. This did not stop his book from being trashed by great rabbinic figures in Israel.

Why? Because of its honest portrayal of many of the previous generation of Gedolim as human beings and not gods.

The ban was not because any of those leaders read the book. It was in English and they do not read English. They banned it on the word of others who did read it and advised them to do so.

I have expressed my own views about this event in the past. Many times. Suffice it to say I do not have a flattering view about the way today’s rabbinic leadership operates. It is a view that is shared by Rav Kamenetsky.

For him it was personal. He was hurt by some people with really big names in the Charedi world. Here is how he feels about it. And he is not shy about naming names:

I still feel hurt. Someone died, who everyone called the ‘Tzadik HaDor’ and ‘Gaon HaDor,’ Rav Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz, Rosh Yeshivat Ponevitch L’Tzeirim, who hurt me and called for me to be banned in letters that he wrote. Since he died, I have continued to feel anger towards him, and I certainly am still angry with those still living who issues bans against me.”

Rav Kamenetsky believes that these elderly rabbis were manipulated into banning his book. Such rabbis he feels - should not remain in the public square. And because they will never leave on their own we have an obligation to remove them from the spotlight! Furthermore the people who surround an elderly Gadol so that they can take advantage and exploit him should certainly be removed from their midst.

I recall listening to his lecture on the banning of his book a few years ago. He said that he was shunned by the Charedi world after the ban. He feared he would not even be able to marry off his children. When he told Rav Elyashiv about this - he (Rav Elyashiv) responded that he would personally vouch for him and that people should give him (Rav Nosson) the same respect now that they always have. It was not Rav Kamenetsky that was banned. It was only his book.

But how can anyone separate the two? A book is an extension of the author. One who insults the book insults the author.
His general take on listening to Gedolim is surprisingly similar to my own:

“The Mitnagdim (non-Chassidic Jews) always thought for themselves. If they had a specific question they could not decide, they would come to get advice from a wise and knowledgeable man who had the Torah behind him, but things a person can figure out on his own, it is forbidden to depend on others’ judgment. In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam describes the great power of the human mind to make decisions, a man must use his own mind, do not denigrate your own intelligence. If you have a doubt about something, go ask someone wiser, after you hear what they say, you do not have to follow their advice like a blind man, you have to digest it and decide if it was good or bad. The Mishna asks, ‘Upon whom should one rely?’ And it answers, ‘On God.’ It does not say ‘On Rav Elyashiv,’ or ‘On Rav Shteinman.’
Rav Kamenetsky does however make a distinction between communal and personal issues. On communal issues we must listen to them he says. I agree with that but only if there is universal agreement among them. I assume he would make the same distinction.

(As it pertains to the Agudah Moetzes, it has long ago been made clear by them that when they espouse a public policy position, it is always done on a consensus basis. But it is also rather well known that they never speak about dissent within their ranks - even if there is any. They feel that if they speak of dissent no one will listen to them. So dissent or not - all the members agree to speak with one voice.

To me that says that there is no real ‘one voice’ but many voices – some of which are not heard. In my view their public policy decisions do not therefore have the requirement of universality - and are not binding. In the event that the Agudah Moetzes members really all do agree there is no way of the public knowing that.

Aside from that – as long as there are other Gedolim outside the Agudah Moetzes in the world that disagree there is certainly no obligation to listen to them. This was for example the case when Rav Soloveitchik disagreed with them about Orthodox rabbis joining with the multi denominational ‘Synagogue Council’ in matters not relating to theology. The Rav was in favor of it, the Agudah Moetzes and others were opposed.)

There is another area where his views reflect mine. One that I have written about many times: The undue reverence and adulation given to Lithuanian style Roshei Yeshiva. It borders worshiping them much the same way Chasidim worship their Rebbe. Here are his words:

Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust were from Hasidic areas, and this was their approach. If there is a change in the upbringing of the Lithuanian Jews of today, it is this, that we teach them to be Hasidim of the Lithuanian Rabbis - that is my opinion.
I have been saying this for the longest time. Chasidim are calling the shots. And the Lithuanian Yeshiva world has been following in their footsteps whether they realize it or not- whether they admit it or not.

One of the things that was so great about Rav Nosson’s father, Rav Yaakov, is his intellectual honesty. He was not afraid to tell it like it is. Rav Nosson learned well from his father. I sometimes wonder if his brother Rav Shmuel sees things the same way he does.