Monday, October 17, 2011

A Gadol In Name Only?

A recent post (based on an essay by Rabbi Dovid Landesman) discussed how the Moetzes of Agudah was founded and what their parameters were then - and are now - for membership. It was noted that the greatest rabbinic figures were not necessarily on it at it's founding nor are they on it now. The question arises - what constitutes being a Gadol?

Many people use that term to refer to prominent rabbinic figures who are in positions of leadership – whether as a Rosh Yeshiva, Posek, Chasidic Rebbe or simply a member of the Agudah Moetzes.

But how does one get there? How does one become a Gadol? What are his attributes? Do all Gedolim posses the same attributes? …or at least share a common set of attributes like: intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, leadership ability, or Chesed???

The answer is not necessarily. But they do tend to excel greatly at least at one of these if not more. There is no vote. It is more of a process. In the past if someone had the stuff of greatness - people eventually recognized it. And he became a Gadol in the eyes of the public.

This can be illustrated by the great Gedolim of the last generation.

Rav Moshe Feinstein was once asked by a reporter from Time Magazine how one becomes a Gadol. He answered that it was nothing official but rather an evolutionary process of public acceptance.

It isn't that there is a vote taken. It is not just a popularity contest. And of course there has to be substance. In Rav Moshe’s case it is easy to see what made him a Gadol. It was his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah which included all of Shas and Rishonim. That knowledge combined with his great wisdom resulted in the voluminous responsa known as the Igros Moshe. That is today perhaps the most widely quoted source of Halacha L’Maasa - applicable Jewish law. Adding to his stature were his Midos – the good character to go along with his wisdom. He was also a Rosh HaYeshiva. But that was not his claim to greatness.

That title belongs to Rav Aharon Kotler in his day. Rav Ahron was not really a Posek. I'm told by people who knew him that when people asked him a Shaila he referred them to Rav Moshe. That – of course helped enhance Rav Moshe’s reputation too.

Rav Aharon's genius in Torah study and his founding Lakewood or more precisely transplanting the classic unadulterated European Yeshiva to American soil was Rav Ahron Kotler’s greatest achievement. In the eyes of many that not only made him a Gadol, it made him the Gadol Hador! In the Yeshiva world he was the greatest living Rabbinic leader of his day. The Lakewood Yeshiva model inspired many others like it. But Lakewood was and still is the most prestigious post high school Yeshiva in America if not the world.

The great Rosh HaYeshiva of Torah Vodaath, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, was a Gadol but not for the same reasons that Rav Moshe and Rav Ahron were. He was a Gadol because he is responsible for the Yeshiva world as we know it today. He spread Torah throughout the land sending out his best students to establish day schools all over America. It is the students that attended those day schools that populate the ‘Lakewoods’ of today.

A later Torah VoDaath Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Yaakov Kaminestky was a Gadol too. Not because he was a Posek. He wasn’t. Nor was it only because of his immense Torah knowledge which he had - or the fact that he was a Rosh HaYeshiva. It was his character and his wisdom; his sense of right and wrong; his moral values and his leadership capabilities that did. When he spoke – people listened. In the same vein was his successor at Torah VoDaath, Rav Avraham Pam.

The Satmar Rebbe did for Chasidus what Rav Ahron Kotler did for the Yeshiva world. He built - practically from scratch - an empire of Chasidim 2nd to none. He was not only a brilliant Talmid Chacham and lifelong Masmid he was a world class Posek rivaling Rav Moshe. And he was a leader with few peers building up Satmar as one of the largest – if not the largest - Chasidic sect in the world.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe did the same for his Chasidim that the Satmar Rebbe did for his. He not only created a dynasty of Lubavitch Chasidim, his movement was - and probably still is - the most successful outreach organization in all of Jewry. I think it is safe to say that there are more people who have become observant through Lubavitch than any other entity. Although he too had many of the same characteristics as others - his greatness was in his leadership ability and the ability to inspire outreach in unprecedented ways.

My own personal view is that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik had no peers when it came to greatness. Not only was his brilliance in Torah and his encyclopedic knowledge of it was acknowledged even by his biggest detractors - he had one attribute that few if any other Gedolim had. He was an expert in the Limudei Chol of philosophy. As a world class philosopher he is today studied in universities all over the world. He also had great wisdom - giving advice to the most disparate of students each according to his own needs. Those who encountered him in their lives saw his genius through their own prism and may not even have been aware of his genius in other areas. He was the Gadol for the modern world in which we all live.

There are of course many Gedolim I have left out. But I wanted to give a sampling of those I feel were great by virtue of their specific contributions but were certainly not clones with identical attributes. But they did have one thing they all shared. They all had a tremendous amount of Torah knowledge and wisdom.

However I would be remiss if I didn’t see Yichus - genealogy - as a factor in some cases. Could it be true that even when it comes to recognition in the Torah world - it is as much who you know (or are related to) as it is what you know?

In Chasidus Yichus is virtually mandatory. It is almost always the case that a son succeeds the father as Rebbe.

Surprisingly Yichus seems to play a very significant role among non Chasidim too. Of the above mentioned people some were sons of Gedolim themselves… or at least sons in law. And there are some today who are sons of Gedolim from previous generations. Is it fair to ask whether Gedolim who did have famous fathers - but in fact may be ven greater then those who are today recoginzed as such - but may not have had the opportunity to be recognized without those last names? I do not mean to cast any aspersions on anyone. Just because one has Yichus it certainly doesn’t disqualify them from becoming a Gadol. In some cases the son even surpasses the father.

I still have to wonder just what part Yichus plays in who is and isn’t considered a Gadol today - since a lot of it is determijend by public acceptance. And the name value of any rabbinic figure certainly must play a part.