Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Making of a Gadol 2.0

R' Moshe Feinstein
There is a new online publication called Lehrhaus. It features essays by a variety of Orthodox Jewish thinkers of varying Hashkafos  on topics that affect the Jewish people. Kind of like the mission of this blog. 

I know 2 of the editors. Dr. Leslie Ginsparg is someone I know fairly well and am related to through marriage (…she is my son-in-law’s sister). Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is someone that has published many scholarly articles and books. I met him upon his becoming Chief Academic Officer of my alma mater HTC.  I can personally testify to the high level of scholarship they both bring to this enterprise. I’m sure the other editors are of equal stature. It is with this in mind that I am going to discuss a recent article by Professor Chaim Saiman entitled The Market for Gedolim: A Tale of Supply and Demand.

On the whole I tend to agree with much (but not all) of what he said. On the other hand I detected a bit of cynicism about the subject under discussion. The very title touches on that cynicism. As if to say that a Gadol is a commodity much like wheat or corn – to be purchased by a consumer. Rabbi Saiman later uses the term Gadolhood. Which I find somewhat deprecating. As I do using baseball metaphors like 3rd baseman, All Star, and Hall-of-Famer’.

It is as though becoming a Gadol was something one can strive for and achieve through a disciplined course of study and determination without any other factors. Like personal character traits or communal acceptance. This is not how a Gadol is made. One can strive. But there is no guarantee that they will achieve that status. One may even argue that striving to be a Gadol takes a bit of Gavah – hubris! If there is one thing that a Gadol should have – it is humility. Not hubris.

Becoming a Gadol is far from being a structured enterprise . It is something that is organic. One doesn’t choose to become a Gadol. One cannot study his way into it. Not even if he spends decades in pure Torah study. Nor is one elected to that position by an official vote. Nor are they chosen by a group of peers. One just grows into it via public recognition of the depth and breadth of an individual’s Torah knowledge. That makes him a Gadol BaTorah. 

To become a Gadol B'Yisroel one needs more that that. There has to be a public acceptance of that individual as a rabbinic leader. Someone that the Torah world can turn to with confidence knowing that he is God fearing and that his views are among the most authoritative in the Jewish world in matters of Halacha and Hashkafa. 

This is how one becomes a Gadol. Rav Moshe Feinstein was one such individual. Many considered him the Gadol HaDor  – the greatest rabbi of his generation! He was interviewed by a reporter from Time Magazine back in the 80s and asked how he came to be such a respected rabbinic leader. He responded that people just started asking him difficult questions in Halacha and accepted his answers. That acceptance grew until he was seen by most of the Jewish people as a Gadol and by many as the Gadol HaDor.

Professor Saiman distinguishes how different Hashkafic groups define a Gadol and how important the need to have them is to each. There are basically 3 distinct groups within Orthodoxy: Charedim, Centrist Orthodox, and Liberal Orthodox.  

Charedim can be divided into Chasidim and Lithuaian Yeshiva types. Chasidim have an entirely different approach to their rabbinic leadership and generally do not speak of Gedolim. They instead speak of a ‘Rebbe’. A Chasidic Rebbe is an inherited position going to the son (or son in law if there is no son) of a previous Rebbe –  chosen by him from among all of his sons. Most often the oldest. 

As Rabbi Saiman notes, a Rebbe need not be of the highest caliber Torah scholar. There may in fact be other Chasidim that are greater in Torah scholarship but they too will look to the Rebbe as their leader on all matters – both Halachic and Hashkafic.

It is in the  non Chasidic Lithuanian type Yeshiva circles where merit is the measure by which a rabbinic leader is chosen. At least in theory.

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Centrists generally have additional requirements for their Gedolim. Usually in the form of having expertise in secular knowledge – matching the caliber of their Torah knowledge. The two most prominent examples of that - correctly cited by Professor Saiman – are Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. (I would add Rav Ahron Soloveichik to that category even though Rabbi Saiman mentions him only in the context of Rav Lichtenstein’s own personal mentors).

What Professor Saiman fails to mention is that for most Centrists, Gedolim like R’ Moshe Feinstein are considered Gedolim too. This is a serious omission in my view since it gives the impression that Centrists only see people with their own Hashkafos capable of being a Gadol. Case in point - Rav Lichtenstein used to ask Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach - a Charedi Gadol - all of his difficult questions.

Peofessor Saiman correctly notes that Liberal Orthodoxy has no Gedolim. They see their congregational rabbis as their only source for Halacha and Hashkafa. He calls this ‘Horizontal authority’. Difficult questions asked by congregational members are directly answered by these rabbis. Liberal Orthodoxy believes that an ordained rabbi is given a mandate to do so by virtue of their Semicha. While he agrees that Liberal Orthodoxy does have its Torah scholars – like Rabbi Daniel Sperber - they are not seen as Gedolim. There is no hierarchy that Liberal Orthodox rabbis turn too.

R' Daniel Sperber
The point of his article is that Gedolim are a function of supply and demand by each community.

In the Charedi world the need for Gedolim is definitional. Their concept of Daas Torah demands a hierarchy that will determine how they will live. Only Gedolim are capable of answering difficult question in Halacha and Hashkafa. Even though these kinds of questions are often asked of a local Charedi Rav – that Rav has his own mentor. A Gadol that he will turn to – not trusting his own knowledge to suffice in many matters. And the Charedi public knows that – seeing those mentors as Gedolim. That need requires fulfillment no matter what level of Torah knowledge exists among contemporary rabbinic leaders. There is for example no one alive today on the level of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Not even close. And yet there is a group of rabbis that are seen by virtually every Charedi in the non Chasidic world as their Gedolim. 

The standard by which they decide is based on the Gemarah, which states Yiftach B’Doro – K’Shmuel B’Doro - Yiftach was in his generation as Shmuel was in his. Yiftach and Shmuel were 2 Shoftim – leaders of the Jewish people that served in two different eras. Shmuel was the greatest Navi  (prophet) since Moshe. Yiftach was a bit short of that greatness – based on a very unflattering description of him in that Gemarah. And yet the Talmud tells us that we must have a leader and therefore must chose among what we have. Not among what we should have but don’t!

Even though most Charedim realize that their rabbinic leaders are not anywhere near the caliber of previous generations - they nonetheless vest them with the same authority. In other words the demand for Gedolim that defines the Charedi world makes leaders of lesser stature then previous generations - leaders just the same

Centrists do not see the need to fill any gaps. While they agree with the concept of a Gadol they can turn to - they do not lower the standards they seek in a Gadol. If there is a Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Lichtenstein – they will turn to them. If not, they simply do not have a Gadol they can turn to. This does not mean they don’t recognize Charedi rabbinic leaders. They do. And in some case they will be consulted on difficult issues. But they are not seen in the same light as Charedim do. I should add that many -perhaps most - Charedim (especially those I call moderate) take that leadership with a grain of salt – all while most will acknowledge that these are their Gedolim.

There is one more thing Rabbi Staiman mentions with which I more or less agree. It is worth quoting and I will end with it: 
If liberal Orthodox communities can create a structure of commandedness that feels consonant, even if not identical, with classical forms, then eventually other Orthodox subgroups will come to recognize it—much as centrist Orthodoxy eventually gained the begrudging acknowledgment of haredim. But if it fails to do so, then claims that liberal Orthodoxy is engaged in a qualitatively different project than Orthodoxy will ring true, and comparisons to the trajectory of Conservative and Reform Judaism may yet prove accurate. So while I am rooting for liberal Orthodoxy’s success, it bears the burden of proving its vitality. From where I sit, the jury is still out.