Sunday, May 25, 2014

Facing the Truths of History

Rabbi Avi Shafran
One of the biggest issues (perhaps the biggest issue) that divides the Charedi world from the rest of the Orthodox world is how we view our rabbinic leaders …or even the great Gedolim of the past. The Charedi world (as is so often stated by the Agudah) defines itself by its unbending fealty to the Gedolim.  They call it Daas Torah… the wisdom of the Torah. The Daas  of the common man is Mevutal (nullified) to theirs. That does not mean that that the Daas of the common man is totally devalued. Of course it isn’t. But in comparison to that of the rabbinic leaders – it is of little import.

For much of the rest of the Orthodox world, we too honor and value the judgement of our rabbinic leaders. We too often ask for – and take their advice, recognizing their wisdom is based largely on their superior understanding of the Torah. But unlike the Charedi world we do not see their advice as binding… at least not as binding as Charedim.  We recognize that no matter how  great in stature - they can be and sometimes are wrong.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the pre Holocaust attitude of the Gedolim to Zionism. That opposition was recently touched upon by Rabbi Berel Wein who even though a self described Charedi said the following in a recent article (upon which I commented earlier this month): 
The great struggle of most of Orthodoxy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against Zionism influenced all Orthodox thought and behavior. As late as 1937, with German Jewry already prostrate before Hitler's madness and Germany already threatening Poland, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate in Poland publicly objected to the formation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel on the grounds that the heads of that state would undoubtedly be secular if not even anti-religious.

They were correct in that assessment but, since the Holocaust was then an unimaginable event in their worldview, they continued in their opposition to Jews leaving Poland to settle either in the United States or in Israel. Because of this past mindset, the Holocaust is more unsettling – theologically, at least, to Orthodoxy - than perhaps to any other group in the Jewish world.

Much of Orthodoxy chooses to ignore the issue or to contrive very lame excuses and causes for this catastrophe. In my opinion, there is no human answer to the event itself but the event cannot be ignored. One of the consequences of confronting it is naturally an admission that great and holy men can be wrong in their assessment of current events and future occurrences. Much of Orthodoxy is so hagiographic about its present and past leaders that it cannot bring itself to admit that. As such, the past cannot truly help to assess the present. A false past is almost as dangerous as having no past at all.
I found this to be a very reasonable evaluation of the people and their times… as well as how it is presented today in the Charedi world.

Rabbi Berel Wein
I don’t think there can be any doubt in the minds of rational people that the Gedolim erred in their assessment and thereby in the advice they gave. This is not to say they said or did anything wrong. All they did was take the information at hand and make the best judgments they could at the time based on how they saw the Torah dictating it to them. As Rabbi Wein clearly notes, no one could have predicted the Holocaust. They probably believed that they could weather the coming storm and survive…  while moving to  a ‘Godless’ Israel and assimilationist America would surely destroy Jewish souls.

But history has clearly proven their error in judgment. They were human. They cannot really be blamed for their miscalculations. My sincere belief is that had they known the Holocaust was going to happen they would have advised the Jewish people to leave.

Although there were irreligious Jews, like Zev Jabotinsky, that did predict the Holocaust, their predictions were no more informed than were those of the Gedolim of that era. So most religious Jews who ended up perishing in the Holocaust clung naturally to the views of their Gedolim and stayed put, unfortunately.

I mention all this in response to an article in Hamodia (which can be read online in the Baltimore Jewish Life ) by a man for whom I have great admiration and respect, Rabbi Avi Shafran. He is a man with whom I agree most of the time.  But not this time.

First I must strongly object to the way he characterized Rabbi Wein in his opening statement: 
There exists a mentality, even among some who should know better, like the respected popular historian Rabbi Berel Wein, that any one of us can, and even should, second-guess the attitudes and decisions of Torah luminaries of the past. 
A man who should know better? I find that to be insulting. Rabbi Wein is an elder statesman of great stature. Among his many achievements is that he is Talmid Chacham. He is the founding Rosh HaYeshiva of Sharrei Torah in Monsey. He is a man who studied at the feet of Gedolim that he says influences his thinking to this day.  A man of this kind of accomplishment should not be insulted in this way just because he stated his considered, Torah based opinion in contradistinction to the Charedi view.

My primary objection to Rabbi Shafran’s article is that I believe he misunderstands Rabbi Wein. He is not second guessing their decisions. He did not say that they should have been prophets. He is not using retroactive prophesy as the title of his article implies. He is simply saying they made a mistake based on the information they had at hand. I don’t see how there can be any other interpretation. 

Are we to assume that they did not make a mistake? …and that they would have made the same decision even if they had known the outcome of 6 million Kedoshim? Because if that is the case, it would be a far worse to say that their advice pre-Holocaust to stay put knowing that such a decision would cost 6 million Jewish lives.

The bottom line is they made a mistake. It was an honest one. But it was a mistake. It does not diminish the respect of the Gedolei Yisroel to say so.  But attributing a defacto infallibility to Gedolim (despite lip service always paid to their being fallible) does a great disservice to their greatness as human beings. They were not Malachei HaShareis (ministering angels). They made a mistake and cannot be faulted for their humanity.

In our day, as Rabbi Wein points out, we live in a hagiographic times. In their attempt to give great honor to the rectitude of rabbinic leaders, they refuse to in any way say mistakes were made. They may err, but it is not for the common man to determine that. Thus implying defacto infallibility to all their decisions.  Instead of using historically proved error to show that Gedolim are indeed human, they instead insist that their views were not wrong if only we interpret them correctly.

Making this attitude even more perplexing is what Rabbi Shafran says here: 
Please don’t misunderstand. Every sane and sensitive Jew today supports Israel’s security needs, and appreciates the fact that we can freely live in or visit our homeland; and that the state and its armed forces seek to protect all within the country’s borders.
And more.
We are makir tov for the good that previous governments in Israel have in fact provided Klal Yisrael, the support it has given its religious communities, yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and mosdos chessed. 
I certainly appreciate his views here and only wish there were more of this kind of gratitude expressed by the right. But then in the very next line comes the non-sequitur: 
None of that, though, need come along with an abandonment of respect for great leaders of Klal Yisrael who felt that a different path to Jewish recovery from the Holocaust would have been wiser.  
The clear fact is that had they urged the Jewish people to leave Europe when they still could, a lot less people would have died. Furthermore history has shown that until the State of Israel was declared, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust had nowhere to go. The British who controlled Palestine at the time - closed the doors to these survivors. I don’t know what kind of path Rabbi Shafran imagines could have taken place without the establishment of a state that immediately swung their doors wide open to survivors.

One final thought. I take strong exception to the characterization that anyone least of all Rabbi Wein (or me) has abandoned respect for the great leaders of Klal Yisroel. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have profound respect for the Gedolim of the past, as I’m sure Rabbi Wein does. Saying that they made an honest mistake – even one where the negative consequences were of unprecedented magnitude - does not and should not diminish our respect. All it does is tell us that they were human and not Malachei HaShareis. What continues to be unacceptable is living in a world where hagiography has replaced the truths of history.