Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Do We Really Need the Agudah?

One of the most brilliant and dynamic figures in the Torah world is my former Daf Yomi Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer. His knowledge of Torah combined with his attention to Machshava – Jewish thought - and worldly knowledge makes him quite unique in the Torah world.

His words have been published in many Orthodox publications including the Jewish Observer and Jewish Action. He has also written several books in English on Halacha, was a contributor in translating the ArtScroll Shas, and the ArtScroll Tanach – among many other such projects. And at a very young age he published a Sefer on Mesches Bava Basra – The Bigdei Shesh.

What he brings to the table – few people are able to bring. Chicago had an immeasurable loss when he and his brilliant and talented Ezer Kenegdo, Dr. Shani Bechoffer left.

There are few people in this world whose words carry as much weight with me as Rabbi Bechhofer’s words do. Not that I always agree with him. But the vast majority of the time I do. I am truly awed by this man’s knowledge, influenced by his thinking and his sense of Emes. If you want to understand where I am coming from just listen to any of his recorded Torah Shiurim - especially the series on the 'Age of the Universe' which I heard him give live and from which the recordings were made.

So when he makes a public statement – I pay attention. This is what he wrote in the comments section to my post on the demise of the Jewish Observer:

In axing the (Jewish Observer), the (Agudath Israel) has lost much of its raison d'etre. Sans the JO, they are just a shtadlanus organization. They no longer can lay claim to advancing the thought of Torah-true Yahadus, nor to boldy confronting the burning issues of the day, nor to clarifying what the Torah has to say on matters of the day and matters of eternity, nor to educating the generation. True and saddening folly.

I actually disagree that the Agudah loses justification for its existence. Shtadlanus - by which I assume he means working for the Jewish people - is a very important task. Very few Jewish organizations are as organized and as effective as this one is in getting things done for Orthodoxy. They have a long history of successes in this regard. I don’t always agree with their policy decisions, but the vast majority of the time I do. If their voice in Washington were lost, it would create a tremendous void.

What is most surprising is that this statement by Rabbi Bechhofer has by implication negated the significance of the Agudah Moetzes. That is no small statement. The Agudah defines itself through their Moetzes. They listen to the Gedloim. Their every move - their every utterance is premised on what the Gedolim say. They will never contradict them. The Moetzes leads and the laity follows. And yet Rabbi Bechhofer thinks this organization has little justification – not without the Gedolim – but without their mouthpiece, the Jewish Observer.

I find that to be an incredible statement coming from someone who I know has profound respect and reverence for Gedolei Yisroel. Rabbi Bechhofer does not make statements like this lightly. He is a man of high intellect, moral character, and Yiras Shamyim.

I suspect that he may feel that these Gedolei Torah do not need the Agudah. The Agudah needs them. I have pretty much felt the same way.

I personally think we need an organization like Agudah. What we don’t need is an selected body of Gedolim called the Moetzes. I do not need an organization to tell me who is a Gadol and who isn’t. I have no problem with the laity in Agudah consulting with Gedolim for guidance and following their advice. That is important and necessary. We need advice from great rabbinic figures on many issues. But we don’t need a committee of selected people who by dint of belonging to the Moetzes are deemed Gedolim.

Rav Moshe Feinstein did not need Agudah to tell him he was a Gadol. The world accepted him – Agudah or no Agudah. He earned that distinction all by himself. The same is true for other members both past an present.

What is not true is that there are no other Gedolim besides Agudah Moetzes members. Nor is everyone on the Moetzes necessarily a Gadol. There are members of the Moetzes that are there for political reasons. By having a Moetzes created in this fashion it belittles the very definition of what a Gadol is. It reduces the stature of a true Gadol when others are invited to be his peers - just because they belong to a particular group.

I have profound respect for some members of the Agudah Moetzes. I do not feel that way about others of them. And there are still others that I think are greater in Torah knowledge than many of the current members and have at least as much Yiras Shamyim as they do - who are not members. And never will be! I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

Perhaps this is what Rabbi Bechhofer meant. Of course he can speak for himself and probably will. But even if I am wrong about this being his view, it is definitely my view and I believe it to be the truth.