Sunday, December 04, 2016

Gadol Cards - a Bad Idea

R' Moshe Feinstein's Gadol card (Lehrhaus)
One might think the idea of collecting baseball cards is a frivolous undertaking. Even for young people. Are there not getter ways of spending one’s time and money than collecting cards with pictures of popular sports figures on one side and their statistics on the other? The answer is that of course there are better ways of doing that. But that doesn’t mean that doing so has no value at all.

What if there were cards that had pictures of Gedolim on them? Would that be a worthy enterprise? Would it be better or worse to collect them than to collect baseball cards? In my view it would be worse.

But wouldn’t they be educational? That ‘stats’ on the back could be a list of he Seforim they had written or the Yeshivos they founded… or even movements they founded. Like the TIDE  movement of Rav Samson Rephael Hirsch. Isn’t collecting Gadol cards a better use of a child’s propensity to collect, accumulate, and trade than it is baseball cards?

Well, no. There are far better ways of educating our young about the value of our great religious leaders than to put their picture on a trading card with a small list of their accomplishments on the back. It might even be harmful.

But this did not stop that phenomenon from happening. There is a fascinating and informative article by Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff, Academic Director of HTC in the latest issue of Lehrhaus. He tells us about the history of Gedolim cards  The genre was invented by an ultra Orthodox Jew by the name of Arthur Shugarman. And the first set of Gedolim cards were produced in 1980 by the Youth Division of Agudath Israel of America.

One can guess who made it into the original 35 card series. They consisted of black and white pictures of European greats that were in some way connected to Agudah.  The stats on the back were written in ways that were compatible with the Agudah philosophy. This resulted in a least one descript tion of a past great religious figure. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch was described as follows: 
“(He) Met the formidable challenge to the very basis of Jewish living posed by the ‘modern era’ with the religious philosophy of ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz.’ This maxim was the proclamation of the sovereignty of the Torah within any given civilization…” 
This completely ignored Rav’ Hirsch’s positive view of the great non Jewish figures whose views he publicly extolled as compatible with Jewish philosophy… a key component of Torah Im Derech Eretz!

Presenting a distorted picture of great rabbinic figures on the back of a trading card for purposes of furthering your own agenda is not that different that writing a biography about that same person that omits truths about them which are incompatible your Hashkafos.

Not only is omitting the truth a problem, that these cards do not include other great  rabbinic figures is another sin of omission.  By omitting great rabbis whose Hashkafos they do not approve of, they reinforce the antipathy they some of their Mechnchim express about these great figures in the classroom. After all if Rav Soloveitchik is not on a card, he cannot possibly be a Gadol. Nor can any  religious Zionist Rabbonim. Or Centrist Rabbonim.  

Agudah might argue that they have a right to say who is and isn’t a Gadol for their own constituents. This is true.  But when applied to trading cards that are widely distributed it contributes to that notion far beyond their own membership. 

The Gadol card also makes the very idea of a Gadol into someone that larger than life; someone that is beyond human; someone that should be worshiped and idolized like baseball heroes.

Ironically building up selected rabbis as icons via trading cards also has an opposite effect. It cheapens the very idea of what a Gadol is supposed to be. They are reduced to a form of currency by collectors assigning trading value to them. Is Rav Moshe really worth a Rav Gifter and a Rav Ovadia?

It is for these reasons that I am opposed to Gedolim cards. And yet I am not opposed to baseball cards. In an ironic twist of fate, the speakers at this year’s Agudah convention which focused on normal behavior had one speaker telling parents that it was OK for a young student to follow baseball in his leisure time.  In that vein there is nothing wrong with collecting baseball cards… and learning some stats about the players.

The genie may be out of the bag. I don’t know if you can still buy Gadol cards. But whether you can or not, I can still have an opinion about them. And it is not favorable. If they are available, I would urge parents to as much as possible - discourage their children from owning them.