Monday, November 27, 2006

Agudah Postscript: Blogs and Daas Torah

The Agudah convention is over. I have yet to hear from my sources on the inside but Hirhurim’s Rabbi Gil Student was there and has reported on it. There were apparently three speakers who addressed the subject of blogs, Rabbis Zweibel, Wachsman, and Salomon. It was Rabbi Salomon’s comment that struck a chord: From Hirhurim:

“R. Matisyahu Salomon (said) that questions and critiques that are respectful are acceptable”

If indeed this is the case, I take comfort in the fact that Rav Salomon, whether he knows it or not, has virtually endorsed my blog. My “questions and critiques” are always done in a respectful manner, despite protestations to the contrary by some. True my critiques are sometime strong, but I never do so with disrespect to any rabbinic leader.

However, not all is rosy. In going over comments section of R. Gil’s post, I learned more about what was said that evening.

Apparently Rav Salomon did use the words "plague" and an "insidious...poison" in reference to blogs that are “entering our homes”. But even there… it was followed by an apparent recognition of the public service rendered even by blogs like UOJ (which seems to have been the real target of the evening). That was implicit in the following remark, “Criticize some rabbis, he said, not all of us”. He acknowledged that some cases “have slipped through our fingers”. But he also said that some cases should be swept under the rug, when the Torah tells us to sweep it under the rug.

Who would disagree with that? If the Torah dictates it there is no room to dispute it. The only question is, “Which cases”? Without going into an elaborate discourse here, suffice it to say that if there is a valid purpose like saving even one child from abuse, then it must be exposed, if not, for example if an individual has been rehabilitated (assuming that’s possible), there are then other considerations like Lashon Hara, and protecting the victims who prefer to not be in the public eye.

Then there was Rabbi Wachsman. He was apparently his usual zealous self. Apparently he is unconditionally against blogs and used some very strong language to make this point.

As one would expect from Agudah, Daas Torah was the subtext of the entire evening. And Agudah does little to diminish the aura of inffalibilty it confers to its rabbinic leaders. As R. Gil put it: “R. Wachsman's description of Gedolim and Da'as Torah… makes these great leaders into superhuman figures.” Even if he didn’t mean it literally, he certainly meant it figuratively. In my view, he errs and Agudah errs in constantly putting it this way and not tempering it with the reality that they are not superhuman. Yes, it is important to give proper Kavod to Torah and Torah figures. But by constantly comparing them to supermen he perpetuates the myth that they are infallible, at least in practice if not in reality.

As I have said many times, this message intended is not the one received. Gedolim are not superhuman. They are… human. They are great… absolutely. And the greatest amongst them throughout the millennia are unquestionably some of the greatest human beings who ever lived. But they were human beings. They made mistakes, including people as great as the Rambam. This was said by no less a figure than the Netziv. Even the well established principle that we cannot argue argue with Rishonim is itself not completely accurate… in that two short centuries ago, the great Rabbi and mathematician, Eliyahu Kramer did just that. And he is accepted. The reasons we do not dispute Rishonim have to do with their being closer to Sinai in the Masoretic chain. But as Rabbi Kramer demonstrates it isn’t a hard and fast rule.

The point is that as great as past figures wer, they were indeed human. And subject to error. Fast forward to today. Our leaders too are human. For Rabbi Wachsman to imply otherwise is in part what is so harmful to so large a segment of Klal Yisroel. It fosters a lack of independent thought upon far too many Bnei Torah who have abdicated the decision making process on the most trivial of issues. And it creates a false sense of granting infallibility to rabbinic figures which in some cases opens them up to ridicule rather than respect.

I like Rav Salomon’s take better. He agrees that legitimate but respectful critique is OK.

You hear that, people?