Friday, March 02, 2012

Trembling Before Man

If anyone wants to know why Daas Torah is such a venerated concept in the Charedi world let them read a recent Cross Currents article by Rabbi Shaul Gold - and that will tell the story.

I have no issue with his point. Which is that we do not give sufficient awe to great Rishonim like Rashi. I think he’s probably right about that in some cases. But the way in which he arrives at this conclusion should not be over-looked.

He cites his own experience with a Gadol of the past, Rav Nochum Pertsovitz, the legendary Maggid Shiur in the Mir of a few decades ago. In discussing a Shiur he once heard from him, Rav Nachum express an almost excruciating pain at disputing the Torah of his own Rebbe, Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz - and that of Rav Baruch Ber’s Rebbe, R’Chaim Soloveichik. Here is the pertinent excerpt:

R’ Nochum began to stutter. He began to shake visibly. He repeated over and over how great R’ Chaim was and how his rebbe, R’ Boruch Ber towered over anyone he knew intellectually. He praised the explanations and commented on the power and depth of their reasoning. He must have uttered “the Rebbe”, about R’ Boruch Ber, a dozen or more times in a halting and trembling voice before finally in a spurt of shame and with eyes averted he said; “ubber, ubber, ebber, … dos iz nit pshat in Tosfos’ teretz”, “but, but, but, … that is not pshat in Tosfos’ response.”

I was glued to R’ Nochum at that time and a shiver ran down my spine. When R’ Nochum learned a pshat of R’ Boruch Ber’s he saw d’mus deyukno (his appearance) before him. His reverence for R’ Boruch Ber and for R’ Chaim was an essential part of his being, and for him to argue on them, for him to point out a perceived flaw in their Torah, he had to so with utter hachno’oh (subservience) and humility.

It was a life changing moment for me. I began to understand R’ Nochum and many of the other great Chachomim that I had encountered in a new light and I had to change the way I was a mekabel (recipient).

I completely understand the kind of awe and reverence that R’ Nachum gave to his Rebbeim. But using his method of expressing it as a model for our behavior seems to be how Charedim now define awe and reverence. They apply this kind of honor to the rabbinic leaders of our day – often without knowing the slightest thing about them other than they have achieved the title ‘Gadol’ by being invited to serve on a committe with other rabbinic leaders. As in the Agudah Moetzes. If they are there, then the standard of reverence is to be modeled on R’ Nachum’s reverence for R’ Chaim and R’ Baruch Ber.

Rabbi Gold has incorporated R’ Nachum’s behavior in that Shiur into his own life. This is apparently how he sees and reacts to current rabbinic leaders. I think that is how many Charedim view them.

When Rabbi Shimshon Sherrer spoke about the Daas Torah of the Agudah Moetzes, this is exactly the kind of reverence and awe he had.

When Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky heard that R’ Elyashiv banned Rabbi Slifkin’s books as heresy - books he had used in the past for his own outreach – he reacted in the same way. He blasted Rabbi Slifkin for trying to defend himself, saying that if he were Rabbi Slifkin, he would be on his hands and knees begging for Mechilla and not trying to defend himself.

It is not that much of a leap to go from that kind of deference to believing that words emanating from them are God’s words! Those who have incorporated Rabbi Gold’s perspective tremble at them. Images of the type described by Rabbi Gold about R’ Nachum fill their minds. Anything less than trembling at them falls short of the proper Kavod for the Gedolim. Those who don’t - do not sufficiently appreciate the proper ‘subservience and humility’ required of them.

This does not God forbid mean to say that we shouldn’t respect these Roshei Yeshiva or value their opinions. Of course we should. But I am not talking about giving a rabbinic leader proper Kavod. I am talking about creating the mindset of trembling at their words.

This is where I part company with them. In my view this attitude has contributed mightily to the abdication of common sense to the point that if a Gadol sneezes, they attach meaning to it. How else should one react to someone before whom we tremble?!

I tremble before God. But I do not tremble before man. I have great awe and reverence for my own Rebbe and others who I see as Gedolim – both past and present - of my lifetime. I follow their Psak. I follow their Hashkafos. And I have learned from their Torah. I have indeed expressed my great admiration and awe for them many times. But I do not tremble before them as I do before God. Nor do I think they would even approve of it if I did.

That said, I understand the criticism Rabbi Gold was making. It is wrong to be cavalier about Rashi’s interpretation of a biblical passage that does not fit with our modern understanding of the way the world works. We do owe Rashi a lot more deference than man who is the object of Rabbi Gold’s criticism gave him. Of course I wasn’t there and I don’t know who it is Rabbi Gold was criticizing but I will take his word for it, that it was too cavalier and wrong.

That does not mean we can’t use sources other than Rashi to explain that same passage in the Torah that fit better with our own understanding. Of course we may. At the same time Rashi should not be cavalierly waved off. Doing so does show a lack of proper understanding of who Rashi was and the deference he deserves.

But please do not make R’ Nachum’s behavior with respect to his Rebbeim to be the model for own behavior. Because doing that results in the kind of abdication of common sense that plagues the world of the right and is beginning to influence those to their left.