Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Gadol Worship

The Chazon Ish, Rav Yeshayahu Karelitz, ZTL
A couple of days ago, I discussed a possible explanation of why a charismatic rabbi and convicted rapist is still treated like a celebrity by his followers and some religious figures (like those at the Kotel). Making it even more perplexing is that he had admitted to his crimes before sentencing.

A Charedi Rav that I admire had the opportunity to read that post and sent me a related note with which I whole heartedly agree. I am honored to have been given permission to publish it here. He wishes to remain anonymous for reasons that will become obvious. It touches on a phenomenon that in my view has hurt Orthodox Judaism in major ways.  Rather than explaining why, I will let his note speak for itself. It follows.  
I read your post on Berland.  While the article itself speaks about him, which could probably be summarized into כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו, and that he fell prey to this, it did not address another issue that is relevant to all of Klal Yisroel. 
The frum communities have fallen prey to a dynamic that has been absorbed from the secular world.  It is called “Hero Worship”.  Yes, we have grown to ascribe great things to personalities who have achieved public stature.  
The truth is infrequently relevant, and traits that are unknown to the individual become attributed to him (usually men).
This occurs way too often with chassidishe rebbes, and is also rampant in the litvishe velt, where Roshei Yeshivos are similarly deified.
It is a serious breach when someone uses his status as a Rov, Rebbe, Rosh Yeshiva, or other (religious title)  to claim expertise in many areas where there is zero experience.  It is too common to hear some people with these titles offer advice and guidance in medical issues, chinuch questions, personal problems, family discord, shalom bayis, etc.
I get frightened when I see the families who have been irreparably damaged by this, and many in the mental health field are dedicating their time to service and repair the damage done by these non-experts who cling to the cloak of leadership.
Even presidents have advisors. Your take on Berland is quite rational.  I am wondering about the followers.  It seems that these personages become celebrities, can do no wrong, have achieved major levels of spirituality, and can carry others on their coattails to the heights of g-dliness.   
Is the public so stupid?  Are people so blind that they can gaze directly into a totally trashed sense of morality, but yet seek to prop it up with the fervor and passion that should be reserved for only HKB”H Himself?
While reading the periodic newscasts about the escapades of Berland while he circled the globe, I understood him.  What criminal doesn’t even consider flight?  But the followers always eluded me.  They made no sense.  The fellow admitted he could not maintain the chastity of a simple frum Jew, yet he occupied a position as a spiritual leader. 
The dissonance of this is one of the loudest sounds in this entire saga.  But the outside world does this, too.  The celebrities are followed for their preferences of products they might never use, for their political opinions, and given respect that should belong to those who are true specimens of morality and spirituality, not them. 
As I indicated, I could not agree with his assessment of today’s religious Jewish world more. In my  view this mindset is a direct result of the concept of Daas Torah as it is now interpreted in the more right wing circles. Daas Torah is the modern day interpretation of Emunas Chachamim. Which is non existent today according to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, ZTL. The degree of infallibility vested in leaders in both the Chasidic and the Lithuanian (Litvishe)Yeshiva world makes this phenomenon almost impossible to change.

While most followers of rabbinic leaders will pay lip service to the fallibility of their leaders – and might even cite instances of it, they nevertheless treat their leaders as though they are infallible.

How can they then find instances of fallibility? They might find instances of an admission by one of their leaders to a mistake they have made. But their followers would never do so on their own. That would be Chutzpah! …and tantamount to saying God Himself was wrong. 

They will use the biblical command of ‘Lo Sasur’  - Do not turn (to the right or to the left). This was meant to apply to the instructions of a Sanhedrin. The Rishonim disagree how far this command should be extended. Most do not apply it to today’s rabbinic leadership. And yet - that is how it is applied today in  right wing circles. Which makes up the majority of Orthodox Jews. In essence this has deified their rabbinic leadership - as the writer noted.

One can see this attitude quite clearly at Agudah conventions where many of the speakers will speak of ‘Daas Torah’ in the most glowing terms of near infallibility. One can also see it among Yeshiva students that will make no move without consulting their spiritual mentors (e.g. a Rebbi, Rosh Yeshiva, or Mashgiach). And then follow their advice – to the exclusion of anyone else’s advice or even their own common sense in some cases.

Even greater devotion is expressed by Chasidim about their Rebbes. Lubavitch being the most extreme example of that. That in my view is why they have a Messianist attitude about their late Rebbe. They consider him to be the ‘perfect’ human being - making him godlike!

(As an aside it is somewhat ironic that Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller castigated Chabad in one of his more famous essays in the Jewish Observer. Calling them ‘Rebbe-Centered’ instead of ‘God-Centered’. Rabbi Keller has been one of their biggest critics. And yet it is ironic because some of that exists in his own backyard.)

It is also the reason that Peleg adherents are so stridently resiting the draft. They view R' Shmuel Auerbach that way.

As noted by the writer, Gadol worship (or hero worship - as he puts it) can have disastrous consequences. For example there is the vaccination controversy where one rabbinic leader has chosen to believe in junk science and openly express a view that vaccinations are a hoax. And need I mention the damage done by rabbinic leaders that require all credible suspicions of sex abuse to be first vetted by them before reporting them to the police?

I should mention that the writer is not alone in his assessment of egregious errors made by those Poskim that  rule on matters they clearly are ignorant about. I recall a Melva Malka many years ago at HTC where Rabbi Moshe Tendler was the scholar in residence that weekend. He was asked to speak about his father-in-law, Rav Moshe Feinstein. 

The one thing that stuck with me over all these years is how his father-in-law, Rav Moshe, would never Paskin without first consulting experts in the field about which he was asked. Rabbi Tendler told us about the horror stories from those lower level Poskim that were ignoramuses about the subjects about which they were asked - and yet thought they knew enough to Paskin without consulting experts.

Despite all of this, Gadol worship has taken hold. The world of Orthodoxy has changed. And like the writer indicates – not always for the better.